Yoga for Knees, Part 2: Tips and Transitions
Did you check out my therapeutic yoga practice for knees? That’s all well and good, you might say, but what happens when you’re up and about or trying to get through a vinyasa class? I have a few pointers for you.
Solid foundation. I’ll go into this more in a future post, because, frankly, I’m kind of obsessed with feet, and that’s probably going to be even more so the case as I rehab my ankle. Make sure your feet are solidly connected to the ground. I recommend trying to lift and spread the toes in pretty much every standing pose. You don’t have to be an obsessive maniac like I am about it, but this simple action lifts the arches of the feet and wakes up the muscles all the way up the legs, which will in turn give you greater control over what your knee joint is doing.
Tracking. In many yoga poses, we want to keep the kneecap tracking in line with the ankle and hip, because this is a stable position. If you browse through some photos of more complex asanas, you'll see this is not always the case. However, as a general rule, we try to avoid allowing the knee to go past the toes in a lunge position because of risk of strain to the knee. Knee over ankle is a cue you might hear, though it's important to note that this does not apply only apply to front to back, but also side-to-side. In Warrior II for example, try to keep the knee over the second toe, rather than allowing it to roll in towards the big toe or out by the little one.
The block trick. In tadasana, put a block between your thighs. Bend your knees slightly and lift and spread your toes. Now squeeze your thighs in and back like you're a human pez dispenser, trying to shoot the block out behind you. Doing this will probably make you stick your butt out, so pull your low belly in and up to drop your tailbone and bring your pelvis back to neutral. Keep all that squeezy action in your legs and come into a standing forward fold. Cora Wen explains this in more detail. For an extra challenge, keep squeezing the block between your legs as you go through sun salutation A and utkatasana a few times. You'll have to do a weird penguin waddle to and from plank, but it's fun!
Warrior I. This cue I hear a lot and it is a huge pet peeve: Square the hips forward. No no no! This might be OK for some bodies, but if your heel is down, your hips will naturally open slightly to the side, so then what? Insisting upon bringing the open hip forward, the torque is transferred to the knee which is not designed to twist when it is straight like that. Instead, keep pressing the back foot down, let the hips be open slightly, pull the low belly in and up to stabilize the low back, and spiral the shoulders forward for a nice little twist in the upper spine. Want hips forward? Take the back heel up so you can pivot freely.
Warrior I to Warrior II. You'll see this transition quite often in vinyasa classes, and I use it myself sometimes, but it can be awkward and risky to knees and SI joints because you're pivoting from a slightly open hip (relative to the front of your mat) to a fully open hip (now facing the side of your mat), making it easy to twist the knee or SI joint. A safer way might be pivoting on the ball of the foot, or setting up for warrior II from a wide leg stance. That's not as fun, though, is it? Ah, well. Just be careful.
Straight-ish leg poses. I like to come into Triangle from the bottom up rather from the top down. From side angle, place your hand on a block or the floor where you usually like it for Triangle. Make sure you are in a nice tidy lateral bend, with top hip and top shoulder rolling open towards the sky. Then, start to press your front leg straight, keeping the alignment in your spine. You might not be able to get your leg all the way straight, but that’s OK. You might notice by going slowly and not locking out your leg right away, you can improve the stretch on that hamstring and inner thigh.
Sequencing. It's totally OK, even beneficial, to challenge your knees by flexing them deeply in supta virasana or similar poses so long as it is not painful. However, it's best to do these poses towards the end of your practice, especially if you are doing yin style long holds. Follow up by doing some non-weight bearing action to gently mobilize the joint again. If you try to go into some standing or balance pose, you are at risk of injury because the joint is temporarily weakened from the intense stretching.
Here’s an idea for a sequence to practice stabilizing the knees, followed by a few poses to stretch around the legs and hips:
Yoga for Knees Vinyasa Sequence
1/2 Salutes, Sun As
Block trick with Sun As, Utkatasana
Sun Bs hips open in Warrior I
Sun Bs with balanced lunge (heel up, arms up)
Side Angle to Triangle (keep knee a bit bent in Triangle)
Garudasana/Eagle (keep standing knee bent)
Supta Hasta Padangustasana/Hand to Big Toe