Unfolding the Lotus

The lotus flower is a usual symbol in the east for the realised soul, so universally accepted that it is almost irrelevant to discover where the image first took root. We can find in the Lotus sutra of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition the following idea: ‘Even as the lotus, loveliest of flowers, has its roots in the vilest mud and yet turns its face to the sun, so the realised soul transcends the darkness and opens up to enlightenment.’

Another text, the Anguttara Nikaya of the Hinayana Buddhist tradition, reflects this idea in the story of a conversation between the newly enlightened Buddha and a certain Brahma Dona. After the Brahma Dona asked the Buddha if he was a God, a demi-god, ghost or man, the Buddha replied: ‘No‘, explaining that he was ‘Like a lotus growing in the pond but never soiled by the mud‘. Thus Brahma Dona realised that he had encountered a Buddha, or enlightened one.

Yet Buddhism itself reaches its roots firmly into Hinduism, where one repeatedly finds reference to ‘the lotus face of Lord Chaitanya’ and ‘the lotus feet of Sri Krishna’. All the Hindu deities are to be seen surrounded by these magical flora, sitting on their plump pink petals, clasping their luxuriant blooms. Lotuses even grow out of the snow surrounding Lord Shiva on the icy slopes of Mount Meru (Kailash). Lakshmi is so blessed by lotuses that their abundance is associated with material wealth: look on the walls of any Indian business, be it chai shop or bank, and there is Lakshmi, sitting in a shower of golden coins falling into the cushioning folds of her supporting lotus blossom.

This is the Lotus: support, in every sense of the word. Just as the image of a lotus encapsulates the whole and completely natural process of enlightenment, the lotus posture forms of the body a self-contained and stable mountain up which the subtler paths to enlightenment may wend.

Stylised lotuses are used to represent the chakras in tantric iconography, and it is helpful to envisage to the chakras as actual lotus blooms, opening and closing as appropriate. As not everyone is aware of what a lotus actually looks like, it might be useful to consider what we are actually visualising. Nelumbo Nucifera is the botanical name for the robust pink blooms of the east. Their leaves are large, almost leathery, their petals rough and prickly and their flowers exquisite. Closer to home are the equally lovely Egyptian water lilies, the Nymphae lotus. Their pads are flat and shiny, the stems smooth and they come in either pink or white.

Whichever variety of lotus we are contemplating, their innate beauty transcends all religious capture and textual reference. One of the most treasured memories of my childhood is of the day my father rowed us in his cherrywood skiff into a lagoon full of water lilies. Dragonflies flitted through the sunlight and that day stands out as nothing short of Sartori. The lagoon was shortly afterwards turned into a marina and makes plenty of money for its owners to this day - but the real wealth is lost. The universal language of this lost treasure speaks through the rise and rise in popularity of Claude Monet’s waterlilies. When at the end of his career he painted the enormous oval walls of the Orangerie in Paris with thousands of blooms, there were those who thought he was mad. Yet they have risen up through the mud of ignorance to bloom in the light of recognition. At the time, Monet claimed he was painting for the future, and the immense success of the recent exhibition in London testifies to his vision.

The Lotus posture, or Padmasana, as we know it, with the feet placed on the opposite thighs, is described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, but given the name ‘Virasana’, or hero’s pose; a couple of stanzas later, Padmasana is mentioned by name. Though it has not been specifically described, we presume it to be the same as ‘Virasana’. The practitioner is instructed to thread the arms through the legs and stand on the hands, lifting the legs from the floor, in Kukkutasana - or ‘chicken’ pose. The Gheranda Samhita is more detailed. It describes taking the feet to the opposite thighs, but adds the following twist: the hands should be crossed behind the back before taking hold of the big toes. The chin is then lowered to the chest, and the gaze fixed on the tip of the nose. This posture, it claims, cures all diseases.

Well, that’s as maybe. I am perfectly willing to accept that it works for skinny holy men existing on Prana and water imbibed daily from the mouth of the Ganges, but it is not a posture usually taught in adult education evening classes in the UK. In fact, the image of the straightforward lotus - simply sitting with the feet on the opposite thighs - may be responsible for putting more people off yoga than anything else.

‘Ooh, I’d like to try yoga, but I can’t do a lotus position.’ No, neither can most of the others who come to yoga. Our society has the invention of chairs to deal with, and children begin to lose the natural flexibility of their hips by about five if they are made to sit on chairs rather than cross-legged on the floor. Sitting on the floor is somehow seen as infra dig, as if we can’t afford chairs - and so the people who can sit comfortably in a lotus position are few and far between.

What is so special about the lotus position anyway? Patanjali advises ‘a comfortable seated position’ and says nothing about Padmasana. Sitting comfortably on a chair with an upright spine is far more conducive to inner meditative states than forcing one’s joints and limbs into an uncomfortable spaghetti of pride and misplaced valour, peppered all over with pins and needles.

Well, just as the lotus is undeniably a special flower, so the lotus position does have its virtues. If it is comfortable, much benefit can be gained: firmly intertwined legs form a stable base which naturally supports the spine in an upright position. Physiologically, blood is encouraged to flow in the pelvic region, the knee joints are flexed and, as the lower back lifts automatically and the whole spine straightens, tension is released from the abdomen and the result is automatic relaxation.

Nobody, however, is going to relax anything while tension exists. Simply forcing oneself into a position because a book says it is beneficial can be hazardous to the health - especially of the knees. So the position should be approached as sensitively as the petals of the flower themselves open to the daylight. If the day is harsh, cold and windy, the petals remain closed; if the sun shines, they open. In other words: beware of anyone trying to force your knees down. With regular practice, the lotus has the capacity to unfold from anyone - within the lights of their capabilities - one petal at a time.

The main release is in the hips, so if they are tight, there is no point even thinking about the full lotus position - simple Sukhasana or Baddha Konasana will do the job just as well. Images of the Buddha frequently show him in the lalf lotus rather than the full position. The most important thing is to protect the knees from undue strain and the lower back from sagging. If support is placed under the knees it doesn’t matter if they’re up by the chin - as long as there is no discomfort, the hips will relax, and slowly the lotus will begin to open. If the lower back slumps, sitting on a block will help lift and straighten it. It is important to be sensitive the general ‘feel’ of the posture; ideally the mood should light and lifting. If not, then the position should be further modified.

Working on opening the hips through other postures in a yoga session is an enjoyable and painless way of approaching Padmasana. It is the ideal position for Pranayama as the upright spine and relaxed abdomen encourage the lungs to open. The mind meanwhile remains alert yet undisturbed. With gentle patience, Padmasana (however modified) becomes easy and light, the springboard for more subtle practices. Awareness of the chakras, nadis and the Kundalini energy is heightened in this position, and meditation descends as gracefully as one would pluck an autumn lotus destined for a shrine.

This appeared in Yoga and Health magazine sometime in 2001.