A friend of mine recently wrote about experiencing knee pain in his yoga classes, which got me thinking. As a guide and resident healer at Strala Yoga in New York, I frequently see two big contributing factors to injury and pain. One is an unending march toward getting more and more "open." The other is sinking deep into nicely aligned poses, like warrior II, and then moving while the joint is under this unusual stress. The following are a few tips to stay safe and get more out of your yoga.
Please note that if you're injured or experiencing pain, check with your doctor.
1. Be careful when you go deep.
A good example here involves pushing further into hip openers, like ankle-to-knee and pigeon, or spending time in knee-stretching poses, like reclining goddess.
This kind of pushing frequently leads people to destabilize their knees by stretching the supporting ligaments. You don't want to stretch knees! Knees like to remain stable. Your hip is a very deep joint with a strong supporting structure. By contrast, your knee is a very mobile joint that is more vulnerable to injury. When people push into hip openers over a long period of time, this can create a conflict between your hip and knee joint. In this conflict, your knee loses!
Another (painfully) common example is hamstring injuries. Whenever you go to war with some part of your body — using force against resistance, the strength of one muscle to stretch another — some part of you is going to lose. You're at war with yourself! Hamstrings get substantially weakened through this kind of repeat stress, and eventually strain or sprain.
Why do so many longtime yoga practitioners end up here? It has something to do with addiction. Think back to the first few months you did yoga. Every little hip, shoulder, or hamstring opener was likely at once intensely painful and pleasurable! Over time, though, our bodies got a little more open and mobile. So to get that same feeling again, we had to go further. We pushed our bodies to be hyper-mobile in our knees, hips, shoulders, and spines, just to get that feeling again. The feeling became an unhealthy addiction.
How to fix it: Change your goal. Your yoga doesn't need to be a linear progression to more and more open, more and more flexible. A healthy body maintains a nice balance between strength and flexibility, stability and mobility. Rather than linear, pose-oriented (or Instagram-oriented!) goals, turn your focus to feeling, and feeling good. Get into your body with your breath, and move easily in every direction you can — not just toward poses, but all around them.
2. Don't move while under unusual strain.
There's a great deal of focus on alignment in yoga, as a way of keeping your body safe. Of course, there's no single alignment that applies across every body. Each of our bodies is different. We have different histories, imbalances, and lives that make us wonderfully unique. Alignment is something that arises through feeling, in each one of us, from the inside out. We remain safe, and build inspiringly capable bodies, by softening, feeling, and moving with how we feel.
All this said, let's take a "perfectly" aligned warrior II as an example. Sink deep into it, front knee nicely lined up over the ankle, front thigh parallel to the ground, back foot well-angled and grounded, and about as far back as it will go. If everything is lined up just right for your body, this position might give you a good workout plus some nice mental challenge, and be fairly safe for you. Until you try to move it.
When your knees are heavily loaded in this kind of unusual position, safe movement becomes tricky. To be safe, your movement needs to be easygoing rather than sudden, and keep increased stress out of your joints while they move. If you take athletic movement outside of the yoga world as an example, you would generally avoid squatting into a deeply challenged knee bend, and then suddenly lunging toward the goal. You'd begin your movement from a more natural position, from which you're more movable, and less likely to hurt yourself.
You can make the poses a whole lot less awkward and tense by staying where your body is still easily movable. Avoid going so deep that you're immovable and then trying to move!
How to fix it: Try remaining soft in your joints rather than locked straight, and lead your movement from your belly and hips. If you're relaxed enough in the rest of your body, you can lead from your middle, and the rest of you will go along for the ride! You'll move more easily this way, be faster and more agile, and increase your endurance while working less hard. You also won't get hurt.
So my advice in general: If you're experiencing pain, back off on pushing into poses, or moving while under a lot of strain. Stay relaxed enough that you can move your whole body easily just by moving from your belly. You don't need to work so hard to do hard things.