Debunking the Myth: Your Knee should never go forward beyond the ankle!
True or False?
I have been to many classes during my early years of yoga practice and often heard teachers saying that placing the knee in front of the ankle in poses like chair pose, warrior 2 pose is very detrimental for the knee. Do you believe that? Have you ever questioned if that is true?
Let us look into the anatomical elements of the knee before we go into answering that.
Knee joint anatomy
Your knees are made up of the thigh bone (femur) at the top of the joint and 2 lower leg bones (tibula and fibula) at the lower part of the joint. Four bands of tough and flexible, stretchy tissue connects the femur to the tibia and help hold the knee bones together to create a moveable, hinge-like structure that rotates as it bends. Yes! Other than the ability to bend, the knee also rotates!
The knee has 2 main tendons— the quadriceps tendon, which connects the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh to the knee cap (patella), and the patellar tendon, that connects the patella to the tibia. Both the quadriceps and patellar tendons enable you to straighten and extend your leg. The hamstrings muscles at the back top of the leg also help stabilize the knee joint.
Your knee also includes the meniscus and cushions the joint. Therefore, the ligaments, tendons, and muscles support and stabilise the knee joint. Remember that weakness in any of them increases the likelihood of an injury to the joint.
When is the knee joint vulnerable?
BKS Iyengar in Utkatasana
When you are bending the knee straight forward and backward, you want your weight to be loading through the center of the knee joint and the center of the ankle joint below. Think of a center line of action as you bend your knee. Then, you can flex and extend the knee through the range of motion which your muscles will allow safely. This is actually a normal day-to-day movement. Just notice how your knee goes beyond your ankle and maybe toes when you climb the stairs for instance.
Bear in mind, the knee is most vulnerable when it’s in a flexed position, when it can also rotate, both internally and externally. And when the knee is rotated past the limit where the muscles and ligaments can no longer stabilise the knee joint, that’s when the knee is most prone to injury.
BKS Iyengar in Pavritta Parsvakonasana
Think about poses when one leg is bent in front, such as your side angle pose or warrior 2 pose. Normally, we notice our front knee will want to “cave/collapse inwards”. This internal rotation potentially exerts more pressure on the inside of the knee than our stabilisers (ligaments and muscles) can resist.
Our ligaments hold and stops the knee from going too far in any direction. And repeated postures that add stress to the inside or outside of the knee joint over time, is definitely disconcerting.
Why does my knee hurt then? And what should I do?
Sometimes the quad strength on the inside and the outside is unbalanced and this causes changes in position of the knee cap when you try to flex it to 90 degrees and increases stress on the inside or outside of the knee joint. This translates to inability of the knee to flex/bend and causes discomfort when you push through that limit.
Therefore if there is pain in your knee when you are doing side angle pose or warrior 2 pose, do take the pose a notch down. Allow your quadriceps to gain more strength and flexibility over time, and maybe the poses will feel better overtime.
It is precisely because yoga is so entrenched in traditional beliefs, a lot of teachers including myself are afraid to break ‘alignment’ rules. So the next time you practise your poses, start to consider why we follow certain cues. And what is the residual effect when we change or variate them in a different way.