Our knees are complicated joints that work hard every day, bending, extending, and supporting us in most activities – so how do we make sure our Yoga practice works for our knees, and not the other way around?
Yoga can be great for your knees – it can help you get rid of chronic knee pain, recover from an injury, increase both your knee stability and mobility, and prevent future injuries. However, many people also hurt their knees during Yoga practice because they push beyond the body’s limits. It pays to know the dos and don’ts of knee work in Yoga!
The knee is an unusual joint – the bones meeting there don’t neatly fit into each other like a ball and socket. In fact, the lower end of your thighbone and the upper end of your shinbone – that form the main body of the knee – have surfaces that don’t seem very compatible, yet they not only fit together, this mismatched shape also allows greater movement in the knee joint. It’s all made possible with the help of the kneecap, thick ligaments, cartilage discs (menisci) providing padding within the joint, and strong leg muscles stabilizing the whole structure.
When you bend the knee, it pulls on the ligaments inside (cruciate ligaments) as well as on the outer ones, and it compresses the menisci (one is a meniscus and you have two in each knee – inner and outer). In extreme angles, such as sitting on your heels, this movement can be problematic for any of the knee components. If you also add a twisting action to it, for example sitting between your heels, which twists the knees inwards, and reclining backwards, the pulling action in the knees can be so strong that if you don’t know your limits, you can seriously injure yourself. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do it – you absolutely should! You just need to find your edge and work with it to improve your yoga practice!
Another problem can be a disbalanced training which makes some of your leg muscles stronger than others. The main muscles that hold and pull on your knee are the quads (each has four parts) and hamstrings. For example, if your outer quads are stronger than the inner ones, every time you move your leg, it pulls on your knee in an uneven way because the stronger quads pull the kneecap and the whole knee towards them, out of alignment. This in itself can cause knee issues.
Luckily, Yoga is great at rectifying these problems because it trains your legs evenly and all the balancing realigns your kneecaps. Yoga movements also help to lubricate the knee joint, increase its mobility and bring more nutrients to the cartilage, making potential damage repair more efficient. Here are the basic rules for making your knees stronger and healthier with Yoga:
1. Don’t hyperextend
Extension of the knee usually isn’t as tricky as flexion – after all, it just means straightening of your leg – but many of us have the ability to hyperextend and that can cause trouble. Hyperextension means dipping your knee below the straight line of the extended leg. This angle puts too much pressure on the front of your knee and squishes the menisci in an unusual way, potentially causing pain and overuse injuries.
If your knees hyperextend, be mindful of it and make sure there’s always a microbend in your knee when your leg is otherwise straight. In forward bends, you can put a folded towel or blanket under your knee(s) to prevent them from sinking all the way to the floor.
2. Feet first
In any Yoga pose, start your alignment from your feet to make sure your knees don’t make up for a disbalance in the feet. While doing standing poses, press down with all four corners of your feet, and place your weight in the middle of the foot. In seated or other poses, think of your foot position too because it can just as easily throw your legs and whole alignment off balance as when you’re standing.
Separate your toes, spread your feet wide and make sure your toes are facing the same direction as your knees – that ensures your legs and feet are aligned, and that you are building strength evenly in the muscles and their ligaments on both sides of the knee.
3. Stacking and right angles
Whenever you’re bending your knee and putting weight on the leg, such as in warrior poses or lunges, make sure your knee is stacked over your ankle, so that your shin and the floor make a right angle. When you’ve done that, the next step is to draw your kneecap in line with the second toe – that makes your knees face the same direction as the toes, preventing them from falling in or out.
Another useful tool is to lift your toes, both on the front and back foot, because it makes you more aware of your alignment and makes you distribute your weight more evenly in the feet. Then, place your toes down again and you’ve safely landed in your pose.
4. Balance it out
Balancing poses are great for building strength in the muscles stabilizing the knees. Transitions or repetitions of a pose, in which you are moving through bent knees are super helpful in making your knees more resilient. If you’re recovering from an injury, don’t force anything but if you can comfortably move your knees, balancing poses can make them healthier and less injury-prone because they train your functional alignment, rather than just muscles.
5. Warm up and know your limits
Before you start moving your knees in various challenging angles, warm up your whole body with dynamic movements. All Skill Yoga practices include this warm up but keep that in mind for any kind of physical activity. Warming up your body will make your joints well lubricated and allow them a greater range of motion – that’s the first step for a safe Yoga practice. Everything will simply glide more smoothly. Try out these warmup workouts
Even when you’ve done that, your body will still have its limits – In your yoga practice, don’t force the knee into positions that require other joints to be more open than they currently are. For example, the lotus pose, an advanced seated position, requires a level of openness in your hips that you cannot make up for by bending and twisting your knee in unnatural ways. If you do that, you can tear a ligament or cause other damage that could take months to heal. Don’t let your ego take over! If you feel sharp pain, that’s your cue to stop and go back a little.
6. Blocks and blankets
Many of us don’t have any knee issues but some Yoga poses, where the knee is on the floor, simply put too much pressure on it and it starts hurting. You can get an extra thick mat but a simpler solution is to fold your Yoga mat from the side so you double it up under the knee that’s on the floor. Another option is a folded blanket or towel that you simply slide under the knee and carry on with your practice.
It’s not unusual for our knees to start hurting in seated positions with bent knees. If you experience this kind of pain, try changing the angle of the knee by either sitting on a block or blanket or adjusting the leg position. This can truly help in cross-legged poses! Another trick is to put a block under your knee if it is sticking up too much when you sit cross-legged – that way, it has some support from underneath and even though you don’t change its angle or position, some of the leg weight is resting on the block and it may help a lot!
Happy knees, happy you
If you’ve ever experienced knee issues, you know they don’t just go away overnight. It’s super important not to hurt your knees but also don’t be too careful and do too little. If you stick to the rules listed above, you’ll have a safe Yoga practice that’s good for your knees, and can help you recover from ongoing issues. Knee pain is one of the most common complaints in both Yoga and athletic training but with the right approach, you can achieve strong, healthy and pain-free knees!