Bend and Breathe: Five Yoga Poses your Knees Will Love
Your knees probably don’t get much attention—until you strain or injure them. Then, nearly every move you make reminds you how critical this joint is. Lots of things you do in your regular life ask quite a bit of the complex structure of bones, muscles and tendons that make up your patella region. Whether it’s hours locked in position driving or pounding the pavement in worn-out sneakers, your knees aren’t always shown much love.
They’re located at a biological crossroads. Most of your body’s largest muscle groups are attached to the ligaments and tendons of the knee. Tight or weak quadriceps,
hamstrings or the IT band can “pull” your knees out of alignment, destabilizing the joint and risking injury. The major bones of your upper and lower legs also converge in the knees, cushioned by the crescent-shaped meniscus.
Like most of the parts of the beautiful construct that is your body, the knees are crafted to withstand quite a bit. The way in which all of the muscular systems come together brings inherent strength to this joint. And, one of the best tools for your patellae is rolled up right next to you. Yoga can be a key piece of the puzzle to keep your knees healthy.
Yoga’s emphasis on developing and stretching the small stabilizer muscles around the knee helps prevent injury and pain. But, you have to show discernment. If you’re already injured, Virasana (Hero Pose) may only exacerbate the problem until the injury is healed fully. The key lies in listening to your body’s cues as to when to back off of a pose.
Working “correctly” in your practice starts with finding your alignment throughout the body. It’s often helpful to start a knee-friendly practice in a simple, symmetrical pose like Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
Make sure all four corners of your feet are pressing equally into your mat.
Then run a mental scan to check the rest of your body—your legs should be engaged but not “gripped” and you should feel the muscles through your back and abdominals lifting to help you hold your position. Notice how your knees feel no pressure. Try to keep that feeling as you progress through the practice, especially in bent-knee poses like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), twists and some seated stretches.
Here are some yoga poses to ease your knees:
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) Benefits: This pose strengthens your quadriceps muscle, which helps stabilize your knee. How to do it: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Step your feet three or four feet apart. Turn your right leg out and your left leg in slightly. Lift your arms toward the ceiling. Bend your right knee, making sure that it never goes past your ankle and doesn’t skew in or out. Look at your fingers. Remain in the pose for 30 seconds to one minute, then repeat on the other side.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose) Benefits: This pose strengthens your hamstrings, a key support structure for your knees. How to do it: Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Bring your arms up straight, palms facing inward. Bend your knees as close to parallel to the floor as possible. Stay in the pose 30 seconds to one minute.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)—Variation Benefits: This variation deepens the stretch in your quadriceps, preventing them from tugging at the kneecap. How to do it: Begin in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Step your right foot forward on an exhale and place it between your hands. With your right knee bent and aligned over your ankle, lower your left knee to the floor, staying slightly forward of the kneecap. Place your left hand on the floor, bend your left knee to raise your left foot off the ground and reach back for your left foot with your right hand or a strap. Gently pull your foot in toward your buttocks. Remain in this pose for a few breaths, then release and repeat on the other side.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) Benefits: This pose gently stretches the hamstrings, which balances the pressure on your knees. How to do it: Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Lift your knees slightly and place a blanket under your knees. Grasping the outer edge of your feet or a hold a strap between your hands (about shoulders’ width apart), fold forward from your hips, letting your knees sink into the blanket. Focus on keeping your shoulders from rounding. Stay in the pose for one to three minutes, then release.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose) Benefits: Balancing turned in helps you find a stable alignment of your knee joint. How to do it: Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Fold forward. Bring your left leg back into a lunge. With your torso laid on your right thigh, extend your arms forward. Lengthen your left leg off the floor as your straighten your right knee. Focus on keeping a long line from your head to your left foot. If you’re new to this pose, keep your fingertips on the floor or blocks on either side of your right foot. Remain in the pose for 30 seconds to one minute, then release and switch sides.
As you do these poses, there are a few things to keep in mind. Never hyperextend (lock) your knee joints. Even when your knees are straight, they should never fall behind your ankles. Also, make sure that you aren’t using your knees to compensate for tight or weak hips and ankles in poses that demand flexibility.
Talk with your yoga teacher about any specific problems. Instructors and your fellow students may have helpful tips on which mats are the most knee-friendly, how to layer mats and blankets to make a practice more comfortable for your knees and how and when to use blocks to enter more deeply into some poses. Give some thought to your shoes, whether that means regularly replacing your running shoes or finding an all-day shoe with the ergonomic design for you body. Take the time to warm up your body, including your knees, before you start your practice. Then, look forward to bending and breathing deeply.
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