Flexed or Extended Foot in Lotus

By David Keil

I’ve been hearing for years that we should flex our foot in various poses where we have our knees bent at ninety degrees or more. More recently I’ve received two seperate 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?

Why

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.”

How

Yoga anatomy gastrocnemiusSo, 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 it’s 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, hardly. However, I could imagine it undoing some in these positions since the attachments and the tissues would put equal pressure or tension onto 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 suggest 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 flexed foot. 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 quadricep muscle contracts. 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 is in a flexed position, flex your foot in any or all of these 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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Author: David Keil

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Take a look at the Interview I did with David recently when he was at Purple Valley in Goa, India.
Here are some of the articles posted here by David Keil:
  • Turning Your Feet Out When Doing a Yoga Drop-Back? September 9, 2013 By David Keil The inspiration for this month’s article comes from a question posed in an email. The question, from Catherine, asks specifically about keeping the feet straight in drop-backs. For those of you not sure what a drop-back is… it’s when you stand at the front of your mat and drop into a backbend. It’s ...
  • David Keil Interview 2016 August 20, 2016 Its that time of year again when David Keil visits Purple Valley in Goa and I get to babble anatomy with someone who really knows his stuff. David is author of the brilliant book Functional Anatomy of Yoga and teaches around the world. In this interview we talk about the emerging interest in fascia, injuries, ...
  • The ‘Álmighty’ Psoas Muscle: Your Body’s Center of Movement March 24, 2013 By David Keil The foundation of our bodies and our yoga practice lies at our feet. In order to incorporate both physical and energetic foundations, we must examine our body’s center of energy, movement and balance which begins near the psoas muscle– the pair of deep muscles extending from the sides of the spine to the ...
  • Sun Salutations Part 1 October 20, 2014 There is nothing that seems to cross all boundaries of yoga styles as clearly as sun salutations. Of course there are variations on the theme, but it seems that all styles do them. Sun Salutations put movement through all of the joints of the body and moves it in many directions. Perhaps we have a ...
  • Supta Kurmasana Goes Pop! May 30, 2013 By David Keil Some time ago I threatened to write an article about pain showing up in the joint that connects the collarbone to the breastbone. I have had a couple of more recent requests to talk about this potential problem in Supta Kurmasana. As always I try to look at the anatomy, its function, observations ...
  • Sun Salutations Part 2 October 20, 2014 The last article in this series was the introduction to the sun salutations series with an anatomical spin. In this article we will be exploring: How to lift the arms over your head. Raising the Arms It seems as though I have seen hundreds of variations on how students raise their arms over their head to begin ...
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