When I started my yoga practice years ago, I lusted after the lotus pose, convinced that the man I was dating would fall in love with me. So impressed, he might even pay attention to me and listen to my deep thoughts about life. As I toiled - as I do - I glanced over (a lot) at my then-boyfriend and saw how effortlessly he slid into the pose, closing his eyes and disappearing into his own reveries, lost to me.
He introduced me to all things spiritual, poetic, and esoteric. I was his student, eager for wisdom, insight, and affection. My pursuit of this apparently elevated being's affection fueled my efforts to shove myself into lotus. Instead of leaving me in the throes of knee pain, I would one day join him in his depths and share his experience of enlightenment.
Lotus would deliver me, and make me a legit yogi instead of a homesick college freshman calling home eight days a week.
Alone in my dorm room, I stuffed myself into the pose. I then greased my arms with Vaseline and rammed them through the stubborn gap between my legs, proving I could have perfect posture and be free of diseases. What more could anyone ask of me?
I spent every night mastering this feat. One day on the way to weekly yoga class he introduced me to macrobiotic food, explaining that it was a must if I were going to be with him. I wanted to crave soba noodles and have my skin turn grey from this macro diet just like all the skinny girls in class.
One weekend, we went to Kripalu for chanting with the Hari Krishnas. I cringed when he couldn't carry a tune, and he embarrassed me by singing louder than everyone else. I come from a family of great singers and good manners; I would be mortified if I sounded like that, but in that moment nothing commanded my attention more than the urgent spiritual work I had to do. I had no idea that the lotus, while worth aspiring to, comes as a result of the achievement of many other postures. All I wanted was to perform my new stunt. But alas, my hopeful audience of one was swallowed whole by the sitar music, and I lost track of him altogether after the first half hour when he'd sidled up to the guru, leaving me in the back with all the other losers, the ones without the right outfit, Sanskrit name, or shaved head. So there I was, going after a lotus for which I had no map and after a man who I pursued with an equally misguided technique.
Hours later, I ended up not where I had hoped to be, showing off my lotus to Mr. Macrobiotic, but on a grassy slope near his car so he wouldn't leave without me. And as I sat and waited I had nothing to do but take full measure of this man, The Hari Krishnas, myself, and my greasy lotus. We drove home in silence and the following week he dumped me for a waitress at the Broome Street Bar. So she got him but I got my Lotus.
40 years later I sent my nephew Julian to share Passover with old friends. He reported to me afterwards that he met a man there who captivated him all night. When I hounded Julian for details, he reported that Mr. Macro was fat, twice divorced, and complained to him about his sciatica. If only he still had his lotus.
As much as my lotus ordeal humiliated me and left me hankering for its nectar, it launched my young self on a path to developing an inner life. And as I am prone to beat a dead horse, I stayed with the lotus, even though I didn't have the twelve other poses that should be mastered before it. I had no technique to make my lotus possible. So instead of hog-tying myself, per usual, I began to read Freud, EF Schummacher, and Rob Pirsig, and was soon comforted by the Buddhists, the Hindus, and the Egyptians, who corroborated my need for a solid lotus. These ancients considered the lotus flower a representation of our longing for spiritual enlightenment.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is said to include spells that are able to transform a person into a lotus, thus allowing for resurrection and personal renewal. As myths hold truth, this mythic idea beckoned me. When my hips gave way, and I solidly felt the seat underneath me, this manifested my own renewal. I felt that I had become the lotus.
The Hindus describe the flower that emerges out of muddy waters, un-spoilt and pure each morning, as the emblem of possibility for personal transformation. But as students who are developing technique we want to embody it, become it, not just represent it. Of all the yoga postures, the lotus demands the most rigorous technique.
And just like every other archetype, it is ours to embody if we come to class, stay on the mat, participate, measure up, develop good boundaries, and fight the depth of our unconscious propensities. It's a life's work.
The reason we modern practitioners want to embody the archetype of a lotus, is that we are using our bodies as a conduit to change our lives. The value of a lotus pose is to guarantee that we won't unravel. And as it is my propensity to harp, if your body doesn't unravel, neither will you.
When a lotus is measured well, the legs are folded so that they are bound with a central bolt. Your hips, knees, and ankles are cross-referenced so that your pelvis is tied together. Much like a pair of shoelaces, criss-crossed to tie a good knot so that your shoes won't fall off, a lotus bind ties up your pelvis so your hips don't come apart.
Lotus provides a way to tone up your kidneys by building the pelvic floor. A lotus will hold you together. It adds fluency to the hips, demanding a form that flushes energy through ankles, knees, and hip joints, much like a closed electrical circuit functions. And, while at first one fights for the proper form of the bind, the real benefit is the flow, the energy, the currency that moves through your body all bound up. Real freedom is found in confinement. A good lotus will help you address your metabolism (thyroid), flush your toilets (kidneys), adjust your vision (liver), open your windows (lungs), and refine your speech (heart).
A pose like lotus is difficult at first ("at first" could mean years) because it demands a certain amount of pliancy in the joints and a measured process of origami pleating in order to fold one's legs in that pretzel-like bind, instead of stuffing yourself in and mistaking a squish for a good fit. Once we've slid in, the lotus makes other poses easier. A headstand or shoulder stand with legs in lotus gives those poses with no folds a surge of power. A cobra with legs in lotus opens the front of your pelvis, yielding a richer backbend and a fuller arch from intestines to lungs. A twist sets up a double helix, flushing kidneys much like squeezing a sponge. In a lotus, the same twist sets up a curve that is exponentially delicious.
And not to worry if you don't have your lotus yet. If you are sitting at a right angle, on your perineum, in your hip joints, in the center of your sphere, you will never need Vaseline.