Aligning the knees is an important step in bringing many yoga poses into balanced alignment. Moreover, proper placement of the knees is important to protect these rather delicate weight-bearing joints. Tightness in the hips limits the range of motion of the legs which makes many yoga poses challenging (think lotus pose). Since the hip joint is a stronger, better-protected joint than the knee, in poses where hip flexibility is insufficient, the knees will be compelled to provide the desired range of motion that the stronger hip joints are denying, causing the knee to move in ways in which it was not designed to move, and potentially damaging the knee.

The good news is that when the knee moves in ways it isn’t designed to, it tends to complain appropriately. In other words, pain sensations in the knee are generally an accurate indication of actual problems, which is not true in all parts of the body. (For example, partially tearing an upper hamstring tendon attachment does not usually trigger pain sensations at the time that the damage is occurring, which is one reason why that is such a common yoga injury, and why it is so easy to re-injure). So, never suffer through knee pain quietly, hoping it will go away eventually. It won’t, and while your knees are in pain, not only are you risking knee injury (primarily to the menisci), you are also not getting an effective hip opening, as the stretching force is being concentrated in the knees instead of the hips. If you experience knee pain in a yoga pose, find a way to make it go away without losing the essential hip stretch of the pose.

In order to protect the knees we will focus this week on knee alignment and on opening the hips to reduce the strain on the knees, and on engaging the leg muscles and aligning the ankle joints to provide even compressive force across the knee joints to keep the knee joints integrated, and safe. We will also learn exercises that strengthen the muscles articulating the knee joint to keep the knees healthy long-term.

Try it now: Lying on the floor, bend the left knee 90 degrees, keeping the foot on the floor, and then place the base of the shin of the right leg across the left thigh near the knee. Did you really do that, or did you place the outside edge of the right foot on the left thigh, because you unconsciously know that you can rotate your right knee farther away that way?

It’s true, you can rotate your knee farther away that way. Does that magically make your hip more open? No; instead you have discovered a way to avoid stretching the hip, so this adjustment is completely counterproductive, because it reduces the hip stretch. At the same time, your knee is more compromised in that position, so you also face a greater risk of knee injury.

So, slide the right foot all the way across the left thigh and flex your right toes towards the knee to keep the right knee safe. Then, with each exhale, rotate the right knee away from the chest, and with each inhale, find softness and spaciousness in the pose while checking the right ankle alignment. After 10 breaths or so, switch sides and repeat.