You heard that yoga is good for sore knees, so you signed up to a class. And instead of feeling better, it was agony from the first minute! You are worried that you made the wrong decision. Maybe your knees are just to broken for yoga? Maybe you should just give up?
Of course not! You definitely did the right thing.
The issue with painful knees in yoga is this: The knee is a joint, so you can’t directly strengthen them like you can a muscle. We have to work to make the joint more mobile by strengthening the surrounding muscles. This will eventually also support your knees when you use them.
Our knees are positioned in a naturally unstable place. They sit between a wide joint (the hip) and a narrow joint (the ankle), between long stretches of bone. They only hinge in one direction (Forwards) and the structure of our knees relies on the strength of the surrounding soft tissues (Ligaments, tendons and muscles) to keep the patella (Kneecap) in place. Although the muscles supporting the knees are the strongest in the body (All the leg muscles) they also have other jobs to do (Like running, walking, etc), all of which place strain on the knees.
To combat and prevent knee pain, you can work on strengthening the interior thighs to align the patella and strengthen the ligaments using yoga postures like the Warrior Poses and Triangle. But the very first thing you will need to do is to realign all your foundation postures – Standing, sitting, lying down, bending, squatting etc. to teach the weak muscles around the knees how to function, how to get strong and how to be mobile enough to give you the full range of motion.
Sadly, most of us have not looked after our knees well through sitting too much (Weak thigh muscles), exercising out of balance (Quadricep dominance) or simply just having bad posture (Locking knees out). Sometimes, we are simply just stiff! But hypermobile knees (Over extending) can also cause knee issues. And of course, injuries and accidents as well as conditions such as arthritis can cause havoc in all our joints, knees in particular.
The good news is: Yoga is good for knees.
The bad news is: It isn’t going to happen overnight!
These tips may help ease your practice whilst you work through the issues:
- When going into a yoga posture, be mindful. If you feel pain in your knee, don’t try to ride it out. This is your body telling you to back off, and maybe even that a certain pose isn’t for you. If you are unsure, ask the teacher for alternatives.
- It’s good practice to use props, such as a yoga brick, to make the pose accessible. Don’t be shy to use as many as you need! Particularly, Child’s Pose can be uncomfortable due to the acute bend in the knees to being the bottom to the heels. Stack blocks under your bottom until you feel comfortable. Otherwise, come onto your tummy and join back in with the next pose.
- Kneeling poses on all fours or in low lunge can be uncomfortable, especially if there is scar tissue from eg. a knee replacement. Using a folded blanket or squashy block under the knee can help ease the discomfort. Bone loading by placing weight on the knee is actually a good thing, so allow your body to create new synovial fluid and wash out toxins and debris by staying as long as you can. But stop when it gets too uncomfortable. Try again tomorrow!
- All knees are not equal. If you had a knee replacement or surgery, then discover where your new range of motion is, and allow the affected knee to guide the other one. This will level the hips and your will eventually avoid potential backpain. Sitting out poses that feel unsafe to you is fine.
- If sitting cross legged is a challenge, straighten your legs, or support the hips with blocks, cushions or bolsters. Alternating from one side to the other can be helpful too. And don’t worry about achieving Lotus – It is actually a very unhealthy pose for both knees and ankles!
- Scar tissue can be extremely uncomfortable, especially in certain knee replacements where the scar runs across the front of the leg. Placing weight on this can be painful because there isn’t much soft tissue between the skin and bone of the kneecap. As above: Bodyweight will eventually help to soften the scar tissue. So it requires a little bit of bravery, but again: Listen to your body and just stay as long as necessary.
- When practicing standing postures, make sure the knees and ankles are aligned with the hips. Lift your pelvic floor and gently press the heels into the floor, with a micro-bend in the knees to ensure everything tracks in the correct alignment. Knees should also track in line with the second toes, so use the inner thigh muscles to stop them from falling inward.
- Drink lots and lots of water, especially where the condition is arthritic, to keep the joints as lubricated as possible. Adding healthy fats to the diet is also a good thing. And a little bit of massage never goes amiss! Scar tissue benefits from massage to soften it, so don’t be shy to get your hands on your own body.
Overall, yoga is good for knees. Eventually you will start feeling the benefit of the practice so please don’t give up! It’s always worth considering how long it took for the knees to degenerate, and comparing that with the time it takes to remediate. We need healthy knees to maintain our mobility into old age.
It is never too late to start looking after them!