“Be sure to keep your knee aligned with your ankle in Low Lunge.”
How many times have you heard this cue in yoga class? At this point, you might be scared to death at what could happen if you bend your knee too far forward over your ankle. Irreparable, devastating injury? Arrest and detention by the yoga police? Seriously, what gives?
Consider those instances in which we bend our knees beyond our ankles in yoga every time we practice, including Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and Malasana (Garland Pose). We do the same in everyday life whenever when we climb stairs, bend down to pick something up, or sit on the floor. Allowing our knees to bend beyond our ankles and toes is a functional and essential movement that our bodies are meant to do!
The cautionary cue can promote safe alignment and preclude injury. Yet clearly the instruction doesn’t apply to any instance in which the knee is bent in a yoga class. And teaching it in an all-encompassing manner with fear-based language cue can create unnecessary confusion. Using the cue in lunging poses like High Lunge or Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), but then later instructing them to bend their knees deeply for Garland Pose or Side Lunge without a similar warning to protect the knees, could cause confusion, frustation, and anxiety.
What’s often lacking around the use of it is a nuanced understanding of how alignment affects individual poses and the person in it. And this knowledge is essential for both students and teachers because the way we train or use our knees in asana (or other exercise) will ultimately affect how well they function, both on and off the mat. So it’s important to find a good balance between protecting your joints and ligaments while challenging and strengthening your muscles.
Stacking the knee directly above the ankle has benefits. Moving the knee in this way transfers the work to the hip muscles and off-loads pressure on the knee joint, which is especially helpful for anyone who experiences pain during deep knee flexion. For example, if you have knee arthritis, following this alignment can help in poses such as lunges and any of the warrior poses. This is the intention behind the cue and it works well in these instances.
Also, some teachers use the cue to remind students to not allow their knees to collapse inwardly. This misalignment places unnecessary strain on the inner knee ligaments and tendons. This understanding of the cue makes sense from an anatomy perspective, but I suggest using clearer instruction. Instead, try “keep the knee pointing forward in line with toes,” or “knees are pointing towards the front edge of your mat,” which more obviously describes the desired alignment.
Chair Pose keeping knees aligned with ankles(Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chang)
Yet limiting the bend of the knees in certain poses changes them completely. For example, keeping your knees aligned over your ankles in Chair Pose naturally changes the entire shape of the pose, effectively shifting your center of gravity and making it more physically challenging, if not impossible, to lift your chest away from your thighs and extend your arms overhead.
Chair Pose with knees in front of the ankles (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chang)
If your knees aren’t compromised, there’s no need to modify Chair Pose in this way. Quite the opposite! Practicing Chair Pose with your knees bent past the ankles is essential if you want your students to successfully create the intended shape and benefit from the pose’s effects in the physical and the subtle body.
The long-term consequences of limiting your knee movements or being afraid to bend your knees past your ankles are illustrated by Wolff’s Law. In the 19th Century, German anatomist and surgeon, Julius Wolff conceptualized a law of anatomy that states that the way we use (or don’t use) our joints will eventually affect what those joints are able to do. Therefore, the less you practice bending your knees and strengthening them in a variety of positions, the less your knees and related muscles and ligaments will be able to move well in those poses or similar positions off the mat. The truth is our bodies are meant to move in lots of diverse ways!
If you have healthy knees but are overly cautious when using them, your joints and related muscles will eventually lose the capacity to bend deeply when it’s necessary. The reverse is also true: the more you train your knees in a variety of angles and positions, as a varied asana practice does, your knees will become more resilient and function more optimally, on and off the mat. Simply put, “use it or lose it.”
From Adho Mukha Svanasana ( Downward Facing Dog Pose), bring your right foot forward towards your right wrist and place the left knee down onto the mat, resting the top of the left foot or the ball of the left foot on the mat.
Bring your hands beneath your shoulders on the mat or blocks or support your hands on your right thigh. Inhale and lift your chest as you firmly press both feet into the mat to activate your leg muscles.
Observe the position of your front knee. Shift your weight forward onto your front leg, allowing your knee to comfortably bend past your ankle. Notice how some of the work in the hips now is moving into your knee. You may also start to feel your ankle joint working into more dorsiflexion (a good thing for your ankles!). Keep your knee pointing towards the front edge of the mat.
Low Lunge with knee bent in front of the ankle (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chang)
Observe the position of your front knee. Shift your weight forward onto your front leg, allowing your knee to comfortably bend past your ankle. Notice how some of the work in the hips now is moving into your knee. You may also start to feel your ankle joint working into more dorsiflexion (a good thing for your ankles!). Keep your knee pointing towards the front edge of the mat.Low Lunge with knee stacked over ankle (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chang)
If moving the knee past your ankle causes discomfort or pain, keep your knee stacked over your ankle and tracking forward with your toes. Keep your legs actively engaged by pressing down through both feet and drawing your inner thighs toward one another to engage your hip and thigh muscles, not your joints. Pressing hands downward actively on blocks may also help unload some pressure on the front knee as well as encourage your spine to extend and lengthen.
Keep pressing your feet into the mat as you extend your arms overhead, further lengthening and decompressing the spine by lifting out of your hips. Keeping your tailbone relaxed and untucked as low lunge is considered a backbend. Stay here for 3-4 breath cycles. Sense the balance between the stability of the lower body and the lightness of the spine and upper body.