How to keep your knees safe in yoga: A beginner’s guide

The word “yoga” has of late become synonymous with the image of someone peacefully sitting in lotus pose (pictured below). So synonymous, in fact, that it feels like a prerequisite.

What is less known is that this pose is actually quite hard to do as it requires quite a bit of flexibility in the hips, specifically being able to externally rotate both the femurs in the hip socket to a point where the knee becomes in line with (or even beyond) the hips. For many, this pose is physiologically impossible. 

Being unable to do lotus pose is not the problem, nor has it ever been. It doesn’t make you a better person or a better yoga practitioner, and it comes with plenty of modifications to suit a plethora of body types and flexibility levels. 

The problem is that as students we tend to think that we “have to” achieve certain poses in order to be seen as worthy of the practice. Many poses, lotus included, are often described as “advanced” or “deeper” than others, leading one to believe that if they cannot achieve them then they are “less than” or “inadequate”. It takes months, if not years of regular practice to be able to tune in to your body’s needs and tune out the little whispers that say “you should be able to do this”. 

What can often happen, and so often happened to me, is that during those months we can fall prey to the need to push – essentially, we fall prey to our egos telling us we should be better or “this would be a great way to impress the girls on our next night out”. 

When we ignore the signals from our body that we are going too far, we push ourselves ever closer to injury and even farther from the pose and its purpose. 

But what does “going too far” look like in reality?

What you NEED to know about signals from your body before you start

One of my teachers described this as knowing the difference between pain and discomfort. 

When we are practicing asana we are aiming for a balance between steadiness and ease in the pose. One where we are strong but not straining, steady but not rigid. This applies to both the posture AND the breath – the breath is smooth and steady, not irregular and shallow. One of our biggest clues in knowing we have gone too far in a pose is the quality of our breath – we may start to hold it or strain a bit. 

If we ignore that cue, then we may begin to experience pain. Pain will come on quickly. It could be sharp or dull, it could be strong or just a nagging sensation that prompts a few frowns and “hmm, that’s not quite right” thoughts. Pain will take our breath away. That’s when we should back out of the pose. Pain is not gain, and it is not something that we should grimace our way through. Asana practice is a healing modality, so pain is a warning that something’s amiss. 

Discomfort is something we feel frequently – holding a pose (modified if needs be) for longer than we are used to can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system – we want to run away and back out, and some unwanted emotions may surface alongside some negative self-talk. Our muscles may begin to talk to us ever-so-loudly and may even shake a little. But we can maintain composure and keep a steady breath. We don’t want to be in the pose, but we can stay there. 

Feeling a mild sensation in the back of your legs as you fold forward might be discomfort in the hamstrings, especially if you’ve been fairly sedentary for a while, have just woken up, or are in a cooler climate. Feeling a strong, sharp pain in your lower back, back of the knees, or top of the back leg is a sign of going too far and you should back out immediately. 

So, how does this all apply to the knees?

How to keep your knees safe

Knees are important. We use them a considerable amount in our daily lives. They are the largest and most complex joints in the human body. The flip side of that is that they are easily injured. Knee injuries can be incredibly painful and take a long time to heal. 

There are four steps you need to take to ensure that you’re not risking knee injury in your asana practice:

  1. Consult with a doctor before starting any physical practice
  2. Consider if the type of yoga class is right for your knees today
  3. Discern the difference between pain and discomfort as it applies to your knees
  4. Modify the pose to suit your kneeds (sorry, I had to). 

Let’s break that down in a little more detail.

Step One: Consulting a doctor

Find out what you can and shouldn’t do as your body heals

Step 1 is a given. If you are concerned about any part of your body and whether or not yoga will help or hurt, consult a trusted physician first. They will have the physiological and anatomical knowledge to decipher if a particular pose will help or hinder your healing process. 

Once you have the go-ahead, then on to Step 2.

Step Two: Consider the type of class you want to take

Spend some time checking the class contents

Look carefully at the class you wish to take. If you’re taking a YouTube or on-demand class, then you can hop, skip, and jump your way through the video first to gauge what type of poses will be included. Generally speaking, if you have grumpy knees, anything that will include any jumps (they happen occasionally), quick movements, lots of transitions from sitting to standing, or poses that included strong flexion (closing of the knee joint) may require you to really pay attention to the knee and to modify each pose. 

If you’re taking a live or in-person class, reach out to the teacher and let them know your concerns. They may be able to describe what poses you will be doing, and how to modify them. That way, you can come prepared with all the cushions, blocks, books, blankets, and straps that you might need to support the knees.

Step Three: Discern pain from discomfort

Use this knowledge to help you “find your edge”

Knee pain and discomfort can turn up in many variations. Given that the knee is such an important yet sensitive joint, though, my personal general rule of thumb is that if I feel ANY sensation in the knee, I immediately back out and analyse if what i felt was short, sharp and shooting, or just mildly annoying. As someone who once ran a marathon with two over-stretched IT bands, knee pain now signals months of recovery for me. The pose is not worth the pain. No pose is. When you’re attempting seated poses that require flexion of the knee joint, avoid any kind of torquing, pulling, stretching, or uncomfortable compression sensations. Back out of the pose, pat yourself on the back for deepening the connection you’re making between mind and body, continue with the next pose, and commit to having faith that over time one of two things will happen – the pose will either slowly become available to you, or your attachment to achieving the pose will fade.

Step Four: Modify the pose with props or variations

Get friendly with your props

I am notoriously clumsy, always stubbing my toe or banging my knee into the corner of something sharp. Though I know that minimal damage has been done, it can still make practice in certain poses a little uncomfortable but not unbearable. In these circumstances, it is good to know how to modify the pose to create a little more space for comfort. Below are three common yoga poses that can aggravate the knees, and some suggestions to modify them to keep the knees a little happier. 

three women sitting in easy pose or sukhasana

If you are seated in cross-legged “Easy Pose” (sukhasana), then try the following:

  1. Check to see if your knees are in line with or lower than your hip bones.
  2. If your knees are higher than your hip bones, grab a blanket or cushion and a couple of blocks or sturdy books.
  3. Fold the blanket a couple of times, and sit up on the blanket. Notice if your knees have come in line with your hip bones. If so, place one block under each knee for some extra support. If not, come seated on a block instead (at its lowest level), and gauge where your knees are in relation to your hip bones. You may need to cover the block with a blanket if it is a little uncomfortable. If this is a better variation, play around with placing cushions or more blocks under the knees for support.
  4. Play around with the props until you find a position that is stable and comfortable.
Woman in black yoga clothes kneeling down with hands in prayer position

If you are in a kneeling pose like Thunderbolt (vajrasana), or Child’s pose (balasana) then try these steps:

  1. Place a blanket on your mat, going from your knees to the tops of your ankles. This creates some space for your feet reducing the pressure on the tops of the feet and also creates some softness for your shins and knees to press into.
  2. Instead of forcing your hips and bum down onto your feet, place a rolled-up blanket or cushion behind your knees so that your lower thighs rest down on the blanket, creating space between the thighs and calves. 
  3. If you have a bolster or big sturdy cushion, place this between your calves (keeping your knees in line with your hip bones) and sit back, so that your hips and bum are resting on the cushion, not your feet. If you’re coming into Child’s Pose, the descent down to the floor for your head may be quite a long one! In this case place a blanket or cushion or block for your forehead to press into, essentially raising the floor to meet you. 
Woman in black yoga clothes on hands and knees with back arched up and chin tucked into chest

If you are practicing Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana), explore the following modifications:

  1. Place a blanket on your mat so your knees are not pressing into such a hard surface.
  2. Place the blanket just behind your knees, so that your shins and feet are on the blanket but your knees are off the blanket, meaning they are not pressing down into anything. 
  3. Try seated cat-cow instead, but follow the modifications for Easy Pose or Vajrasana above. Seated cat-cow is when you’re sitting up in Easy Pose or Vajrasana and arch the back forwards on the inhale, looking up, and backward on the exhale tucking the chin to the chest. 

Key Takeaways

Like humans in general, knees get grumpier the more they feel ignored. Check with your doctor first before attempting asanas (yoga poses). Decide if the class you are interested in is suitable for you and your knees. Get friendly with props and modify the problem poses to find a sense of steadiness and comfort.

Knee pain is frustrating, and knee injuries can take a while to heal. If, in your practice, you experience any pain that concerns you, back out. Avoid pushing further into a pose and instead get curious about how the pain started, why it’s there, and what makes it feel a bit better. If you decide what you felt was discomfort, consider the emotions and reactions it brought up for you and why. How could you address these next time? 

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Next week we will look at how to modify poses to help our wrists.

Until then, much love,