Fresh Take Friday: What about the knee?

Take a look at the picture below. How many folks are worried about her front knee?

Photo by cottonbro on

If you’ve taken a yoga class before, you’ve probably heard the cardinal rule: Don’t let your knee go past your ankle. When I did teacher training, that’s one of the things we were taught to cue for and correct in poses such as Virabhadrasana 1 and 2 (Warrior 1 and 2), and I’ve heard many teachers repeat this cue over my years of taking yoga classes.

But why?

Is the knee a terribly fragile joint that’s just a Warrior Pose away from disaster? And if so, how did humans survive this long?

Don’t fear your knees.

Yes, knees can get injured, especially during high speed/ high impact activities or from chronic stress. I personally have had chronic use knee injuries from marathon training, and I know people who have sustained acute injuries playing sports like basketball and soccer.

Yes, folks with a history of pain, injury, or limitation in ANY part of the body should take that under advisement when doing a movement practice. (Check with your doctors and/ or PTs about your unique situation if this applies to you.)

AND our knees are more robust than we might sometimes be lead to believe, especially when we progressively train our body for the movements we are doing. (Ever gotten injured when you try something strenuous that you’ve never done before? It does help to build capacity gradually for those high-speed/ high-load activities.) Our knees are designed to allow us to run, climb, jump, climb stairs, and do all kinds of other things that put way more force into the knee joint than a static standing pose (or even a flowing practice) can do. If you have healthy knees, even if you are relatively sedentary, it’s probably safe to let the knee come in front of the ankle in your yoga practice, especially if you apply some principles of mindful movement in the process.

Knees in front of ankles

Here is a situation when our knees might go past our ankles in daily life. This also happens during activities like landing a jump. Note that these movements load the knee more than a static standing pose. (OK, a lot of us don’t jump in daily life, but nevertheless. Yes, I am growing weeds and broken toys in those pots. 😂)

And here are some situations where we typically “allow” the knee to go past our ankle in our postural yoga (asana) practice – even in classes where we are cueing NOT to allow this in a pose like Virabhadrasana (Warrior) 2.

We get better at what we practice.

We get stronger at the things we do more often, especially when we gradually increase the difficulty in ways that work with our bodies’ natural mechanisms for adaptation. If you have healthy knees, it might make sense to get stronger in a variety of different positions, and not just knee over ankle. This could increase the movement options available to you, and that’s always a good thing.

Notice that when we change the angle of the knee, we also change the angle of the ankle joint, so we’re adding variety to how that joint is moving and adapting also.

Mindful movement

If you try the lunges below, pay attention to how you feel as you’re moving. If you notice any discomfort, uneasiness, breath holding, or strain, stop or back off until that goes away and consider getting professional assistance. Move slowly and only go so far as you’re in control of the movement and able to easily come out. Figure out what positions are easier/ more stable for you and gradually progress into the ones that are challenging. Hold onto stuff for balance if that helps you practice with control.

Most importantly, if you have a history of injury, pain, or other knee or ankle issues, consult a doctor or physical therapist before doing this or any other movement practice.

Yoga Heresy: There’s more than one lunge.

I’m using a lunge here because it’s a little simpler and you can vary it by having the back knee up or down, but you could equally take this type of work into a variety of other standing poses.

  1. Have the feet in line with the hips, and the knee directly over the ankle. To increase the load, tuck the back toes under and lift the back knee.
  2. Take the foot out in front more and the knee behind the ankle. Notice how this affects your balance and stability. Back knee up or down.
  3. Take the knee past the ankle towards the second toe. Add load by tucking the back toes under and lifting the back knee. You can take any number of variations between these positions.
  4. Play around with taking the front leg wider or narrower. Play with changing the position of the foot (by changing the position of the leg bone in the hip socket), maybe rotating the toes in or out. You can also change things up by placing the front foot higher on a block or chair or whatever you’ve got. So many options!

Don’t forget to do both sides! You may find they feel different, which is normal. Work where it feels good on each leg, and don’t worry too much about making them exactly the same. Asymmetry is part of our nature, and as we work towards balance, that means working with our asymmetry and not against it.

Here’s a bonus video of me working on a flow with several lunge variations. Yes, this video is sped up several times! Move slowly, with your breath, noticing how you feel.

The information, instruction, and advice contained in this video and post are in no way intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Consult your doctor before beginning this or any exercise program.

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