Why right leg first into lotus posture?

I was asked why we put the right leg into full lotus (Padmasana) first and whether it gets balanced out later on in the practice?

In my 2006 text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy I wrote: “Why is Padmasana traditionally done only by first placing the right leg and then bringing the left leg on top? When asked this question, K. Pattabhi Jois quoted the Yoga Shastra as saying, ‘Right side first and left leg on top purifies liver and spleen. Left leg first and right leg on top is of no use at all’. He also explained that the lotus done in this way stimulates insulin production.

Contemporary teachers have suggested performing Padmasana on both sides to balance the body. Improving the symmetry of the body is achieved through the standing postures. However, the postures that strongly influence the abdominal and thoracic cavities, such as Padmasana, Supta Kurmasana, Dvi Pada Shirshasana and Pashasana, do not have the function of making the body symmetrical, but of accommodating the asymmetry of the abdominal and thoracic organs. To accommodate the fact that the liver is in the right side of the abdominal cavity and the spleen in the left, the right leg is first placed into position with the left leg on top. As leg-behind-the-head postures develop the chest, to place the left leg first in Supta Kurmasana accommodates the fact that the heart is predominantly in the left side of the thoracic cavity.”

If you look at the human body it is actually completely asymmetrical. There is only a superficially perceived symmetry through the fact that we have for example two legs, two arms, two eyes, etc. Look a bit closer and you’ll find that these legs, arms, eyes look completely different from each other, often looking as if they do not belong to the same body. Going a bit deeper and looking at the heart, brain, lungs, liver, etc. the idea of symmetry goes completely out the window. Yoga sequences need to accommodate that asymmetry rather than trying to iron it out.

In my own practice I have only ever performed Padmasana on the right side. I sit in Padmasana daily for extensive periods, occasionally several hours per day and it has never made me lop-sided. If I do use it excessively for Pranayama then I balance it with Siddhasana, which is the ideal posture for Kundalini-meditation. Siddhasana is practised with the left side first, with the left heel stimulating Mula Bandha. It could be that the combination of these two postures (Padmasana right side, Siddhasana left side) creates the balance. But I am talking here about long hours of practice not simply taking 25 breaths at the end of ones Ashtanga sequence.

Surprisingly enough about 3 quarters of the yoga shastras (scriptures) that I revised mention Padmasana only on the right and Siddhasana only on the left. The remaining quarter could simply be mistakes of the scribes (often not yogis themselves) who did not understand the significance of one leg versus the other.

The other issue is that if you practice lotus variations together with leg-behind-head variations, they seem to create a balance in themselves. For example in Supta Kurmasana, Dvi Pada Shirshasana and Yoganidrasana the left leg is placed first behind the head (accommodating asymmetry of the thoracic cavity) and from practical experience that seems to create a balance with the lotus postures. This can be beautifully felt if one practises a complete Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga. A problem seems to sometimes occur if a student gets stuck in the Intermediate Series at for example Supta Vajrasana (i.e. cannot progress beyond this posture) and therefore does not get to experience the balancing effect of the Leg-Behind-Head sequence. In these cases it may be helpful to change sides in Padmasana.

Another scenario where changing sides may be required is if there is a serious pre-existing pelvic obliquity (quite common) or instability. In these cases one should not hesitate to change sides. To do Padmasana on the right side only is simply an ideal. T. Krishnamacharya for example said it’s completely permissible to change sides. It is good to not get too religious or dogmatic with these things.

But the larger issue is what are you actually doing when you are in the lotus posture or similar posture and does it get you to the state you would like to experience? Are you simply hastily counting 25 breaths not knowing what else to do? Fair enough if that’s how far you want to go but lotus posture is an astonishing laboratory of spiritual states. If you want to experience these yogic states mere sitting in Padmasana will not do the trick. It then matters what inner techniques of pranayama and meditation you perform during such sitting. It is exactly this inner work that I endeavoured to describe in great detail in my more recent texts, Pranayama The Breath of Yoga, Yoga Meditation, and Samadhi The Great Freedom.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion.

Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.

Posted in Anatomy/Rehabilitation, Asana, Ashtanga Yoga, Meditation and Samadhi, Pranayama.

8 Comments

  1. Gregor,

    I have been working with your books, Ashtanga, Pranayama, and Yoga Mediation. (Intermediate series is far beyond me at this time.) I live in Tokyo and the overall quality of yoga instruction here is is quite dismal, mainly there are “stretching studios” with not even remote hint of yoga as spiritual science, so I am very grateful for your books.

    My questions two:

    I have been trying to sit in padmasana or the other recommended positions for many years but at best can only manage to force myself into a painful hold for around 2-3 minutes before my ankles and everything and every thing else just starts to hurt so much that really it feel it is more torture endurance and cannot relax into the main activity. (I am on right weight but train in sports and am quite “meaty” so not exactly lithe yoga body)

    However, I find the “half lotus”, right leg down, left pulled up and into groin, works nicely. I can sit for 30-45 minutes without disturbance. While living in Thailand 4 years I noticed that most of the monks and even the iconic statues of Buddha or famous monks showed the half lotus not full.

    You don’t mention half lotus in your books. What is your opinion on it? Really been interested to ask you.

    Second question, you advise 40 second khumbaka, in. 1:4:2 pattern…I am able to achieve this, however I need a 4 or so standard breath break between each, then can return to long khumbaka. If I attempt continual 1:4:2 pattern without “intermission” it becomes very stressful and need to stop after maybe 4 or 5 cycles or just gasping, the inhale becomes less and less relieving very quickly.

    In BKS Iyengar’s guide to Pranayama book he says to take 3-4 regular breathes between each khumbaka series, however you don’t refer to this.

    So, what is your thought on this method, taking usual breathes between cycles to come back to normal oxygen levels, then long khumbaka.

    Would greatly appreciate your instructive remarks on both these points.

    Most gratefully,

    Evan Lowe
    Tokyo

    • Hello Evan,

      In regards to the half-lotus it sounds then as if its the right thing for you. If you experience that much pain I would not even attempt to force the legs into full-Padmasana as its too risky to hurt the knees. They take a lot of time and effort to fix once they are damaged.
      Please not yogis consider Siddhasana one of the most important meditation postures. Here the knees are very wide, the left heel is plugged into the MulaBandha and the right heel on top of the left heel. Gorakhnath thought this to be the most important posture.

      In regards to intermittent kumbhakas I am not in favour of them and don’t believe them to reflect where one really is.I have learned (and practised this for decades) that you settle for one pattern and don’t alter that during your session. For example you start with a clean and straight 1:1 and then over a period of six (or 60 the number doesn’t matter) months maybe grow it from 5:5 to 30:30. Then you switch to a 1:2 pattern which you again practise til mastery (i.e. breath cycle longer than one minute). If you take intermittent breaths you can’t even determine what your actually breath cycle length (total combined lenght if inhalation +exhalation +any included kumbhakas) really is.
      1:4:2 is a pretty advanced ratio that should only be attempted after years of pranayama and only if you are capable of breathing at a rate of once per minute or slower for about 20 minutes and be completely at ease.
      Additionally I have to remind you that even this pretty advanced 1:4:2 ratio is not to be held onto indefinitely. Once you have mastered it it must be sacrificed for the 1:1:1:1 ratio which again after years of practice will culminate in the 1:4:2:2 ration.
      Remember that although long kumbhakas are good, pranayama is not about practising long kumbhakas. It is about the effect that the kumbhakas have. If you take in between breaths you’ll anyway loose all the prana that you have captured.
      Please don’t hesitate to ask more
      Greetings
      Gregor

  2. Hi Gregor,

    You mentioned that for Siddhasana it is left leg first. However, I see most places online do mention it the opposite. Please help clear the confusion as I practice this daily with the right leg first.

    Appreciate.

    Thanks
    Shailesh

    • Hello Shailesh,

      T. Krishnamacharya advised that if you have to change legs for balance that’s okay but the ancient treatises definitely show a preference for right leg first in Padmasana and left leg first in Siddhasana. I would take online information with a grain of salt.

      All the best
      Gregor

  3. Hello Gregor

    just stumbled on your wonderful blog. My question pertains to which of the two Siddhasana or Padmasana I should start with. But I must explain that I have some issues with my anatomy that I believe stem from two surgeries I had when I was around 3 years old namely a inguinal and duodenum hernia. I think these two operations set me up for a lifetime of a a distorted body posture and ‘knocking me of my center’.

    I can feel that the belt channel is asymmetrical in tone. I had been trying mula, uddiyana and jalandhar bhanda with little success. The failure comes in when trying to to do uddiyana bhanda do cause the abdominals to ‘fly up’ via the diaphragm. The ‘slack’ just seems to want to stay on the right side and its very weak’ I think this is due to the high level of back-extensor tone on the left side and not enough on the right side. Therefore the core or slack is not being restrained on the right side and just stays put due to an inability to ground on the left side.

    I think the key to solving this major problem is to generate prana at the same time as doing the aformentioned locks but its very difficult. I’ve tried ‘corpse pose’ just by simply relaxing and not doing any asana and it seems to generate some prana which slowly minimises back-extensor tone; although how much is dependent on how well aligned I was to begin with. It’s also difficult when doing any one of padmasana or siddhasana until I can feel that the core or slack of the abdomen in the middle is spreadevenly around the hips. Not doing so I can feel gratings in knee and hip cartilage so I have to stop. Corpse pose minimises this disruption but is not great for alignment or ‘doing something’.

    I just wonder if you have any tips on the above as well as what I should start of with padmasana or siddhasana. I have a feeling I should start with siddhasana due to its emphasis on moola bandah.

    Thanks
    Jeremy

    • Hello Jeremy,
      That’s a complex issue that I can’t really sort out over email. It sounds as if your body is very asymmetrical as actually many bodies are. You need to work with asymmetrical yoga posture (such as Trikonasana). You can for example stay in Trikonasana longer on the right side to address hamstring flexibility on the right. But that’s just an example. In your case its more likely twist on one side and more abdominal strength work on one side than on the other. One sided backbends (over cross Shalabhasana) can be used to address the asymmetrically developed back extensors.
      In regards to the sitting postures I am not convinced that they combined with bandhas will simply do the trick as there are more muscles involved than those used for the bandhas. But in general I would suggest to work with Siddhasana first. You talk about a grating in the knees? If that is linked to lack of flexibility in the hip joints you need to target that first by establishing yourself in a daily practice to something akin to the Primary Series, i.e. a sequence of postures that addresses hip joint flexibility. Never force your legs into anything like Padmasana as the knees are quickly hurt but take long time to fix.
      I have described the Primary Series in great detail in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy and the use of meditation postures such as Padmasana also in Pranayama The Breath of Yoga and Yoga Meditation.
      What you would need is some sort of yoga therapy and yoga anatomy whiz that lives close to you so that you can receive a dedicated asana program for your condition. But it would always be trial and error. Even if I had you in person I’d have to study and examine your motor pattern for quite a while to make up my mind and adjust my findings a few times. So I don’t think there is a wonder medicine for that.
      Let me know if anything is unclear.
      Greetings
      Gregor

      • Hi Gregor,

        thanks for the reply and the tips on my yoga practice you mentioned in regards to my issues.

        The ‘grating’ in the knee I mentioned is occurring I think because the rib cage is not correctly over the left hip so that the femur bone is in the socket. I think the way to picture this idea or concept is that the pelvis needs to be forward strongly into anterior pelvic tilt which I believe positions the ribcage also into anterior tilt. This, I think, positions the pelvis so that the femur is secure in the hip socket, or inwardly rotated.. I used to do taichi so I trained myself to become aware of when my knee were not in the correct position and carried this over into sitting. It’s much more difficult to position the knee correctly when sitting and this I feel goes back to the twisting of the spine and hips not being approximated under the shoulder. perhaps a beginner wouldn’t be able to feel this but I had been taichi for about 4 years and can relax well enough and be soft enough. However I feel the key to address my problems is chi/prana work specifically and so I am more inclined to spend time studying and learning about pranayama.

        Will definitely get your works on the primary series and anything else I believe will help me with this training, as i’m lacking good yoga books in my library apart from Iyengar’s Light On Yoga.

        I do have the book Principles of Hatha Yoga and it mentions 8 important nadis:

        “”eight nadis (channels) that carry the life force through the peripheral areas and feed into the central channels. These are: two channels from the eyes to their corresponding big toes, two from the ears to their corresponding big toes, the channel from the throat to the head of the genitals, the channel from the neck to the anus, and the two belt channels that encircle the abdomen, one from left to right, the other from right to left””

        I’m working on feeling these in my body and I can feel that the nadi or channel structures are pretty well developed on the right side but not developed enough on the left side. I find the best way to get activation of these structures is when you relax well enough so that prana or chi can flow as this chi/prana does enable the muscles on the back to relax so that you can tighten the front. I feel its all about retraining these front channel structures and alter somewhat the movement pattern in the body. In my specific case to tighten the left side nadis mentioned above and stretch the right side nadis so that the overall structure merges and unites better to be more symmetrical.
        Problem is, embarking on such an endevour is a massive one even for someone who is relatively healthy and has no major ‘hidden weaknesses’ but for someone who has serious issues with organs due to surgical complications can be perilous, such as in my case.

  4. Hi Gregor

    I just stumbled on this amazing blog.

    My question pertains to whether I should use either Siddhasana or Padmasana. I also have some anatomy issues which I believe stem from two operations when I was around 2-3 years old for a duodenum and inguinal hernia.
    I found problems with this when attempting to do pranayama and specifically moola, uddiyana and jalandhar bhanda’s.

    My ‘core’ and the associated ‘slack’ is basically ‘tipped’ to the right which is causing my pelvis to ‘slump’ to the right and there is hardly any core activation to the left side.
    It feels like the diaphragm is not positioned correctly over the left side and the ribs on the left side are in an inhaled or ‘rib flare’ state. It’s mostly felt when I attempt to do uddiyana bhanda. Due to the above mentioned problems the diaphragm can not evenly lift the core muscles up into the chest area to perform a chin lock.
    This inability to generate prana with the locks means I am stuck with anatomy problems. I can get some little amount of prana generated in corpse pose simply by doing nothing and relaxing has got rid of some back-extensor tone on the left side (which I think is the reason the core can’t spread evenly over the two hip bones) but its not enough. I probably have organ issues as well with stomach and diaphragm adhered to the ribs on the left side.

    I just wondered if you have any tips on this problem Im having and which asana could possibly help in this scenario. I’m thinking perhaps siddhasana because of its emphasis on moola bhana which Im really in need of. It’s difficult because I think you really need a connection to the nadis or channels in the throat before you can get activation lower down with uddiyana and moola bhanda’ even though jalandar or chin lock is performed last. I think moola will allow you to ground via the perineum and uddiyana wiill allow you to close the rib cage down with the belt channels but none of these will activate I find unless you have a handle on the throat tendons. I’m thinking there is a correspondance between the throat/head muscles and activation below. Yes I probably do have spinal misalignment in the neck vertebrae due to the operations and accumulated trauma over time so this is most likely going to be a difficult case.

    Look forward to hearing from you
    Thanks
    Jeremy

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