Lotus pose causes more injuries in yoga asana than any other posture. Understanding the way your knees are designed to function can help you to come into this pose more safely or decide if lotus is suitable for your unique body.
Last post we investigated how bending the knees unlinks the myofascia along the back of the legs, relieving tension felt in the hamstrings and allowing for more forward folding from the hips. Bending the knees doesn’t just have implications for forward folds however, it also allows for rotation at the knee joint as well!
Feeling Your Knee Rotation
Let’s start by feeling this in your own body. Begin by sitting down for support. Pick your favorite leg and extend it out in front of you as straight as you can. Flex your foot to bring your toes back towards you. (This will engage the muscles and myofascia along the back of the leg, especially your hamstrings and calves, creating a grip between the connective tissues of your lower and upper leg.) Slowly rotate your foot side to side a few times. Notice that the rotation occurs from your hip and your knee is locked in place.i
It seems like the knee cannot rotate at all, but let’s pump the brakes on that thought and see what happens when we bend our knees (unlocking that myofascial grip between the upper and lower leg).
Extend your leg in front of you, this time bending the knee about 90°. Use your hands to keep your thigh stable and keep your toes flexed towards you. Repeat the same motion of rotating your foot from side to side. Notice how the rotation now comes from the knee instead of the hip.
The average range of motion in the knee is ~10°-25° of internal rotation and ~30°- 40° of external rotation while the knee is flexed.
So our knees allow for some rotation when they’re bent, but how does this impact our yoga practice? Probably a lot more than you think!
Lotus Pose and Your Knees
One of the most iconic images of asana is a yogi serenely meditating in lotus pose. This is not currently a reality for many of us (probably most of us) and will never be a possibility for many people no matter how often they practice yoga. To sit in lotus we must have sufficient external rotation from our hips and then rotate from our knees to bring our feet up onto opposite thighs. The majority of this rotation comes from our hips, where the ball and socket joint allows for maximum rotational movement. The limited rotational movement from the hinge joint in our knees complements this movement.
We need to be mindful in our practice that rotation of the knee complements rotation from the hip and is not the main initiator of rotation. If your hips are not open enough to come into lotus or half lotus (due to either tension or compression), yanking on your foot to place it on your thigh requires a lot of rotation in the knee, which oftentimes is not available. Don’t let your extremity (in this case the knee) try to take up the slack for what something closer to your torso cannot provide (rotation at the hip). This places a lot of stress upon your knee and greatly increases your risk for injury. Instead, place your focus on opening your hips over time so they can rotate more and you can safely attempt to come into the pose.
This video by Leslie Kaminoff demonstrates the point where our knees become vulnerable.
For many of us we will reach compression well before our knees approach the ground in poses like butterfly and lotus. This natural shape of our bodies is something we cannot change and we will never be able to come into lotus safely. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! It’s something we may have to accept, releasing the attachment of coming into a pose that does not fit our unique body design. I personally usually only come into the half lotus variation because my hips don’t open enough for full lotus to be comfortable without a lot of sensation in my knees.
Applying This Concept To Pigeon Pose
This concept also comes into play in pigeon pose. We usually hear that the full pose involves our front shin being parallel to the front of our mats or as far away from our hips as possible. Having the foot further away certainly increases the intensity of the pose by increasing the amount of external rotation required. But this may cause a significant amount of strain in the knee.
Bending the front knee more to bring the heel closer towards your bum is a modification to take stress off your knees. It is a modification that I most certainly find necessary as my heel is usually closer to my bum than the front of my mat, requiring less rotation and thus protecting my knee. I still feel plenty of stretch in the areas the pose targets (around my hips) without putting my knee in a vulnerable position.
Understanding the intelligent design of your knee can help you to protect yourself. You don’t need to do every asana, but you do need to take care of your knees! It’s easy to become attached to aesthetics in yoga and forget to honor the current limitations of our bodies.
Around the world people kneel to pray, to connect to a higher consciousness. We can connect to our consciousness regardless of our body position, but it’s much easier if our knees aren’t protesting and we show our bodies compassion!
i: When fully extending or flexing the knee there is actually a small degree of rotation (~10°) at the knee referred to as the ‘screw home’ rotation.
The image at the top of this post is of Paige Bradley’s statue Expansion and the image is from Wikipedia.