Yoga is an excellent movement practice to sustain the functional range of your body's joints, particularly the hip. Unlike unidirectional movements such as walking, running, and squatting, yoga takes your hip through its full range of motion, including abduction (taking the legs wide apart), adduction (drawing the legs together), and rotation (internal and external). Yoga “hip openers” are poses that bring the femur (thighbone) toward its end range of motion. For example, agnistambhasana (fire log pose) and padmasana (lotus pose) take the femur into its full range of external rotation. Not only do these types of poses mobilize the joint itself, they also provide a deep stretch for the muscles surrounding the hip joint.
However, mobilizing the hip joint in these poses can have some unintended consequences for the neighbouring joint, the knee. Although you can’t see it from the outside, everyone’s hip joints are shaped differently. If a practitioner has maximized his or her capacity at the hip and tries to take the pose “further,” he or she may try to make up the difference by compromising the alignment of the knee.
However, by following these five simple guidelines, you can confidently reap the therapeutic hip-opening benefits of yoga while safeguarding the vulnerable structures of your knee.
1. Avoid sensation in your knee. When it comes to protecting your knee, it’s truly time to “listen to your body.” Each knee contains two C-shaped cartilaginous discs called the menisci, which help to align the femur on the tibia when the knee is being bent or straightened and aid in shock absorption. Sensation in the inner knee can mean that the medial meniscus is being pinched between the bones of the femur and tibia. If you continue to engage in this dysfunctional movement, the wear on the meniscus will eventually cause it to tear. The meniscus does not heal easily, and a torn meniscus can require surgery. When your knee starts talking, it’s time to back out of what you are doing until you are sensation-free.
2. Honor your own range of motion. Each body is unique, and what is right for you may differ from what works for others. Focus on the actions of the pose rather than trying to make your body look like an idealized picture. For example, most bodies in virabhadrasana II (warrior II) can’t actually turn the hips parallel to the long side of the mat while still keeping the front knee stacked over the front ankle. By focusing on the function of the pose rather than an idealized aesthetic, you will honor your own body’s unique shape and capitalize on your own personal ideal range of motion.
Each body is unique, and what is right for you may differ from what works for others. Focus on the actions of the pose rather than trying to make your body look like an idealized picture.
3. Avoid twisting your knee. The knee is a modified hinge joint that has some capacity to rotate when it is bent. However, the knee is most vulnerable to injury when it is simultaneously bent and twisted. Many hip-opening poses can put your knee into this vulnerable position. When you are practicing bent-knee, hip-opening poses such as eka pada raja kapotasana (pigeon), virasana (hero’s pose), gomukhasana (cow faced pose) or padmasana (lotus), make sure that the rotation for the pose is coming from the hip and not from the knee. By stabilizing the knee and ensuring that the movement originates from the hip joint, you will keep the knee safe as well as focus the stretch more deeply into the muscles of the hip.
4. Avoid pressure on your knee. The knee can be sensitive to pressure. To avoid loading the front of your knee, shift your weight into your heels in bent-knee poses such as utkatasana (chair), virabhadrasana II (warrior II), high lunge, and parsvakonasana (side angle pose). Make sure to stack your knee directly over your ankle rather than allowing it to move forward over the toes in these poses. When you lower your back knee to the ground in poses such as anjanayasana, place your weight above your knee (on the thighbone rather than the patella) or support it with a blanket or a chip foam block.
5. Avoid hyperextension. Hyperextension occurs when the range of motion for a joint goes beyond 180 degrees (or beyond perfectly straight). While there is nothing wrong with having hypermobile joints, this hypermobility can make it easier to succumb to hyperextension, which can have deleterious effects over time. In a hyperextended knee, the leg is straightened so much that the top of the shin bone goes behind the bottom of the thighbone. For students with hypermobile joints, it’s easy to hyperextend the knee in straight-legged poses such as trikonasana (triangle) and parsvottanasana (pyramid). When a student hyperextends her knee, she will disengage the muscles around the joint and instead rely on the ligaments (stabilizing connective tissue) to support the pose. Not only can this position damage the ligaments and the meniscus, it will also cause a dysfunctional muscular chain reaction that overstretches the hamstrings, disengages the quadriceps, and deactivates the muscles of the core. In all straight-legged poses, take care to keep a micro-bend in the knee of your straight leg. Engaging the hamstrings bends the knee; press into the big toe mound of your straight leg to activate the back of your leg (hamstrings) and keep the back of the knee soft. Balance this engagement of the hamstrings with lifting up through the quads to evenly engage the muscles around the knee.
By exploring these guidelines in your yoga practice, you will cultivate a greater awareness of your body’s unique range of motion and keep your joints happy and healthy.