Your knees are one of the most sensitive parts of the body. The patellas, also known as the knee caps, are held together only by a small, quadricep tendon and a patellar ligament, making it easy to move, but also vulnerable to injury.
The base of the knee is also made up of tiny ligaments and tendons that connect the femur (large, thick thigh bone) to the tibia and fibula (the two, long and slim, calf bones).
There are many ways to practice yoga that will help prevent knee pain from occurring. Below are the most popular yoga poses that have a high-risk of knee injuries and tips on how to practice each pose safely.
Yoga Poses with High-Risk for Knee Pain
Start off with half saddle pose, keeping one leg laid out in front of you, while the other is bent back. Also, keep your torso up with hands on the ground, rather than bringing your arms, back and head to the floor. If you think you can handle more of a stretch, then you can bring the forearms to the ground. Lastly, you can bring the back and head to the floor, and have your arms by your sides if your quads are very flexible.
Expert Tip: If the knee of the bent leg hovers above the floor, and you feel a sharp pain in the knee when you actively bring it down to the floor, you have gone too deep in the pose and risk the possibility of tearing a tendon or ligament. In this case, come back to the forearms or hands.
Both of these warrior poses are risky for similar reasons—a common alignment error. The front leg should bend no deeper than a 90 degree angle. If the knee hovers over the foot and you no longer see your big toe, you have gone too far. This hyperflexion risks inflammation to the knee, for there is too much pressure on it at this point. There are many other ways to challenge yourself in Warrior I and Warrior II without over flexing the front leg.
The opposite issue from the warrior poses occurs with Revolved Triangle pose. Yogis tend to hyperextend the front and back leg. You'll even see this on Instagram, but it is not proper alignment. Instead, make sure there is a micro-bend in the front leg. Similar to hyper flexion, hyperextension, or locking the knee, can also cause inflammation.
Part of what makes this pose challenging is the amount of things you have to focus on while in this pose. When you come into a complete Camel pose, make sure that your thighs are vertically aligned with your knees. Often times, as a yogi bend back, they're thighs tend to lean back with them. Instead, once you've bent back as much as comfortable, push your pelvis forward to keep your thighs over your knees. This will not only protect your knees, but also increase the flexibility of your back muscles.
Similar to straddle pose, if your quads are too tight, you can tear a tendon or ligament of the knee. To modify for tight quads, place a yoga block or two under your buttocks and between the feet, to lift your thighs higher and get a quad stretch without injuring yourself. Also, be sure to keep the calves close together.
There are two possible injuries than can occur with Low Lunge pose when done incorrectly. For one, if your bend your front leg more than 90 degrees, just as with Warrior I and Warrior II, you can cause inflammation of the knee. Second, make sure the knee that is resting on the floor is properly cushioned. If your yoga mat is on a hard surface such as wood or concrete, bend the side-edge of the mat inward to add extra cushion for the resting knee. Otherwise, you can develop bursitis over time, which is irritation of the fluid-filled sac called, the bursa (hence, “burs-itis”), that cushions the knee joint.
Helpful Habits to Prevent Knee Pain
1. Make sure your knees are cushioned.
As mentioned earlier, making sure a resting knee is properly cushioned is important if your yoga mat is on a hard surface, in order to prevent long-term inflammation. Fold the side of the mat inward to double-up or purchase a portable, yoga knee pad to place under the knee. You can find these on Amazon for an affordable price.
2. Do not hold your breath at any time.
The breath allows for increased flexibility for the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Holding the breath restricts oxygen from going to the area, and in turn, prevents increased flexibility. Take deep, continuous breaths while holding a pose.
3. Keep a micro-bend in the leg.
Just as discussed above along with Triangle pose, it is proper alignment to keep a micro-bend in the leg, so the knee is not locked. This allows oxygen to flow freely through the whole leg.
4. Learn the difference between sensations.
If you feel good when you are stretching and sense relief after, that is a healthy sensation. However, if you feel aching, pinching, or a sharp pain in your knee, that is your body warning you that it is unsafe. You should then come out of the pose and do a modified version, or try it without going as deep.
5. Be mindful of alignment cues to protect the knees.
Yoga classes can be overwhelming sometimes, especially when it's fast-paced, and the teacher is describing the pose, but isn't showing many of them. Try your best to focus on the alignment cues, especially in regards to the knee. If you are unable to do this, it's best to find a teacher that demonstrates the poses, or to attend a slower pace class until you're more familiar with the poses.
6. Ask the teacher for modifications and cues before class.
When class is in session, the teacher is busy demonstrating poses, explaining them, reminding students to breathe...and also remembering whether they already had everyone do the left side or the right side.
Point being, the teacher doesn't have time to verbalize every modification and adjust every student. Therefore, it's much better to approach the yoga teacher before class if you have knee issues and need modifications, or if you have a question about alignment cues of specific poses. That way, you'll know exactly what to do when the time comes!
How to Apply This Information
The knees are a very useful part of the body, so it's worth studying hard for how to care for them and keep them safe, especially if you have a regular yoga practice. Try practicing the above poses at home with the advice given to put the proper postures into your long-term memory.
Form the habits given today in your home yoga practice and yoga class practice by being mindful of them and doing them daily. The more you apply these tips and tricks, the less you'll have to think about doing it!