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.