While leading yoga teacher trainings in Goa I sometimes feel like a broken record saying ‘Maintain a microbend in your knees’ or ‘bend your knees as much as necessary’. Yet these cues are always pertinent, especially when we understand how the fascia around the knee functions.
Oftentimes when coming into a forward fold or standing posture we hear the instructions to straighten our legs. While we are working towards straightening the legs as much as possible, it is always legal to maintain as much of a bend in the knee as you feel is necessary. A bend in the knee, whether deep or a microbend, helps to relieve pressure off the knee and diminishes the intensity of the stretch felt in our hamstrings.
Why does this movement have such a profound effect on our level of comfort and how we experience the pose? Let’s examine the myofascia around the knee joint to find out.
Fascia & Where You Feel The Stretch
Examining bending or straightening the knee in yoga demonstrates that the relationship between fascia can depend on the state of posture of the body. When the knee is flexed, the myofascia of the hamstrings attaching to the tibia and fibula (the thigh to the shins) and the myofascia of the gastrocnemius attaching to the femur (the calf to upper leg) operate in their own ways. Once the knee is fully extended, they join forces.
“As the knee joint goes into extension, however, the femoral condyles come back into both these myofascia, tightening the complex, engaging these elements with each other, and making them function together almost as if they were two pairs of hands gripped at the wrists” (Anatomy Trains, 81). When we have a slight bend in our knees it allows more forward bend in the spine and hips by unlocking this ‘grip’. This unlinks the lower part of the fascia line from the upper, making it easier to bend forward with less tension on the back of the legs.
Keeping the knees straight engages the related fascial line as a whole, bringing greater stretch into the hamstrings and possibly limiting the stretch in the spine and hips. This is why a microbend is always optional for any type of forward fold where we stretch the hamstrings. If you want to intensify the hamstring stretch, straighten the knee and engage your quads as you feel your kneecaps rise. If your hamstrings or knee are feeling too much of the stretch, bend your knees! What you are feeling on the inside is paramount to how you look on the outside!
Feel It In Your Down Dog
Downward facing dog is a great pose to feel this effect in our own bodies. Try coming into down dog safely while keeping your knees as straight as possible. Bring your awareness to the tilt of your pelvis and your upper body in relation to your legs.
Now come into down dog with your knees hovering above the ground and your heels high in the air. Lift your pelvis higher towards the sky as you engage your arms. Slowly begin to straighten your legs as much as you can, keeping your pelvis elevated as it shifts towards the back of your mat, until you find your edge. You will probably find that your upper body is deeper into the pose (your chest closer towards your thighs). The initial deep bend of your knees allows for more forward bend at the hips, which is one of the main focuses of down dog!
The same effect can be felt in seated forward folds like paschimottonasana or standing forward folds like padangustasana. The next time you fold forward and allow your upper body to dangle, experiment with bending and straightening your knees, both together and one at a time. You will notice the not so subtle difference in how the stretch is translated differently through your body.
Bending your knees initially can actually help you to move deeper into a pose later on, in addition to relieving tension in your hamstrings. So bend your knees as much as you please!
Myers, Thomas W. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Maual and Movement Therapists. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston, 2009. Print.