Should we flex or extend the foot in lotus posture?
I’ve heard for years that we should flex our foot in various yoga postures where our knees are bent at ninety degrees or more. More recently I received two separate emails asking if we should flex our foot in lotus pose. 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 comes 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“. There is nothing in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika about whether we should or should not flex the foot while in lotus.
Most people default to a more naturally extended foot while in lotus. I am in this camp as well. But, many respectable teachers suggest that you should flex the foot in lotus. And, the same is said about other postures that could potentially stress the knee joint. Are they right?
The most common thing I hear as a reason to flex the foot in lotus, is to protect the knee. I hear this same principle suggested for in pigeon or firelog. And, that’s also 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 ask someone why they think we should flex our foot in louts, 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 change the knee? There is only one muscle that I can come up with that directly changes the knee when you bend your knee and flex your foot. That muscle is the gastrocnemius. 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 in lotus, you increase the amount of tension in the gastrocnemius, not by contracting it, but by lengthening it. When you flex your foot, you lengthen your Achilles tendon. This changes the tension in the tendon as well as the rest of the muscle attached to that tendon, namely the gastrocnemius. That action also lengthens the deeper of the two calf muscles, soleus. 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 your knee is rotated and you flex your foot, that change in tension could help undo some of the 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 tissues put equal pressure on both sides of the knee.
Impacting rotation at the knee
While I was 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 in lotus and sure enough my foot quite naturally wanted to be more parallel with the floor.
The contribution of the quadriceps
There is one other aspect that may help account for the felt sense that your knee is “safer” with the foot flexed. If you stand up for a moment with straight legs, 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. It contracts 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 imagine this relationship would diminish when the knee is bent at ninety degrees or more. This is of course how we 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 are also the more indirect fascial relationships that may account for the feeling of safety when we flex the foot in lotus. Perhaps it is just the placebo effect. That works about 40% of the time anyway.
I have little doubt that many of you have the felt sense that your knee is stabilized when you flex the foot in lotus. 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.
The bottom line is that if your knee feels better when you flex your foot, then flex your foot in any or all of these yoga postures. If it doesn’t make a difference, default to the traditional method. That is, just let the foot be natural and relaxed.
Thank you for your insights on this, I’ve often wondered about this because it comes up in yoga as well as my training instructing other fitness classes, But was never an issue with any of my 15+ years of dancing.
My take is that flexing the foot naturally engages the leg and places the joints in an anatomically more stable position. This helps to facilitate movement of the leg from the hip as a single unit thus decreasing potential inappropriate rotational strain on the knee joint. For example in ballet it is an important aspect of basic technique to turn the hips out from the hips, keeping the toes in line with the knees. Perhaps it’s just my years of dance experience but when I imagine a beginner student turning their toes out without opening the hip I can easily see the rotational torque they would be putting on their knees and ankles.
It seems to me that if one is his/her body enough to engage their leg muscles without flexing their foot, and listens to any discomfort In the joints as any practiced yogi would it really shouldn’t matter whether the foot is flexed or relaxed In these bent knee poses. Where as it MAY have much more benefit and knee protection in the case of a beginner student whom may not yet have the body awareness or precise muscle control. It’s much easier to explain and understand “flex your foot” than to explain moving the leg from the hip as a single controlled unit, and having the self awareness of how much force ones own joints can take without causing injury.
I may be way off the mark here but I tend to a bit of both and don’t see much difference in my own practice. I think flexing my feet sometimes helps me to engage my legs and slide deeper into a pose, but I personally do not ever feel any significant difference in my knees.
It’s common to see people over stretching the ankle in lotus / half lotus. To me this represents trying too hard, forcing the movement at the ankle just to get into the pose when the hips aren’t ready.
Rather than flex the foot and add additional tension to an already stressed joint, I’d lead a student towards more hip opening prep work, before returning to lotus.
The rationale I’ve heard for flexing the foot in padmasana has nothing to do with the knee. It is to prevent over-stretching of the ankle ligaments. I would love to know your thoughts on this. Thanks!
Michelle, I’ve also found that when I open my posterior hips before attempting lotus it is much easier–much less stress on my knees. When teachers ask us to bend forward in baddha konasana, I feel absolutely no stretch–nothing. If I instead do supine firelog or #4 at the wall, I get into the low back/hip muscles that need to stretch in order to do lotus. Never thought about the bandha and perhaps I do it unconsciously; will have to try more awareness to see if that offers more help in the pose.
I have always wondered about this. I see two other possible actions. Flexing the heel strongly engages tibialis anterior and this strong muscular engagement may have a reciprocal relaxation reflex on the antagonist musculature (the gastrocnemeus), which do cross the knee, this would eliminate some of the posterior force of the hamstring, allowing the patella to draw superiorly up the femur. Secondly, because of the relationship with the talus and the tibia, and the forces on the tibia-fibular space, both tibia and fibula are internally rotated when the foot is dorsiflex. This action may increase tensile force on the patellar tendon which, considering that the knee is already in flexion, may be enough to stabilize the knee joint a bit more.
I suspect the strongest effect is neuromuscular, creating a chain response of relaxation and contraction which facilitate patellar tracking.
I was taught that flexing the foot when the knee is bent (not specifically in Padmasana, indeed, flexing the foot in this case does not seem to me to be intuitive) helps to protect the knee by engaging the muscles/tendons either side of it, thus giving support, alignment and stabilization to the joint. The focus when flexing the foot is on pushing through the heel, with no need to work the toes too.
Certainly, flexing the foot when in Pigeon with the knee at 90 deg seems to enliven the asana and create focus; it helps to feel connected from the heel to the hip, which, in turn, helps free up the upper body.
Hope this is of help.
Keep up the good work!
Flexing the feet seems to have the effect of lifting the spine, allow practitioner to sit tall and in good alignment?
I think what all this boils down to is the phsyiology and anatomy of each individuals body. I am a physical therapist who is specializing myself in optimizing movement both by using manual methods to optimize the working of the tissues as well as by unalizing the movement in order to understand one persons specific problems. For example if you have an instability in the knee due to damage to the anterior crusciate ligaments activation of some of the anterior muscles of the shin can help to compensate for the function of this logament. But I think we need to be careful with answers that are suppose to fit everybody and instead try to understand the reason for why a person has problems with a specific pose and then try to find something that works for that problem! Thanks for the wonderful writings on yoga and anatomy!
I always think of flexion as being the default stable position .. Think climbing a hill ( hip, knee & ankle flexed ) as opposed to walking down a slope ..
Is this because we evolved initially as quadrupeds , not bipeds ?
From experience , I have found the orientation of the ankle joint to be more stable in flexion .. Women in high heels , not comfy flats ?
David, I really love your anatomy articles – they are great!
In lotus, I do plantar flexion, but…I gently flex my toes. I find that when flex my toes, it keeps my “pointed” ankles, which are very flexible, from compensating for the tightness in my hips – I tend to pronate through the ankle otherwise if I don’t flex the toes.
Does this add another method to the mix?!
Meanwhile, one thing that I have found that has been very important for my lotus I’d like to share: making sure that the abdominal muscles are contracted with uddhiynana bandha when you do it, and sitting up tall.
I “lost” lotus on the left side for about 18 months – there was no dramatic injury, it just disappeared one day inexplicably. I could not do full flexion of the knee with external rotation of the thigh without a lot of pulling and pain on the medial side of the knee. This hindered much of my asana practice.
But, I was patient and experimented carefully every day to discover what I was doing wrong. The “culprit” was my Quadratus Lumborum, and possibly my psoas. One day, I found I was able to go into lotus “easier” and without pain when I was inverted, while attempting karandavasana. Since it requires a lot of abdominal strength to balance on your forearms long enough to fold into lotus when you are upside down, that’s what gave me the epiphany!
And, I realized I had a poor uddhyinana bandha for years, too, just recently. (I had always been told to only engage my “lower” belly, below the navel, with UD – but this teaching led me to be too slack in the rest of my front torso.) Stronger uddhyiana bandha – and sitting up very tall and stretching open my psoas – for me seems to release my low back and posterior hip, which is what was chronically tight and causing the problem.
I think I am on the right track with it now, as my lotus on the left has returned to my practice without the pain – but am curious as to your thoughts on this?
I teach and feel the same way with the plantar flexion and gently flexed toes being a great way to prevent the ankles and peroneus from taking the brunt of the stretch from tight hips. I find it fits a lot nicer in the hip crease than the dorsiflexed foot!
It is, isn’t it? Fits nice and snug that way 🙂 It’s how I teach it as well. It seems to combine the best of both worlds – keeps both the ankle and the knee safe – and works for most people. But reading this article of David’s makes me realize that I need to (as with everything else) see what works best for each student on an individual basis.
Hey David! Thanks for weighing in on this issue! I contacted you a few months back mentioning that I now point my toes in lotus and other seated hip openers to protect my knee. I have loose ligaments in my knee that allow for lots of rotation at the tibia, and find dorsi flexion exaggerates this dangerous tendency, whereas plantar flexion limits it and protects the knee. Since adopting this method over a year ago, I’ve enjoyed a pain free practice. In leg behind the head hip openers, I still use the dorsi flexion.
Gregor Mahlle recommends the plantar flexion to enter hip-openers shapes where the knee-joint is closed. Personally, I find this approach allows for getting much deeper into the hip openers, whereas as flexing seems to put the brakes on the entry into half-lotus prematurely.
In Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy book, he doesn’t really lean in either direction. As a safety caution for tighter people/students experiencing knee problems in bound angle (baddha konasana) there is a brief mention of using dorsi flexion with foot eversion, pressing the outer edge of the foot into the floor (p. 145, 2nd Ed.). “This activates the peroneal muscles… which can stabilize the lateral ligaments of the knees and help protect them from rotating too much.”
I presume this pain would be experienced when the knee joint is not closed, and the same approach applies to Janusirsasana. For people with loose hips and quads who are able to close the knee joints, pointing the toes and inverting the foot can create the deeper hip opening that Gregor Mahlle describes in “Ashtanga Yoga, Practice & Philosophy” (p. 79).
“Pointing the foot while executive Janusirsasana A [and half-lotus] allows the tibia to track the medial rotation of the femur until its front edge points down to the earth, and heel to the sky… It will lead to sitting in lotus with the heels and soles of the feet facing upward. This is the anatomically correct position… To invert the foot at the same time as pointing it deepens the medial spiraling of the thigh, thereby deepening the lotus position…. Lengthening along the insides of the thighs in Janusirsana A loosens the adductors and reduces pressure on the knee. The knee draws down and back, increasing the length of the adductors.” (Maehlle, p. 79)
I find your newsletter quite informative and really appreciate your insight. No doubt there’s a stretch in the calf muscle when the foot is flexed. I wonder, however, if the “flex your foot in padmasana” instruction has more to do with the contracting of the muscles on the front of the lower leg, then it does the stretching on the back of the leg (possibly the tibialis anterior or peroneus longus? And yes, I’m looking in my anatomy book to reference the names of these muscles – I don’t know them off the top of my head.) I don’t feel an effect in my knee in either case, but I do feel more of a pronounced contraction in the front and maybe that’s what ‘stabilizes’ the knee? Or possibly, it’s a combination of what’s contracting on the front AND what’s stretching on the back.