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.
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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.