Going weak in the knees before a first date is a good thing. Going weak in the knees mid-run or during a sweaty yoga class? Not so much. Sadly, most of us deal with the second type more often: knee pain.
In 2011, researchers noticed that chronic knee pain was on the rise in America. Over the course of two decades, they saw a marked increase in the number of knee replacements and people with knee pain, due at least in part to osteoporosis and obesity.
Strangely enough, the issue usually isn’t with the knee itself. Because it’s a joint, it’s affected by the muscles surrounding it, including 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.
Other typical culprits of knee pain include injury to a ligament (like a torn ACL), weak quads or hamstrings, or a chronic condition like tendinitis.
Or blame your job: Sitting at a desk all day can create imbalances in the body by weakening the buttocks muscles, Miller says. See a doctor or physical therapist to find out what’s causing your particular pain.
On the bright side, there are several specific yoga poses that can help provide relief, as we’ll explore below. Studies shows that people with knee pain can get some much-needed relief by practicing yoga a few times a week.
In 2013, for example, researchers worked with 30 women who had knee osteoarthritis. Half were assigned to an 8-week yoga program. By the end of the study, their pain and symptoms had decreased more than those of the control group, and they had a better overall quality of life.
Other recent studies have shown similar results, placing yoga among the best natural knee pain relief methods, alongside tai chi and massage therapy.
While this is great news, research also shows that certain yoga poses (especially single-leg balances) can be stressful on the knees, while squatting and lunging postures can improve leg strength and minimize knee adduction.
For anyone with knee pain, it’s important to practice with awareness and stabilize the knees by actively contracting the muscles around them, Miller says. It’s also a good idea to find an experienced teacher you trust and let them guide you.
If you’re in a yoga studio, be sure to let your teacher know about any injuries or concerns before class starts, says Steven Cheng, a certified yoga instructor.
And 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.
1. Chair Pose
Stand with feet and legs together and chest lifted. Sit back and down (as if you’re sitting in a chair). Beginners may find more support and stability with feet hip-width apart. Keep weight in heels and raise arms overhead.
“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.”
2. Peaceful Warrior Pose
Step right foot forward with toes pointing straight. Turn left toes 45 degrees to the side and extend arms out with palms facing up. Bend right knee at a 90-degree angle, keeping it in line with ankle.
Place back of left hand on left leg and arch back, reaching right arm overhead and toward back wall, gazing toward ceiling.
This pose activates and strengthens the glutes, quads, and hamstrings — all muscles that help keep the knee in good shape, Miller says.
3. Bridge Pose
Lie faceup with knees bent, feet on the floor shoulder-width apart, and arms down at your sides. Engage glutes and push through heels to lift your body off the floor, so you’re resting on just your shoulders.
“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.”
4. High Lunge Pose
Start standing at the front of the mat. Step left foot back into a deep lunge, bending right leg to about 90 degrees. Raise arms straight up and look forward. If your hamstrings are tight, micro-bend your back leg; this is also less taxing on the knees.
“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.”
1. Camel Pose
Kneel on the mat with knees shoulder-width apart. Reach back and place hands on bottoms of feet. Arch into a backbend and let head fall back, gazing at the wall behind you.
“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.
How to fix it
Kneel on a rolled-up mat or blanket.
2. Hero Pose
Kneel on the mat. Take knees out wide, pushing feet out to the sides, and sit between heels, leaning back as far as possible.
“This is a very extreme position for the knees, as it stretches the medial collateral ligaments, or MCL,” says Miller.
How to fix it
Sit on a yoga block or place a mat or blanket above your calves.
3. Twisted (or Revolved) Triangle Pose
Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart, left toes pointing forward, right toes turned out 45 degrees. Reach left arm down and place it on the floor outside right foot. Twist torso and reach right arm up toward the sky.
“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 shear forces on the knee.”
How to fix it
Place back foot parallel to front foot.
4. Lotus Pose
Sit on the floor with legs straight out in front of you. Bend knees and place feet on opposite thighs with bottoms of feet pointing upward.
“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.”
How to fix it
Simply sit cross-legged instead.
5. Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose
Start standing. Lift right leg and bend knee in toward chest. Grab hold of right big toe with right hand. Slowly extend right leg straight and then out to the side, still holding onto big toe.
“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. In general, it’s unwise to lock the knees in any pose unless told otherwise.
How to fix it
Micro-bend your knees on both legs.