All athletes are acutely aware of the vulnerability of knees in any sport. Most athletes either know of a peer who has injured his or her knee or are recovering from an injury themselves. This is because the mechanics of the knee joint are better suited to chasing an animal for dinner than skiing black diamond moguls.
The following yoga postures strengthen and stretch the inner and outer quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and foot muscles, which collectively keep your knees strong, limber, and in optimal alignment. Holding these postures increases blood flow into the working muscles, connective tissues, ligaments, and tendons. Blood is filled with nutrient-rich oxygen, and by practicing poses that increase the flow of blood to the knees, you can reduce inflammation, repair damage, and promote healing. When practicing yoga, use caution, and practice with awareness. If postures are done incorrectly, you will know because you will feel strain or tugging on the sides of the knee. This is your knee joint telling you to back off and practice less aggressively.
Hold each posture for 15 to 20 breaths.
1. Wide-Legged Forward Fold
Warm up with a hip opener. If these big joints are tight, the knees are stressed.
Do: Lift and spread your toes, draw your feet inward, lift the kneecaps up, keep a micro-bend in the knees. The spine elongates in extension, lift the shoulders away from the ears. Press hands into legs, while asymmetrically pressing legs into hands.
Don’t: Collapse the arches in the feet, round the spine, lock or hyperextend the knee joint.
Lunge teaches optimal knee alignment. This posture strengthens the feet and legs, while stretching the hip flexors on the bent knee side and the hamstrings and calves on the straight leg side.
Do: Center the front knee over the ankle, inline with the second toe. Keep the back heel inline with the back knee. Draw both feet inward, toward the midline. Gently curl the tailbone down, facing the hips forward. If you feel strain in the front knee, don’t bend it as deeply, and bring the hands to the floor if you feel unstable.
Don’t: Push the front knee past the ankle, or let it fall left or right of the ankle.
Triangle lends stability and flexibility to the knee joint by keeping a keen focus on foot position. The feet affect the alignment of the knees, hips, and spine. Proper alignment of the feet is key to building strength evenly in the ligaments on both sides of the knee. When all the ligaments are equally strong, the kneecap glides effortlessly up and down and cartilage remains intact.
Do: Keep the hip points and front foot facing forward. Draw the kneecaps up the legs and keep a micro-bend in the knee joint. Keep the spine in extension and bring the hand to the leg. Press the hand into the leg, initiating the twist.
Don’t: Hyperextend or lock the knee joint. Place the hand on the knee, stack the hips, let the side body arch or the spine round. Don’t lift the arm or turn your gaze skyward if you feel strain on your shoulder, back, or neck.
4. Balancing Quad Stretch
This posture strengthens the knee on the standing leg, while stretching the bent knee by bringing it into flexion. The action of bringing the knee into flexion and then releasing it gently massages the cartilage around the kneecap and transports nutrient-rich blood to the area.
Do: Stack up major joints: knees over ankles, hips over knees, and shoulders over hips. Asymmetrically draw the foot toward the gluteus, while at the same time pressing that foot into the hand. Keep the bent knee pointed down toward the ground. Do use a strap around the foot if this feels like too much flexion in your knee joint.
Don’t: Jam the heel to the gluteus, let the bent knee wing out to the side, or look down.