The Lotus Symbol in Yoga Philosophy and Practice
Why is Lotus flower imagery so common in yoga? A look at the origins of Lotus symbolism in Buddhism and Hinduism and modern interpretations.
Ann Pizer |
Images of the lotus flower are everywhere yoga is practised: on studio walls, book covers, logos, and yoga mats. Obviously, the lotus and yoga go hand in hand, but why? What is the origin of this association, the history behind it, and the modern interpretations that have proved so enduring? If you’ve ever wondered what’s up with all these lotus flowers, we have the answers.
The Lotus Plant
Nelumba nuicfera, known as the sacred lotus, is a pretty miraculous plant. Despite its resemblance to a water lily, it’s actually a different species and can be distinguished by the tall stalks that shoot up above the water to support the lotus leaves and flowers, which are water-repellent. Many parts of the plant are edible, including the seeds, shoots, rhizomes, and leaves. Native to broad swaths of Asia, where it traditionally had medicinal as well as culinary uses, colonies of lotus plants can last for thousands of years. Its seeds are encased in a hard shell and can lie dormant for hundreds of years before being successfully recultivated.
The beauty and aroma (which is used to attract the insects that act as pollinators) of the lotus flower account for its fascination to humans and the incorporation of the lotus as a symbol in many ancient religions, including those of Greece, Persia, Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent. The ability of this astonishing flower to flourish in swampy, murky habitats has also contributed to its allure and symbolism.
The Lotus Symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism
The symbolism of the lotus in yoga comes primarily from two ancient religions of the Indian subcontinent: Buddhism and Hinduism. Depicting a god seated on a lotus “signifies a superiority which rises above and excludes all contact with the mud of the world,” according to the third-century Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblicus (Griffiths 52).
The sacred lotus has been intrinsic to Buddhist iconography and doctrine since its origins. The Buddha is often depicted seated on a lotus throne, and the pure white lotus flower rising above the muddy bottom is a symbol of enlightened beings rising above the taint of the unclean world.
The life cycle of the lotus from seed to flower to seed represents reincarnation. An eight-petalled lotus is frequently incorporated in imagery of the eight-spoked Dharma Wheel, which stands for the eightfold path. Buddhism is also the source of the mantra “Om mani padme hum” (Hail the jewel in the lotus), which demonstrates the high value Buddhists place on everything the plant represents (Griffiths 75-76).
In Hinduism, the goddess Lakshmi is particularly associated with the lotus. She is most often depicted holding lotus flowers and standing or sitting on an additional bloom. She is the goddess of, among other things, beauty, prosperity, fertility, and wisdom. Her partner, the god Vishnu, is likewise often shown holding a lotus, symbolizing his purity and superiority, in one of his four hands. One version of Hinduism’s creation myth has Brahma, the creator, born from a lotus flower that grows from Vishnu’s navel. (Griffith 65-68)
Lotus Pose (Padmasana)
Lotus Pose, in which the upturned soles of the feet resemble lotus petals, is one of the postures mentioned in the earliest surviving yoga sources, which introduce the practice of asana in service of meditation. The yogi meditating in Lotus Pose has come to represent someone immersed in a full state of enlightenment, but the ability to sit for a long time in Lotus Pose is no longer viewed as a prerequisite for a meditation practice. For modern practitioners, Lotus is considered an advanced pose because it requires a lot of flexibility in the hips to avoid straining the knees. Our full instructions for Lotus and Half Lotus include the safest method for coming into the pose.
No Mud, No Lotus
The most resonant symbolism of the lotus for the modern yogi tends to be that a plant that grows in such a dirty environment can produce such a magnificent flower. This lesson inspires hope and validation for people who are working to transcend messy circumstances. The lotus flower rising above the swamp represents the potential for a beautiful life to emerge from adversity. The popular saying “no mud, no lotus” even suggests that a bit of muck is required in the making of something extraordinary.
Griffiths, Mark. The Lotus Quest: In search of the sacred flower. St. Martin’s Press, 2009.