What a yoga cliché. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I was visiting my then-boyfriend, now-husband in L.A. and decided that it was a good idea to go for a long run the night before popping into a Mysore-style Ashtanga class. (Maybe this article should be called “Why I Advise Against Just ‘Popping Into’ a Mysore Class” or “Pop Into Mysore and Pop Out Your Knees.”) Anyway, I was gliding through the primary series almost as effortlessly as if I actually practiced it every day until I got to my nemesis pose, lotus. A voice in my head told me that it was time to take headstand and savasana and then bounce on out of there, and, if I had been listening to my body throughout my practice, I would have noticed that this was what it was telling me too. But I wasn’t listening—not to my body or to the voice in my head. I hoisted my right foot up on top of my left thigh. “Success!” I thought. And then I cranked my left foot up and over my right shin to the top of my right thigh. That’s when I heard it. “Pop!” And felt it. Immense pain!
When I let go of my desire to get to the pose and to get there fast, I was able to learn how to prepare for it so I could ease into it slowly.
For years afterward I accepted (or rather convinced myself) that my body was just not built for lotus pose. In truth, lotus may not be right for every body, but my joint structure or hip mobility wasn’t the issue in this case. My ego—specifically my thinking that I needed to “nail” the “full form” of the pose right away—was. One day a friend called me out on my you-know-what. The conversation went something like this: “Your body is just fine, Lauren. Your ego, on the other hand, might need some fine-tuning. You don’t have to ‘get’ the pose right away. Try slowing down. Take your time with it.” She was right. I’d rushed into lotus when my body was not prepared and then told myself that if I couldn’t do it “fully” right away, it wasn’t for me. When I let go of my desire to get to the pose and to get there fast, I was able to learn how to prepare for it so I could ease into it slowly—and never immediately after a long muscle-stiffening run!—but it did take me years.
For anyone who has felt my pain or wants to make sure to avoid it, here are the five steps I took toward eventually mastering lotus pose without busting my knees (again).
Work through these steps over time at your own pace and as part of a complete asana practice (make sure you’ve done enough to adequately prepare for deeper stretches). Don’t move on to the next step until you can practice the previous one with ease. Even once you are at ease in the earlier steps, always remember to warm up for, and work up to, lotus each time you intend to practice it. While forcing yourself into full lotus before your body is ready for it is not going to help you experience enlightenment more quickly, it may help you experience unnecessary pain. These particular postures are intended to, when performed regularly, prepare you for a deeper yoga practice, not send you to the ER.
Step 1: Breathe (Seriously)
Sit comfortably on your mat. Lengthen through your spine. Breathe in slowly and fully through both nostrils, keeping your mouth closed. Use your throat muscles to constrict the breath as if you were about to fog up a mirror or whisper a secret. Then exhale slowly and fully through both nostrils; the subtle noise that arises may sound like an ocean or like you actually are fogging up a mirror.
Personally, I find that being able to hear my breath helps me to remain mindful so I can make sure to breathe smoothly and evenly throughout my practice, especially when a pose is challenging. However, while ujjayi is my preference, smooth and mindful breathing is the key, whether your breath is silent or evokes the ocean. Repeat for three to five minutes. In fact, continue with smooth, mindful breathing as you explore all of these steps.
Taking time to focus on your breath allows you to slow down so as to notice how you are feeling and how your body is feeling. If you are feeling a little rushed, stressed, or tight in your hips and/or thighs, today is probably not the day to push yourself all the way to step 5. If you have trouble maintaining smooth, mindful breathing while practicing any of the following poses, that’s an indication that it’s time to gently come out of the pose.
Step 2: Self-Acceptance (and Maybe Hero’s Pose)
Grab a blanket or a block and place it nearby. Kneel on the floor with your knees together (or slightly apart if that feels more natural for your pelvic structure). Slide your feet out until they are slightly wider than your hips, toes pointed straight back behind you. Press your toenails and the tops of your feet evenly into the floor. Slowly lower your buttocks toward the floor. If they don’t quite make it, no worries: place the blanket or block underneath you, as needed, for support. Stay here for up to 30 seconds while you practice your mindful breathing; you can gradually work up to remaining in this pose longer with regular practice.
Virasana (hero’s pose) stretches your thighs and prepares your knees and ankles for full lotus. It can be a good benchmark of progress toward full lotus for some practitioners, but for others, hero’s pose is actually more challenging than full lotus, so it is especially important not to rush into it before you are ready. As with any pose, if hero’s pose isn’t happening with ease, don’t force it. The key is to pay attention to your own body and heed what it’s telling you.
Step 3: Bound Angle Pose
Begin in dandasana, a tall, seated position with your legs extended (if your lower back rounds, try sitting on the edge of a folded blanket (or two!) which can help you to maintain the natural curve of your lower back. Bend your knees toward your chest as you draw your feet as close to your groin as is comfortable. Then let your knees open gently away from each other and bring the soles of your feet together. Relax your thigh bones toward the floor: don’t force them down—let gravity do its thing for you.
You can remain sitting upright or hook your big toes with your first two fingers, allowing the big-toe sides of your feet to open out like a book (make sure to continue keeping the pinky-toe sides together and on the floor), and mindfully hinge forward from your hip creases while keeping your spine long. Remain here for several smooth, even breath cycles. If your breathing falters, go back to step 1.
Stretching your inner thigh muscles in this pose allows your knees to gradually drop closer to the floor over time, making it easier to one day get into half lotus and eventually full lotus. Practicing bound angle pose regularly is an essential prerequisite for full lotus.
Step 4: Half Lotus Pose
From dandasana, externally rotate your right leg and then bend the right knee so that it points out to the side, drawing your right heel back toward your pubic bone to fully flex, or “close,” the knee joint before you lift your foot up onto your thigh.
Now, keeping your toes active, use both hands to support the right ankle and foot (so the foot doesn’t sickle), and carefully lift the foot, placing it on top of your left thigh, as close to your hip crease as is comfortable. Then externally rotate your left leg, bend that knee, and slide your left shin under your right for half lotus. Let your thighs relax toward the floor as you reach the crown of your head toward the ceiling. Hold for as long as you comfortably can, maintaining your smooth, mindful breath. Then switch legs and stay for an equal amount of time.
Note: Some anatomy gurus suggest flexing your ankle and foot to protect the knee, and I buy into that approach. Do what feels best for you.
This pose continues to open the hips and prepare the knees and ankles for full lotus.
Remember, there is no prize for getting into this posture in record time. If you have a recent or chronic knee injury or inflammation, consider hanging out in the previous steps a bit longer.
Step 5: Full Lotus Pose
Begin as you did for half lotus. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in dandasana. Externally rotate the right leg and then bend the knee, drawing your right heel back toward your pubic bone so that the sole of your right foot rests against your left inner thigh, fully flexing or “closing” the knee joint. Using both hands to support the right ankle and foot, lift the foot, placing it on your left thigh, as close as you comfortably can to the left hip crease. Continue to lengthen through your spine, sitting up tall. Come out of the pose if you feel any knee pain. If not, just as you did with the right leg, externally rotate your left leg, bending your left knee so that it points out to the side, and slide your left heel back toward your pubic bone, flexing your left knee as much as you can. Then, gently lift your left foot and bring it up onto your right thigh, as close to your hip crease as is comfortable.
If you feel yourself tensing up or struggling to hoist your left foot up, back off for now and remember that you can always try full lotus again in the future and that it does become more accessible for many over time. If you can continue to move into the posture with ease, once you’ve placed your left foot as high on your right thigh as possible—perhaps even so much that your heel presses into your abdomen—keep your feet active so they don’t sickle (note that this can be surprisingly challenging!). Continue to sit up tall. Breathe fully. And maybe even smile. When you come out, switch sides, remaining for an equal amount of time.
To reach enlightenment! Just kidding. (Go back to the prologue.) Full lotus opens your hips. Wait...weren’t we doing that all along the way? Exactly. So there is no need to push yourself into full lotus if your body is not ready. Let moving toward this posture help you learn to be exactly where you are supposed to be.