The knee is a weird and fragile joint. I tore a knee ligament (ACL) many years ago. I had physiotherapy and eventually surgery to repair the ligament. I was very physically active when it happened and it was frustrating as hell to be forced to slow down. But perhaps I needed a pause in my hectic life and serendipitously, the injury brought me to yoga. Yoga made a huge difference to my recovery. I gained stability and balance, reduced pain and yoga nurtured my mental wellbeing.
Overall my knee is much better these days, there are still times when it bothers me. It usually goes out of whack when I am not really paying attention – just doing some day-to-day thing. Like going downstairs. This week I was late picking up my kids and when running through the parking lot and down the street in my flip flops. Later that evening I felt the twinge in my knee when I sat down and crossed my legs. Ouch!
Two key ways that yoga can help you avoid and recover from knee pain are
- By strengthening the leg muscles, in particular the hamstrings, inner and outer quadriceps. This creates support for the knee. (e.g., in standing poses such as Warriors)
- By teaching you to align and stack the bones of the joints (e.g., in balancing poses such as Tree). Strangely enough, when doing one-legged balance poses, I now find I have better balance on the side with the injured knee!
Yoga Poses for your Knees
Here are some poses I have found helpful for my own knee.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
Step one foot back about four feet. Turn your back foot on a 90-degree angle, parallel to the back of your mat. Front toes point forward. Front heel is inline with the middle if the back foot like you are on train tracks). Hips are open to the side. Stretch your arms out at shoulder height. Gaze is to your front fingers. Torso is upright.
Knee benefit: Effective for activating and strengthening the quadriceps (particularly inner quads).
Start in mountain pose. Inhale and raise your arms, palms inward. Exhale and bend your knees like you are sitting back in a chair.
Knee benefit: Strengthens hips, thighs and calves which helps knee function better.
Tip: Practice Utkatasana with your back against the wall and a ball or yoga block between your knees. This helps to work the outer and inner quadriceps more evenly.
Crescent (High) Lunge
From standing or downward dog, step one foot backward about 4 feet toward the back of your mat. The ball of your back foot is on the floor. Bend your front knee to about 90 degrees. Hands can be at heart centre or extended overhead.
Knee benefits: Strengthens glutes, quads and calves while training balance and alignment.
Step about four feet apart. Front foot points forward. Back foot is turned out parallel to the back of your mat. Raise you arms parallel to the floor. Extend your torso over the front leg bending at your hip. Rest your lower hand on your shin, ankle or the floor. Extend the upper hand towards the ceiling.
Knee benefits: A challenging pose to help focus on quad muscles.
Start in Mountain pose. Bend your knees. Balance on your one foot and cross your right leg over your left. Toes of the lifted leg may be on the ground, lifted or wrapped behind your calf.
Cross your arms in front of your torso so that your left arm is above the right. Bend at the elbows. Press your palms together and lift your elbows toward the ceiling. together. Hold for 3-5 breaths. Repeat on the other side. If Eagle pose is new to you, check out this helpful video demo.
Knee benefit: Dynamic balancing helps train functional alignment while working the muscles.
Tips for keep you knees safe in yoga
There is no doubt that yoga can be demanding on your knees. But done mindfully, asana practice can help prevent injuries, slow the progression of some diseases and help alleviate joint stress and pain. Here are some tips to keep your knees safe during a yoga practice.
- Build proper alignment starting at your feet. Spread your toes and feel grounded throughout the entire base of your foot.
- Don’t hyperextend your knee. Have the intention of keeping a microbend in the knee.
- Keep your knee aligned with your hip socket and front toe in standing postures where your front knee is bent (e.g., Warriors)
- Pay attention to signals from your knee joints and back out immediately if something is painful.
- Practice balancing postures to build strength and train alignment.
- Use props with wild abandon – e.g., a block or three to elevate hips in hero pose.
Have you experienced any knee or joint issues? If yes, has yoga been a helpful tool? Let me know. I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions.
Until next week!