How to Build a Yoga Practice That Supports Knee Safety and Longevity of Our Body
Looking at Our Knee Anatomy
Keeping your knees safe is important but challenging, because the knee joints, despite their size, are rather fragile joints. One main reason is that there is no overlap of the two bones meeting to create the joint. That means the knee joints can move into problematic alignment with relative ease. Crescents of cartilage (the menisci) create a shallow joint socket to keep the two halves of the joint somewhat aligned. However, because the menisci are cartilaginous soft tissue, it is far easer to damage them than bone tissue. Moving your knees with awareness is important to protect these delicate joints that bear tremendous weight.
Tight Hips can Contribute to Knee Problems
One reason why knee placement is challenging is tightness in the hips. Such hip tightness can result in unintentional movement in the knees to make up for the lack of hip movement. The most dramatic pose where this problem is evident is lotus pose. The hip joint is a stronger and better-protected joint than the knee. Thus in poses where hip flexibility is insufficient, it is surprisingly easy to force the knees to provide the desired range of motion that the stronger hip joints are denying. This causes the knees to move in ways in which they were not designed to move. And that in turn can damage the knee joints. The most common injury resulting from poor knee alignment is a meniscus tear. This is doubly unfortunate, because the menisci help keep the knees in alignment.
Learn to Listen to Your Knees to Keep Your Knees Safe
The good news is that when the knee moves in ways it isn’t designed to, it tends to complain appropriately. In other words, pain sensations in the knee are generally an accurate indication of actual problems developing, which is not true in all parts of the body. (For example, partially tearing an upper hamstring tendon attachment does not usually trigger pain sensations at the time that the damage is occurring. This is one major reason why that is such a common yoga injury, and why it is so easy to re-injure).
Thus never suffer through knee pain quietly, hoping it will go away eventually. It won’t, and while your knees are in pain, you are not only risking knee injury. You are also not getting an effective hip opening, as you are concentrating the force in the knees instead of the hips. If you experience knee pain in a yoga pose, find a way to make it go away. You will probably find that protecting the knee actually creates a more effective stretch for all of you with tight hips, as you are no longer transferring the movement from the hips to the knee joints.
Keep Your Knees Safe in Yoga
In order to protect the knees we will focus this week on knee alignment and on opening the hips to reduce the strain on the knees. We will also focus on balanced engagement of the leg muscles. Evenly engaging and strengthening all the leg muscles keeps your knee joints aligned and your knees healthy long-term. When the knees are flexed, we generally create that engagement through a neutral ankle and flexed toes. When the knee joints are extended, we create that engagement by hugging our leg muscles around our bones.
Tight Hips? No Problem. Try it Now
Lying on the floor, bend the left knee 90 degrees, planting your left foot on the floor. Then place the base of the right shin across the left thigh near the knee.
Did you really do that, or did you instead place the outside edge of the right foot on the left thigh? If so, why? Because you unconsciously know that you can rotate your right knee farther away that way. Unfortunately, this can put asymmetrical stress on your right knee which can cause real damage. On top of that, it also makes the intended stretch for tight hips less effective. Essentially you have found a way to avoid the hip stretch by collapsing your ankle joint and compromising your knee joint.
Instead slide the right foot all the way across the left thigh and flex your right toes towards the right knee. This evenly engages muscles on the outer and inner leg to keep the right knee symmetrically aligned and safe. Then, with each exhale, rotate the right knee away from the chest. With each inhale, find softness and spaciousness in the pose while checking the right ankle alignment. Note that your knee is now closer to your chest and you might now feel less accomplished. However, also note that you are now probably experiencing a stronger hip stretch. If you do, that means this hip stretching exercise has not only gotten safer, but also more effective. After 10 breaths or so, repeat on the left side.
*This article is reposted with kind permission from the author himself. For Gernot’s personal website, click here.
About the Author
Gernot Huber has been practicing and studying yoga since 1996. While working in Silicon Valley, he learned Ashtanga vinyasa and pranayama during lunch breaks from a co-worker. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University. He also has a master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University. Gernot loves cooking, eating, reading, bicycling, and wilderness travel, and practices monkey acro yoga with his two young sons.