Lotus pose (padmasana) wasn’t considered such an advanced pose when and where Ashtanga was first formed. That explains why why it appears so early on in the series. But nowadays it is not easily accessible to most of us, due to our changed lifestyles. Most people in the West aren’t used to even sitting cross-legged on the floor anymore. Because we spend most of our time sitting on chairs, our hips lose flexibility. When I started yoga, sitting cross-legged felt quite uncomfortable if I tried to do it for a longer period of time. I couldn’t get into full lotus. I could do half lotus, but there was a major difference between sides. Left leg in lotus has always been the easier one for me.
Getting into full lotus is a process that can take months or even years. If you try to force it, you might permanently damage your knees in the process. If you practice patiently, it will get better with time. Below, I’ve outlined the progression to full lotus and beyond. Some stages will take longer than others.
In case you’re not already convinced – why should you try to learn lotus? Often people think of lotus pose as the pose to meditate in. It’s not going to make you any more enlightened on its own, but practicing towards it may at least make sitting on the floor more comfortable in general.
Step 1: Lotus Preparation
Lotus is mostly about outer hip flexibility. If you have issues with flexibility in your back or hamstrings, there may be other areas for you to work on too.
The main lotus preparation pose looks like this:
The key is to get an almost 90° angle in your knee. Your foot should be fairly high up by your shoulder, not low down towards the hip. To intensify the stretch, squeeze the leg closer towards you. You should not be feeling any pain in any joints, just a stretch in the outer hip.
You can also do it lying down, which is often referred to as figure four, reclined (or dead) pigeon or eye of the needle pose.
An alternative sequence I’ve been I enjoy is to flow from pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana) through fire log pose (agnistambhasana) and into shoelace pose. I usually spend 30-60 seconds in each pose. In the beginning, you might just have to stay in pigeon. The poses arguably increase in difficulty and the latter two might be unavailable. I say “arguably” because I think fire log is a bit of a special case. For me it went from seeming completely impossible to doable very quickly once I understood how to enter the pose and what angle works for me.
You can intensify each stage of the flow by folding forward. When leaning forward, the aim is to keep your back straight and aim for chest to floor, not back curved and head to floor. In pigeon, the goal is to get your front shin parallel to the front mat edge (eventually…). In addition, shoelace pose can be made more difficult if you move your feet further away from your hips. So this sequence allows a lot of room for improvement, and will take a long time to perfect.
I pretty much always do some or all of these poses before practicing yoga to warm up my hips for lotus.
Step 2: Single leg lotus
Before you can get into full lotus, you need to be able to place each leg into lotus comfortably. For most people, the two sides will feel quite different. For me, left leg has always been more flexible, possibly because right is stronger. If you want to even them out, you should do a lot more work on the less flexible side. If you do a similar amount of work on both, they’ll improve at a similar rate and never quite catch up. But this may not be an issue. In ashtanga, it’s traditional to start the lotus with your right leg, and then put the left on top. Sticking to that may also perpetuate an imbalance.
Start in lotus preparation pose, then place the foot on top of the other thigh. If the highest your foot can go is mid-thigh or closer to the knee, go back to preparation pose. Working with the foot in the wrong position will not lead you into lotus, it’s just more likely to damage your knee.
You will know if the foot is in the right position if it’s in the hip crease, the heel is (almost) touching your belly (at least when you lean forward. You should be able to wrap around and grab your toes behind your back (provided you don’t have upper body flexibility issues). Ideally the knee should be on the floor, or close to it.
When all of that is in place, fold forward, aiming for eventually getting the chin on the shin.
I often see people in class forcing this pose too soon. My advice would be to accept that it isn’t ready yet and go back to preparation poses, trying lotus every week to see if it’s improving.
I like this pose because when I’m in it, it’s completely impossible to think. I am totally focused on staying still. Even after several years, it is still a challenge.
In ashtanga sequence, this pose actually appears earlier than seated single lotus. However, if you can’t do it seated, you probably won’t be able to do it while balancing on one leg. You may get this pose on one side much faster than the other, and that’s okay.
When ready to try this one, bend one leg and place your foot similar to where it goes when you’re in seated lotus. Leaning forward a bit can help, but eventually aim for doing it upright. Wrap around with your hand and grab the toes. When steady, lean forward and place the other hand on the floor.
To come out with control, bend the standing leg slightly. Stand up, release the foot and lower it.
Step 3: Full lotus
Place your right leg into lotus. Then place your left. One of your knees might hover above the floor, but it shouldn’t be too high up. Sit and breathe in the pose as you slowly get used to it.
I remember what it’s like to be impatient about this. Early on, I could sort of get into lotus if I ignored a little twinge in my knee (despite teacher’s warnings). I thought it’d get better with time, but the opposite happened. The twinge started persisting even after I moved out of the pose. I realised that my choice was between a) learning lotus much more slowly, or b) rushing it and hurting my knee to the point where I might never be able to do it. That finally forced me to take a step back and let the lotus come slowly. It took a few more months of only practicing single leg lotus, but eventually I was able to get into full lotus comfortably with no twinges anywhere.
Once sitting in lotus can be described as “not uncomfortable”, you can start playing with variations.
The following one is from the ashtanga closing sequence. Start seated in lotus, then bind one of the hands behind your back (grabbing the toes), then the other (yoga mudra). Fold forward for 10 breaths. Then release the bind, sit upright and breathe for another 10 (padmasana). For the final 10, place your hands beside your hands, and lift up into scale pose / tolasana / utplutih (lotus arm balance).
Another fun asthanga pose is garbha pindasana. Start in lotus. If you can, squeeze your hands between your thigh and calf on each side and then place them on your head. This will be a lot easier if you have skinny bare legs and some water spray. It’s also perfectly fine to just wrap your hands around your lotus (this is what I do). Lift your knees so you are balanced on your hips. Traditionally, you then roll on your back and back into seated 9 times in a circle. If you’ve never done full primary, this may be the one of the weirdest poses. Watch this video, I don’t think my description really does it justice. End by lifting your legs so you are in a hand balance, kukkutasana.
Next, let’s try this upside down. In another part of the ashtanga closing sequence, you’ll find yourself in shoulderstand. Enter lotus like you would from seated, using your hands to help. It can feel much harder when you’re balancing on your shoulders. It took me a couple years to really make the transition. Once in lotus, place your hands on your knees. Work towards straightening your arms and balancing. After 5-10 breaths, bring your legs towards your chest and hug around them with your arms. To transition towards fish pose, move your arms behind your back and lower (really) slowly. Once down, hold on to the feet, arch your back and move onto the crown of your head, looking behind you. After 5-10 breaths, extend and your legs and hands on a 45° angle (matsyasana, fish pose).
Step 4: Getting out of lotus without using hands
Up until now, I’ve been talking about “placing” your feet into lotus. When you’re still developing the flexibility, you’ll use your hands to do this, but as it becomes easier that won’t be necessary anymore.
If your lotus is still “tight”, it can feel like your legs are basically locked in place, and can not move out on their own. With time it will loosen. Initially the exit will look more like ungraceful shuffling, but it will get smoother with time. Practice doing this from seated until it feels relatively easy.
4.2 Jump back
If you have more flexibility than strength, this one may come after 5.1.
The hardest version of this is trying to perform a normal ashtanga jump-back, but with legs in lotus.
A somewhat easier version is supporting yourself on your arms. From seated lotus, place your hands together on the floor in front of you. I’ve seen variations with fingers facing forward or back. Lean forward until your body is resting on your elbows and you can lift your legs off the floor. Un-lotus (let’s pretend this is a verb) and shoot your legs back into a modified version of chatturanga.
This is the state I’m working at now. I can shuffle out of lotus when seated without using arms, but it’s still too slow to execute it in the jump back. I think this will become easier with time and practice, as my lotus becomes more comfortable to hold for longer.
Step 5: Getting into lotus without using hands
Sit with your legs straight in front of you. Move one of your feet into lotus without using hands, then the other. At the start, you might get partway there, but have to make a small adjustment with your hands to get them into perfect position.
5.2 Headstand + other balances
Once entering lotus from seated is easy, let’s try it upside down. Assuming you’re comfortable in headstand (bound or tripod). Enter the pose, then move your legs into lotus. Stay and breathe for a while, then unwrap your legs before coming down. You could try the same thing in handstand or forearm balance.
It may take a few years to get to this stage, so don’t obsess over it. Take your time, progress safely and enjoy the journey.