Let’s break down standing half-bound lotus (ardha baddha padmottanasana)
In standing half-bound lotus, if we are doing the full expression of the pose, then we are placing one leg in a half-lotus position, reaching around behind our back to bind the toe of the half-lotus foot with one hand, and then folding forward to place the other hand on the floor. Standing half-bound lotus comes early on in the primary series of Ashtanga yoga and right away we meet our first half-lotus. Why so soon?
Remember that the cultural context of yoga asana is India, a place where people sat on the floor and squatted regularly for everyday activities. Their hips remained open into adulthood. As Westerners who regularly sit in cars, at desks, on the couch, etc., we may need to take some additional time to regain mobility and openness of the hip joints. If we have been active in sports that tightened the hip joints in ways that impede external rotation, such as running or cycling, then it may take us even more time to create openness in our hip joints, but it can be done!
Anatomy of standing half-lotus
There are primarily two anatomical ideas being expressed in this pose. There is one leg working toward the half-lotus position and a second leg that is supporting you, which you are folding over. Let’s talk about that half-lotus first.
What’s happening in half-lotus position?
Most students focus on their knees when working toward a half-lotus position. This is probably due to the fear of injury, which is well placed. The knee is definitely vulnerable during half and full lotus postures. Most people never feel the area that actually needs to open the most, that is the hip joint. There is significant external rotation of the hip needed on that side of the body to allow you to place the foot in the hip crease of the opposite leg (half-lotus position) without undue pressure in either the ankle or the knee on the half-lotus side.
The external rotation of the hip joint should be maximized. The most common restrictors to this movement are the deeper gluteal muscles such as gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. But don’t forget about the deep six lateral rotators which can also be involved. I’ve written a number of articles on this subject already. [Check out: Should I Be Opening My Knees for Lotus?, How To Evolve Your Half-lotus Without Pain, and A Simple Preparation for Lotus – Video.]
What many students fail to realize is that it is important to have the hip joint open before attempting a deep lotus. You don’t want to rely solely on the lotus itself to open those tissues. Preparation of the hip joint may be required.
The final destination of the foot is placing the outer edge of the foot so that it is sitting comfortably in the hip crease. If the foot is not in this position, it’s more likely that you’ll feel significant pressure on the foot and ankle. In order for the optimal placement of the foot to happen, the knee has to add a bit of external rotation. When the leg is straight, the knee does not rotate. Once it bends about ten degrees or more it has the ability to rotate both internally and externally. In the case of lotus, we want it to end with a bit of external rotation. You may have to encourage this.
If you feel pressure in the knee, then there is a good chance this is coming from tension in the hip joint. If you can’t get the foot into the hip crease, there is a good chance this is also coming from tension in the hip. If your ankle hurts when you fold, there is a good chance that this too is a result of tension in the hip joint.
If you struggle with the half-lotus aspect of this pose, then read on for some suggestions for how to evolve this pose over time.
Working with the shoulder to bind the foot
The shoulder is another potential sticking point for being able to do the full expression of this posture. Remember the “shoulder”, in this case, is a general word for the entire shoulder complex, not just the literal shoulder joint (the glenohumeral joint). The pectoralis major muscle can have a say in how much mobility you find in the shoulder as the scapula retracts. Going deeper and closer to the literal shoulder joint, you find that the deltoids and rotator cuff group have more to say about the nuanced movement at the joint.
It’s important that you adapt the technique at first in order to bind the foot if you’re going for the full expression of the posture. This includes, how you bring the leg into lotus, where the foot is placed, as well as how much you allow your body to twist in order to take the binding. More on that later.
For the moment, know that the action we are trying to create is an internal rotation of the shoulder joint itself. This is mixed with some adduction of the shoulder joint as well as a retraction of the scapula.
The restrictors to the internal rotation part of the movement are the two rotator cuff muscles called the infraspinatus and the teres minor. The only other muscle that directly restricts this movement is the posterior portion of the deltoids. They all restrict this movement because they are external rotators. If they’re tight, they’ll restrict internal rotation.
Adduction would only be restricted by the whole of the deltoids and isn’t commonly a problem. The larger issue would be the tissues on the front of the body that protract the scapula. Pectoralis major is the largest of muscles that could restrict retraction of the scapula, but there is also the smaller brother called pectoralis minor which is a depressor and protractor.
Working with the standing leg
The other part of this pose is the straight leg, the one you’re standing on. As you fold forward, the hamstring of the standing leg is lengthening, as is the whole back of the body, because now you’re in a forward fold.
Just as important as length, is the strength and control that you have in this leg. The strength to stabilize the hip joint for balance comes primarily from the deep gluteal muscles called gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. You’ll notice that these are also the same muscles that need to be flexible enough to allow for the external rotation for the half-lotus itself.
Intentions for standing half-bound lotus
There are many intentions that we can explore in standing half-bound lotus. The first, and maybe the most obvious, as it’s the one that many people struggle with, is opening up the hips, particularly increasing the external rotation needed to eventually place a leg in half-lotus position. Why work on opening the hips? One good reason is that it will allow more freedom of movement of the pelvis, which just generally makes daily movement in life more comfortable. A second reason, is that many yoga postures that will follow after this one will ask for the hips to be open, so you might as well get started working that range of motion now.
This pose also builds on some intentions that we’ve explored in fundamental standing poses, like standing forward bend. It is a variation of a standing forward bend, albeit on one leg, but the same intentions apply here. Like a simpler standing forward bend, standing half-bound lotus will put some length into the hamstrings of the straight leg and you can work with a suggestion of length through the back of the upper body too.
Also like the regular standing forward bend, in this pose we can work with the intention of developing strength and steadiness in our base. In this case, our base when we are folding is one foot and one hand (the non-binding hand). By paying attention to how we place weight in our contacts with the floor, we can change how stable we feel. I’m generally of the opinion that if it’s in contact with the floor, you should use it. In this pose, I often suggest to students to use that hand on the floor like a second foot. This can create a greater sense of stability for someone when they are in the forward fold part of this pose.
As with utthita hasta padangusthasana, when we are working on a balancing posture, we have the opportunity to really explore our proprioception — our ability to feel where our whole body is in space. Just like when you were a child and learning to stand on two feet, learning to balance on one foot can take some time. When working with the idea of proprioception, don’t rush. Take extra breaths and move slowly if you need to. Really feel where you are in space in each moment. Just as with learning to stand up on two feet, with time and practice you will get more comfortable with where you are in space in this new position and you’ll be able to move in and out of it more quickly.
The final intention is to start opening the shoulder of the binding hand. There are some techniques that help us get there a little easier, but the restriction that we are primarily working on is to start opening the shoulder so that it can reach and bind the foot around the back. This work is important as there are many postures that ask us to take our hands behind our back and hold onto other body parts as we evolve our asana practice.
Working the half-lotus
When students arrive at this posture with tight hips and struggle with half-bound lotus, I will generally have them explore the aspects of the posture in multiple ways and repeat the posture. If it’s a place in your body that is tight and/or a posture that you struggle with, consider working the pose more than once in different ways in your practice.
Variations to explore
When students can’t yet access the full expression of this pose, some questions often come up. Should I fold forward if I can’t bind the toe? Should I just leave out the half-lotus if I can’t do it yet, and instead place the foot in a sort of tree pose or vrksasana position?
There is not one answer to how to approach this pose or any other pose. In general, I suggest thinking through what the important intentions of the pose are and then work on the pose in a way that means you explore each of those intentions. That might mean repeating more than one variation of the pose in a single practice. What’s important is that you identify the aspects of the pose that are challenging you and then find a modification or variation that works on those aspects. If you just completely avoid the parts of the pose that challenge you, like the half-lotus for example, they’ll never change. There are several variations that I often have students incorporate into their practice as they move through the different stages of learning this pose.
If a student has very tight hips, I might have them work on the wall. In this version, you take out the balancing aspect of the pose for a moment and focus on opening the hips. I would have the student stand a foot or so away from the wall, then bend just a little bit and rest their back on the wall. From there they can bring one leg up, bend the knee just 90 degrees or a little more, and place the foot on the leg just above the other knee. They can then fold forward with both hands reaching toward the floor or use one arm to reach around toward the opposite foot. The intention here is to put pressure into the hip joint and begin opening these tissues.
A similar variation, but one that incorporates the balancing aspect of this pose, could be set up away from the wall. Place a tall block in front of the student. They can bring one leg up and place the foot just above the knee, while then reaching one or both hands to a block or blocks instead of using the wall. Similar to the last variation, the intention here is to put pressure into the hip joint and open those tissues, but with some work on finding balance in space as well.
You can also work on this pose with the assistance of your teacher. In this variation, the student’s hips are beginning to open, but their hips don’t allow them to bind quite yet. A teacher can create a false bind with their hand while the student folds. The intention here is to help the student have the experience of where the posture is going by creating an intermediate step. They do the work of balancing, placing the foot, and reaching for the bind. The teacher gives them the feeling of the bind by providing their fingers as a bind, so they can fold forward and start to get the feeling of how all the aspects of this posture work together.
Working the technique
Sometimes students struggle to bind the toe in the half-lotus in this posture, but don’t seem to have trouble binding what is essentially the same posture when they are on the floor (ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana or seated half-bound lotus). In this case, there is usually a little bit of technique missing.
The first thing to check is the position of the foot. Students sometimes want to bring the foot too far across the body because it feels like it will be closer to their arm to bind. Actually though, that sets the big toe that you are looking to bind so that it is farther away, sometimes even by a couple inches, depending on how far across the leg you’ve brought the foot. Instead, I tell students to aim the heel of the foot toward the navel. It may or may not go exactly in the hip crease, depending on how open the hips are, but it will place the foot in the best place for that moment.
The second thing to think about if you don’t have trouble binding the foot when doing seated half-lotus forward bend, is what you’re actually doing when you reach to bind the foot while seated. Where is your body in seated half-bound lotus? It’s folded at the waist at a 90 degree angle, right? Otherwise you’d be lying on the floor! So, from standing you can also create that fold to bring yourself closer to your toe.
The last part that we often miss out in the standing pose compared to the seated version is the twist in the spine to reach for the toe. When we are seated and balance isn’t an issue, we may feel more comfortable really twisting and reaching around for the bind. When we’re standing it takes more proprioception and balance to reach out away from our body without falling over. It takes practice!