Going weak in the knees before a first date is a good thing. Going weak in the knees mid-run? Not so much. Sadly, most of us deal with the second type more often: Knee pain is the number two cause of chronic pain, with more than one third of Americans suffering from it.
Strangely enough, the issue isn't with the knee itself—because it's a joint, it's affected by the muscles surrounding it, like the quads, hamstrings, and calves. “The knee never acts in isolation because of the way the soft structure of the cartilage is designed,” explains Jill Miller, certified yoga instructor and creator of Yoga Tune Up.
Typical culprits of knee pain include injury to a ligament (like a torn ACL), weak quads or hamstrings, or a chronic condition like arthritis. Or blame your job: Sitting at a desk all day can create imbalances in the body by weakening the buttock muscles, Miller says. (See a doctor or physical therapist to find out what's causing your particular pain.)
These imbalances can follow you into the yoga studio. Research shows certain yoga poses (especially single-leg balances) can be stressful on the knee, while squatting and lunging postures can improve leg strength and minimize knee adduction. Identifying yoga-based knee strengthening exercises using the knee adduction moment. Longpré HS, Brenneman EC, Johnson AL. Clinical biomechanics (Bristol, Avon), 2015, Jun.;30(8):1879-1271. For anyone with knee pain, it’s important to practice with awareness and stabilize the knees by actively contracting the muscules around them, Miller says.
That being said, there are several specific poses that can help provide relief—and a few that can be problematic if practiced incorrectly. That's why it's always best to find an experienced teacher you trust and let them guide you. Also be sure to let your teacher know about any injuries or concerns before class, says Steven Cheng, a certified yoga instructor and Greatist expert. Finally, remember: “If a pose doesn’t feel good, causes pain, or gives you a sharp sensation in the patella (kneecap), adjust it or don’t do it,” Miller says.
The pose: Standing with feet and legs together and chest lifted, sit back and down (as if you were sitting in a chair). Keep weight in heels and raise arms up through fingers.
The perk: “Your weight is put into your hip sockets to ensure your knees aren’t inching out in front of your toes,” Miller says. “Plus this move is a whole-body toner, strengthening the hips, thighs, and calves, which makes the knee function better.”
The pose: Step right foot forward with toes pointing straight, left toes turned 90 degrees to the side, arms out and palms facing up. Bend right knee in a lunge. Place back of left hand on left leg and arch back, reaching right arm overhead and toward back wall, gazing toward ceiling.
The perk: This pose activates and strengthens the glutes, quads, and hamstrings—all muscles that help keep the knee in good shape, Miller says.
The pose: Lie faceup. Bend knees and place feet on the ground shoulder-width apart, arms down at your sides. Squeeze glutes and push through heels to lift body off the ground, resting on just shoulders.
The perk: “This is a great glute and hamstring strengthener, plus it works the IT band,” Miller says. “When the IT band is too lax, you’ll end up having knee pain.”
The pose: Standing at the front of the mat, step the left foot back in a deep lunge, bending the right leg to about 90 degrees. Raise arms straight up and look forward. If your hamstrings are tight, micro-bend the back leg—this is also less taxing on the knees.
The perk: "This pose strengthens the glutes, quads, and calves in a stable position," Cheng says. "The balancing aspect further strengthens all these muscle groups that support the knees."
The pose: In a standing position, bend the knees and wrap the right leg over the left, balancing only on the left foot. Wrap thighs tightly on top of each other with no space in between. You can wrap your arms the same way (right over left), or simplify with hands in prayer position. (Note: If thighs cannot make full contact, leaving some space is OK, but make sure the effort is still toward wrapping one thigh over the other. If you have trouble balancing, use a wall or chair to support.)
The perk: "In this pose, both knees are bent, which keeps them safe," Cheng says. At the same time, wrapping the legs works the inner thighs and calves.
The pose: Start with knees on mat, shoulder-width apart. Place hands on bottom of feet. Arch backward and let head fall back, gazing at the wall behind you.
The problem: This puts a lot of direct pressure on the knees which isn’t good for anyone with unstable knees or a history of ligament strain,” Miller explains.
To modify: Kneel on a rolled up mat or blanket.
The pose: Kneel on floor. Open legs wide, pushing feet out to the sides and sit between heels, leaning back as far as possible.
The problem: “This is a very extreme position for the knees as it stretches the medial collateral ligaments, or MCL,” says Miller.
Modify: Sit on a yoga block, or place a mat or towel above calves.
The pose: Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart, left toes pointing forward, right toes turned 90 degrees. Reach left arm down and place it on ground outside of right foot. Twist torso and reach right arm up toward the sky.
The problem: “This pose is a double whammy,” Miller says. “Your front leg is locked out straight and your back hip is turned out, which can put lateral sheer forces on the knee.”
To modify: Place the back foot parallel to front foot.
The pose: Sit on the floor with legs straight out in front of you. Bend knees and place feet on opposite thighs with bottom of feet pointing upward.
The problem: “This pose requires a great range of motion and rotation from hip, knee, and ankle joints from both legs,” says Cheng. “But this pose is particularly difficult on the knees—especially the knee that is on top—and can even be the cause of problems.”
To modify: Simply sit cross-legged instead.
The pose: Standing upright, lift right leg and bend knee in toward chest. Take right hand and grab hold of right big toe. Slowly extend leg straight and then out to the side, still holding onto big toe.
The problem: “In this standing balance pose, it is very common for practitioners to hyperextend the knee on both the standing leg and the extended leg,” Cheng says. (It's unwise to lock the knees in any pose unless told otherwise.)
To modify: Micro-bend the knee on both the standing and extended leg.