If you have experienced a serious knee injury or a snap-crackle-pop scare, you know this to be true: yoga can be tough on knees. Many poses call for deep flexion, and certain styles of yoga may have you moving from standing to the floor and back to standing again many times over. In addition, misalignment in poses and repetitive action can wreak havoc on these primarily hinge joints. So yes, yoga can be tough on knees. But that’s not the whole story.
When performed with attention to alignment and mindful listening to your body’s messages, yoga poses are not only achievable without pain; they can do your knees a world of good. Articulating the knee joints by moving between flexion and extension with control brings fluids into the joint cavities and cartilage, and thereby provides a healthy lubrication. Standing and balancing yoga poses promote functional and dynamic alignment for the knees by building strength in the muscles that stabilize the joint and ligaments, including the quadriceps (front of thigh) and hamstrings (back of thigh). With special attention, the inner and outer muscles of the quadriceps can be recruited and strengthened equally to insure that the patella (kneecap) is free to glide up and down and will not be pulled out of place toward the stronger side. In addition, many yoga poses are designed to stretch the iliotibial band (outside of thigh) to prevent inflammation that can cause lateral knee pain.
In short, knee pain doesn’t have to keep you from reaping the benefits of a yoga practice. Yoga may in fact facilitate recovery from damaged ligaments, osteoarthritis, iliotibial band syndrome, and more. Here are a few tips for transforming your next yoga class into a knee-friendly and pain-free experience.
Start at the bottom and build up.
Begin each pose by considering your foundation first. Connect the four corners of your feet (big toe mound, pinky toe mound, inner heel, and outer heel) firmly and evenly into the mat. This directional energy will align your feet and build strength evenly on both sides of the knees. The connection of the pinky edge of the foot is also important to insure that the arch of the foot doesn’t fall and compromise the knee. To the same end, energetically extend through the inner and outer parts of your feet equally in inverted poses too.
Line ‘em up.
Once your feet are safely anchored into the mat, bring your attention up the leg to your knees. In lunging poses, such as Warrior I, Warrior II, Extended Side Angle, and Low Lunge, the front knee should stack over your ankle and line up with your second toe. If you can lunge past your ankle, lengthen your stride. If your knee falls inward, activate your hip muscles to draw the thigh bone slightly out. When posing on straight legs, such as in Triangle Pose, keep your knees in line between your hips and ankles by avoiding hyperextension with a micro-bend.
Warm up your hips too.
You know the tune … “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone; the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone.” As silly as the song may seem, there’s truth to it – it’s all connected. If our big hip muscles aren’t ready for yoga, the knees will take on the brunt of the work. Before class, take a few deep breaths in a gentle hip opener.
Talk to your teacher.
Inform the teacher before class that you have a history of knee pain and will modify poses or assume alternative poses if necessary. Yoga teachers love to know that students are making smart choices rather than pushing beyond their present limits. Be sure to let the teacher know that you would still love feedback on alignment even if you are in a different pose than the rest of the class.
Listen to your body.
Before you reach a place of obvious pain, you may experience a questionable twinge of discomfort. No matter how subtle, at first sight of this twinge, gently ease out of the pose and try a modification or alternative instead. The following pictures pair common yoga poses that call for deep knee flexion with alternative poses that may be more accessible. Most importantly, be patient and compassionate with yourself as you try the following alternatives in your next class.
Instead of Child’s Pose, stack your hips over your knees in Downward Facing Puppy.
Instead of Garland Pose, widen your feet and keep your thigh bones parallel to the floor in Horse Pose.
Instead of Tree Pose, enjoy a Tree Pose variation – just be sure to place your foot below the knee, since the knee bends in a different plane than the direction of pressure from your foot.
Instead of Squatting Tiptoe Balance, try Chair Pose on the balls of your feet with arches pressing toward your second toes.
Instead of Hero Pose, try a Hero Pose variation with a pillow or blanket between your hips and heels – don’t be shy about bringing props into the mix to relieve pressure.
Instead of Lotus Pose, find more comfort in Easy Pose or legs extended outward.
One-part yogini, one-part choreographer, and one-part dance educator, Gina Sorensen has the supreme pleasure of talking about movement and the body all day long. She is a Registered Yoga Teacher and the founder of Yoga Natyam, an online resource for yoga classes, where classes are searchable by level, length, and focus. Gina also has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Dance from the University of Oregon and is the Co-Artistic Director of somebodies dance theater, a contemporary modern dance company based in San Diego and directed in collaboration with her husband, Kyle. She teaches in the dance programs at San Diego State University, San Diego City College, and Coronado School of the Arts. Connect on Facebook and Twitter!