Today unfortunately many students hurt their knees when performing postures and as the main culprit often the lotus and half-lotus postures are singled out. These postures, however, are completely safe as long as two things are observed:
- they are attempted only if the student is well-prepared through the performance of other postures in which she is to become proficient first (ideally assessed by a capable teacher).
- When lotus and half-lotus postures are performed scrupulous attention is paid to minor details concerning the way in which the leg is placed in and taken out of half-lotus.
I had more or less destroyed both of my knees during landscaping and furniture removal. Through following these instructions I managed to completely heal my knees despite coming from a very poor knee-background. Today I am the only member of my genetic family that never had to resort to knee surgery. (Disclaimer: Certain conditions such as a full-thickness tear of the meniscus may require surgery.)
Following is a passage from my text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, which in the almost 12 years since publication has become a classic. It is my belief that by following these instructions you will derive similar benefit.
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana starts a new cycle of postures that combine forward bending with hip rotation. The Primary Series mainly consists of these two themes. The postures are grounding and rooting, and they form the basis of the more exhilarating themes of backbending, leg-behind-head and arm balances, which form the subject of the intermediate and advanced series. From a yogic point of view the foundation must be properly prepared before we advance to a more complex practice.
The next five postures establish the rotation pattern of the femur for the Primary Series. Sown here, this seed can eventually fructify in the performance of such complex postures as Mulabandhasana (the most extreme medial rotation) and Kandasana (the most extreme lateral rotation). The rotation pattern is as follows:
_ Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana – medial rotation
_ Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana – lateral rotation
_ Janushirshasana A – medial rotation
_ Janushirshasana B – lateral rotation
_ Janushirshasana C – medial rotation
These femur rotations refer to the action performed after one has arrived in the posture. To get into the posture the action is the opposite. When the rotation pattern is performed in this way, the more challenging postures in the series, such as Marichyasana D and Baddha Konasana, become easily accessible.
Inhaling, jump through to sitting and straighten the legs. An experienced practitioner would go into the posture in one breath. For the sake of precision and safety we will break this rather complex movement down into various phases, identical to the standing half lotus (Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana).
Sitting in Dandasana, flex the right knee joint completely until your right heel touches the right buttock. If this is not possible, resort to daily practice of Virasana and Supta Virasana. (See Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana.)
From here abduct the right thigh until the right knee touches the floor. Establish a 90° angle between the thighs. Pointing and inverting the right foot, draw the right heel into the right groin, or as close to it as possible. You are now in the position for Janushirshasana A. Transiting through this posture on the way into half lotus prepares the adductor muscle group. Keeping the foot pointed and inverted, draw the knee far out to the right to further stretch the adductors. Tight adductors constitute the main obstacle to lotus and half-lotus postures. This method gives beginners maximum opening. It is not recommended that beginners pull the foot into position without first releasing the adductors. This movement can be repeated several times to produce the desired effect.
Draw the heel in towards the navel. Transiting via the navel on the way into half lotus will ensure that the knee joint remains sealed.
Now draw the right foot across to the left groin. Reach your right arm around your back to bind the right big toe. The palm faces downward. The palm facing up would lead to excessive inward rotation of the humerus and, with it, hunching of the shoulder. An inability to bind is often due to stiffness in the right shoulder because of a short pectoralis minor muscle. In this case reach the right arm far up and out to the right side. Spin the arm inward so that the palm faces backwards. Reach far behind, lowering the hand. Abduct and depress the shoulder girdle to avoid jutting the shoulder forward.
As you proceed, release the muscle that draws the shoulder forward (pectoralis minor). If you still cannot reach the toe, work intelligently in Parshvottanasana, Prasarita Padottanasana C, Urdhva Dhanurasana and Upward and Downward Dog. These postures reduce tightness in the shoulders.
If you are unable to bind your big toe, you are not ready to fold forward in this posture. If the foot is situated on the thigh rather than in the groin, bending forward can strain ligaments and/or damage cartilage.
Instead, continue to work on opening the hips. Sit upright and keep drawing the foot upward with the left hand while you work the extended left leg. Be patient. Many of the other postures will aid the loosening of your hip joints and adductors. Then you will be able to perform the posture safely.
If you managed to bind the right foot, gently place the knee out to the side and down towards the floor. The left hand reaches forward and takes the outside of the left foot. Inhaling, lift the chest and straighten the left arm. Square your hips and shoulders to the straight leg.
Exhaling, fold forward. The straight left leg works in the same way as the legs in Pashimottanasana. To place the right foot into the left groin we performed outward (lateral) rotation of the thigh. To work in the posture, we now medially rotate the thigh. To aid medial rotation, keep the right foot pointed and inverted. The muscles that inwardly rotate – two hamstrings (semimembranous, semitendinous) an adductor (gracilis), an abductor (gluteus minimus) and a hip flexor cum abductor (tensor fascia latae) – all have the tendency to suck the thigh into the hip. This can lead to a build-up of tension in the knee. To counteract this, let the femur reach outward and away from the hip. This action releases the adductors, and its importance cannot be overemphasised.
Figure 11: Internal rotators
Continue to gently draw the knee down to the floor and out to the side. The ideal angle between the two thighs is around 40°, depending on the ratio between tibia and femur length of each individual. The heel of the foot sits in the navel during the entire posture. Only then the purpose of this posture, the purification of liver and spleen, can be fulfilled.
Square your shoulders to the front leg and keep them at an even distance from the floor. Draw your elbows out to the side, away from each other.
The sit bones ground; the buttocks spread. The crown of the head reaches towards the feet while the shoulder blades draw towards the hips. Hold for five breaths.
Inhaling, lift the chest and straighten the left arm. Exhaling, take the leg out of half lotus by repeating the above steps in reverse order and then place the hands on the floor. Jump back, go through your vinyasa and perform the posture on the left.
This is a modified excerpt from my 2006 text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy.
Dear Monica, this is a very helpful article, thanks! What would you suggest students that already have a knee injury do as a modification? Or should they skip it?
Janu Shirshasana A is often accessible even with a knee injury an is actually more effective at opening the hips if they are not adequately open for half lotus. You may need to play with the angle of the knee but I recommend you start by fully closing the knee joint into a flexed position.
If there is no option that avoids knee pain you will have to skip these postures.