Well, should we flex or extend in lotus posture?
I’ve been hearing for years that we should flex our foot in various yoga postures where we have our knees bent at ninety degrees or more. More recently I’ve received two separate emails regarding the application of this technique to lotus posture. Should the foot be flexed or extended in padmasana? It’s time I throw in my own two-cents on this topic. As many of you know, I’m for whatever works. If it helps when you flex your foot, then the answer is flex your foot. But why does this work? Is it necessary?
The traditional view of padmasana and how it is executed could be taken from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It describes padmasana quite simply. Place your right foot on top of your left thigh and then your left foot on your right, this is known as padmasana. Well, nothing is included about whether one should or should not flex the foot while in this asana.
Most people would default to a more naturally extended foot while in lotus. I am included in this camp as well. The suggestion has been put forth by many respectable teachers to flex the foot while in lotus and other postures that could potentially put stress into the knee joint. Are they right?
The most common reason to flex the foot is to protect the knee. This same principle also shows up in pigeon or firelog, a common place where I get asked whether or not everyone should be flexing their foot.
I often answer a question with another question. I’m not trying to be rude, I just wanted to understand why they think they should or should not do something. When I do ask them why we should flex our foot in any of these postures, most people say to me, “It protects your knee, doesn’t it?” I again ask “How?” They say “I don’t know, you’re the anatomy guy.”
So, how does flexing the foot literally change the knee? There is only one muscle that I can come up with that will directly change anything at the knee when it’s bent and you flex the foot. The muscle I’m referring to is the gastrocnemius. The reason I choose this muscle is because its two attachments at the top (proximal) end cross the knee joint and attach onto the outer edges of the bottom (distal) end of the femur.
When you flex your foot, you are increasing the amount of tension in the gastrocnemius, not by contracting it, but by lengthening it. When the foot flexes the Achilles tendon is lengthened and this changes the tension in it as well as the rest of the muscle that is attached to that tendon, namely the gastrocnemius. The deeper of the two calf muscles (soleus) is also lengthened, however, its proximal end doesn’t cross the knee joint.
What change does this tension have on the knee? Well, it’s possible that if the knee is rotated, flexing the foot and changing the tension could help undo some of that rotation. No one ever refers to gastrocnemius as a rotator of the knee. However, I could imagine it undoing some rotation in these positions since the attachments and the tissues would put equal pressure on both sides of the knee.
While I’m sitting at the computer I placed my right ankle across my left thigh just above my knee. I relaxed my right leg and my toes were pointing slightly down toward the floor. This by itself suggests that there is some external rotation going on at the knee joint. I then flexed my foot and sure enough my foot quite naturally wanted to be more parallel with the floor.
There is one other aspect that may help account for the felt sense that your knee is “safer” with the foot flexed. If you were to stand up for a moment with straight legs and lift your toes and flex your foot, you’ll probably find that your quadriceps muscles contract. Good luck lifting even just your toes without your quadriceps contracting. Quadriceps is never classified as a toe lifter or a foot lifter, but there it is, plain as day, contracting if you just lift your toes up, much less flex your foot.
There is some obvious relationship of stabilization and tension between the toes, foot, and the quadriceps as well. I would imagine that this relationship would diminish when the knee is bent at ninety degrees or more. This is of course how we would find it in a lotus but perhaps this additional change in tension and relationship accounts for the feeling that there is more “safety”?
We shouldn’t discount these more indirect relationships. They account for stability and strength quite often. There is also the more indirect fascial relationships that may be accounting for the feeling of safety when flexing the foot. Perhaps it is just the placebo effect. That works about 40% of the time anyway.
The final answer? I don’t have one. I know, I know, you’d love for me to have one and as usual I don’t. If someone has an actual anatomical function that does directly affect the knee when we flex our foot and is sure that it makes the knee safer, I’d love to hear it and share it with others. Please post your comment below the article.
I have little doubt that many of you will have the felt sense that your knee is stabilized and my guess as to why is above. The felt sense anatomy is very important, however, it is more likely to change from person to person. People just feel different things in different places.
Bottom line is that if your knee feels better with your foot in a flexed position, flex your foot in any or all of these yoga postures. If it doesn’t make a difference, default to the traditional method which is to just let the foot be natural and relaxed.
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This month David answers the question: Should you contract or relax the glutes in urdhva dhanurasana? He explains why the answer should always be specific to the student.