One of the most common poses done in yoga is a seated forward bend called Ujjayi Pranayama. The pose is done lying down with the legs straight, feet together and very close to the chest. The trunk is folded over the knees, and the arms are placed directly underneath the shoulders. This spinal twist is used to create back bending poses, like bow and windmill, without putting strain on the neck.
As you go into each pose your body is in one way or another trying to adjust, what happens when you lock your knees in a pose may not be what your body needs this time.
I’m sure you’ve heard that yoga is great for your knees, but have you ever heard that it might be bad for yoga? Well, I’ll take that question and answer it right here. First and foremost, I have no idea what you mean by “bad for yoga”, and consequently, I can’t even begin to speculate as to what kind of terrible, horrible, awful (for everyone except for you) thing will happen to you if you do X, when you do Y. So, I’m not going to answer your question. I’m just going to say this: “I don’t know.” If you’ve ever been in a choir, did you have a teacher who said: Don’t cover your knees, you might faint!? I never knew what locked knees were until I started doing yoga seriously, and it turns out our choir teachers in high school were right.
If your knees are completely blocked in the joint, i.e. they are extended to their full length, they are blocked. Your knee joint is a lever that can swing 180 degrees, and when fully extended, the joint takes on a special quality.
When you lock the knee joint in a standing position, the ball joints are out of position and usually extend too far back. In the long run, this can damage joint cartilage and lead to painful, cracking or even arthritic knees.
But in the immediate present, e.g., when practicing yoga, there are very compelling additional reasons to avoid locking the knees.
Why you shouldn’t lock your knees in yoga postures
If our knees are locked, they have no strength. Think of your body as a coiled spring – when we are at rest and relaxed, none of our joints are blocked, we can bend in any direction like a relaxed spring. When our joints are blocked, our body becomes a compressed spring – stiff and battered, with much less range of motion.
In particular, blocking the knee joint makes it difficult to give the body the support it needs, especially in standing positions. Blocked knees immobilize the entire leg and often bend the pelvis so it tilts forward. This can cause the spine to lose its relaxed and controlled alignment and move into a more rigid position.
Sometimes the knees can be so locked that the joint prevents blood from flowing through the veins. This makes it difficult for blood to flow from the lower body to the heart, which can make some people dizzy or even faint.
All of these physiological changes mean not only that your body is at greater risk of injury, but also that it is much less able to do the things we want to do in yoga postures, such as… B…. Balance and stretch.
How to avoid knee lock?
So how do you avoid these pitfalls? Let’s look at some tips:
The first and perhaps most important advice I can give is to just pay close attention to every part of your body. We do it with the breath. Let your inhales and exhales bring your attention inward, to your body, to what it feels and does.
Stay with that breath and let it be the focus of your exercise, especially when doing postures where your knees are held in a 180 degree position. This will help you stay grounded in your body while letting it fade into the background so you can focus your attention on other details.
Start in mountain position
Start the mindfulness with a slight mountain pose and try to give your knees what I call a microflexion. The knees are not fully bent, but relaxed and with a slight pressure backwards – someone should be able to push you gently and you will not fall because your knees are slightly bent.
Switch on components
One way to keep your knees flexible is to activate parts of your body that we don’t immediately think of when we talk about knees. To focus on this joint, we must first think about our feet.
Bring all toes up and spread them, alternately bringing them to the mat and grasping the mat firmly. Lower your heels and the ball of your foot onto the mat so they rest on the floor. At the same time, feel the arch of the foot being pulled upwards.
Thinking about this has the same effect as turning the hips towards each other – both actions require an active dynamic use of the whole leg, and for this the knees cannot be fixed.
Think about your heart
Draw the navel towards the spine and the pelvic floor towards the ceiling. This will help you align your spine by pulling the top of your head towards the ceiling, making you taller and longer.
At this point you should feel like you are about to take off from the ground – it is similar to preparing for a jump, but without the extreme bending of the knees – it may be barely noticeable, but it is the feeling we have in the body. They are sinuous and full of potential, like a relaxed spring.
Try other poses
Try to expand this awareness by adopting other standing postures. Try the position of the shaft. In this position, try not to put your foot on the opposite knee joint, but on your calves or inner thigh.
Jump up a little, sink down a little, then bring the leg back to the starting position, but keep a slight bend in the knee.
Avoid putting your hand on your leg in the triangle position – this can put pressure on our knee to return to a fixed position.
Instead, use your diaphragm to lift your arm off the ground on the inside of your foot, or try a block. You can find more of these types of adjustments in the article How to avoid blocked knees when standing.
Some yogis intentionally practice with their knees closed – they think it makes them more flexible or the pose more intense. Some Bikram teachers even encourage it! However, scientific literature shows that as a long-term practice, it is not good for joint health.
As always: Do what works best for your body, and try not to go beyond what your body tells you is right. Our bodies usually tell us when something is good for us or when we are going too far – all we have to do is stop and listen.
Locked knees are the bane of many yoga practitioners, but not everyone agrees that they should be avoided at all costs. Then again, some of us have experienced pain and injuries during heated yoga sessions due to locking the knees. The truth is that your body is going to react differently to the same poses, depending on how you execute them. For example, if your body is not used to being locked into poses, you may experience pain. However, you may also experience some benefits if you practice locking your knees, such as improved circulation in the knees as well as a more solid foundation for your poses.