Living in an athletic body makes life better.
Now, “athletic body” can mean a lot of things. It can refer to how a body looks and conjure images of olympian six-packs. But I’m solely referring to a body’s ability to respond when it’s needed (aka all the time).
Imagine you’re in the grocery store and you mistakenly knock a jar of peanut butter from the shelf. In this (epic) everyday athletic moment (happening in slo-mo), your ability to grab the jar before it falls to the ground has nothing to do with the definition of your abs.
The same goes for when you step on an unexpected branch on a trail run or see an open teammate out of the corner of your eye. The six-pack doesn’t really contribute much…
These athletic moments call for an athletic and responsive body, not for one that looks a certain way.
So, how is this related to yoga for athletes?
Here’s my logic:
- Yoga is a tool for our goals, and
- our goal as athletes is to have a responsive body, therefore
- we should use yoga as a tool to make our bodies more responsive.
Unfortunately, a lot of the yoga going on out there goes against this logic.
Pursuing yoga poses and specific shapes within them is like pursuing six-pack abs. Both “look good” on the outside, but neither necessarily help us achieve meaningful goals.
The purpose of this article is to guide your thinking about things that happen all the time in yoga so you can be on the path of building a responsive body instead of one that’s shaped a particular way.
In particular, there are three key things I’d love for you to stop doing in yoga, and they all have to do with your knees
Here they are:
Stop Doing These Three Things (or, How to Use Your Knees Correctly) in Yoga
1) Don’t bend your knees deeper…
One of my biggest pet peeves as a yoga teacher is hearing other yoga teachers say things like “just a little deeper” or “you’re almost there” during stretching-focused poses.
Athletes are generally more competitive and less flexible than the average yoga-doer so, when an athlete hears “go deeper”, of course they’ll try and of course they’ll risk injury.
One of the biggest culprits of the “just a little deeper” cue are lunges. Think High Lunge (or Crescent Moon Pose) or either Warrior 1 or Warrior 2:
All three poses feature a bent front knee, but you’ll notice the amount of bend in each knee is different.
Customizing the degree of bending in your front knee bend is absolutely essential in actually doing lunging poses correctly and using lunges as a means to maintain and build a responsive body.
Be warned. Many yoga teachers will tell you to go deeper in the front knee, all the way to a 90-degree angle. And you’re going to want to do it. The challenge is just so juicy.
Juicy as it is, here’s what will most likely happen in these three lunging poses when you go for the 90-degree bend in the front knee:
- High Lunge: Excessive bending in the lower back (not good)
- Warrior 2: Overstretching inseam of thighs (not good)
- Warrior 1: Excessive bending in the lower back AND overstretching inseam on thighs (not good and not good)
So, instead of lengthening your stance and trying to “look good” for everyone,…
In lunges, focus on keeping your front (bent) knee right over the front ankle and pointing straight forward in the same direction as your toes.
That’s it. Any angle at the knee joint up to a max of 90 degrees is perfect.
There can be any distance between your feet and it’s on you to customize from there. Remember, the goal is to build a responsive physical system, not break down the responsiveness you’ve already built.
So, when you’re told to “go deeper” in a lunge, think of me, shake your head (internally), and just maintain what feels good and right in your body.
2) …but, don’t straighten them…
Lunges are one thing, but forward folds are their own beast.
When it comes to the knees in forward folds, it’s almost the complete opposite of what happens in lunges.
Here’s another pet peeve of mine: when teachers say “straighten your knees!” in almost every forward fold.
As a yoga teacher that cares about people, it seriously pains me to hear this.
Again, athletes are competitive so of course they’re going to try and of course they’re not flexible enough to do it.
Straightening the knees in a forward fold is a BIG ask on the hamstrings. Since athletes use their hammies a lot, they tend to be tighter, making forward folds troublesome.
But, what is a forward fold? They’re basically any pose that asks you to hinge forward and bend at the waist. Here are some big ones:
Just like the lunges above, 3 forward folds and three different levels of knee bending.
The straighter the knees, the more open the hamstrings, so the point here is the opposite of what I said about lunges.
In forward folds, start with your knees bent as much as possible, and work towards straightening them.
There’s two reasons why this is one of the best yoga moves out there:
- You take control of how much stretch to bring into your hamstrings (instead of tearing them)
- You save your lower back from over-stretching and, you guessed it, pain
There’s little glamour in the knee bend. I doubt anyone will take your picture when you’re bending your knees super deeply in down dog. Sorry.
My goal isn’t to help you look cool, it’s too help you feel cool.
By feeling cool and in forward folds, you’re building responsive hamstrings. In other words, hamstrings that trust you when you call on them.
Give the hammies the space and time they need in forward folds by bending your knees even when the teacher says to straighten them.
3) …but, also, don’t bend your knees.
First I said don’t bend your knees, then I said bend them, and now I’m saying don’t bend your knees again.
This time, I’m talking about bending that stretches the knee, which is never a good idea.
The knee is held together with ligaments. Ligaments are different than muscles in that we want them to be as tight as possible to keep joints stable.
There really isn’t such a thing as “yoga for knee pain”, but there’s a way of doing certain yoga poses that will cause knee pain, fo’ sho’.
These certain yoga poses, when done improperly, will stretch the knee joint laterally (i.e. side-to-side as opposed to front-to-back) and, over time, make ligaments in the knee more flexible (not good).
The main culprit is this guy:
Good ole pigeon pose.
Don’t get me wrong, I love pigeon pose. My issue with it isn’t the pose itself, but more in how it’s generally taught (yes, yet another pet peeve here).
The issue lies in, again, teachers thinking about what the pose looks like and not customizing for individuals.
For pigeon, teachers will often recommend aligning your shin so that it’s parallel with the front of the mat.
Here’s what that accomplishes in most athletes’ bodies:
- Stretches the outer ligaments of the front knee (not good)
- Brings the hips out of alignment, putting uneven pressure on the sacroiliac joints (not good)
Instead of doing pigeon pose, do this:
Replace pigeon with figure four pose, maybe with some wall support (see image above).
While everyone else is sacrificing the structural integrity of their knees and almost guaranteeing knee pain down the line, you’ll be the oddball in the corner getting a lovely hip stretch and keeping your knee ligaments tight and, yup, responsive.
Now, this takes a bit of confidence because not only is your front shin not parallel with the front of the mat [gasp!] but you might be the only person in the room not doing pigeon pose.
But most yoga teachers will know to let you do your thing and, maybe, you’ll be teaching them something.
Yoga is a tool. Straight up.
When we start to think more about what our yoga looks like more than what our yoga is doing for us, we’ve begun THE losing battle of yoga.
As athletes, we live in bodies that are strong and capable, yet specialized and often imbalanced. That’s why “yoga for athletes” is a thing (and something I care about a lot).
To bring ourselves back into balance, it’s important to remember our purpose for doing yoga. As athletes, it’s a tool to stay physically athletic and responsive.
Here are some classes on Icewater Yoga that will give you the proper guidance to start using your knees the right way:
- Intro to Yoga: Forward Folds (39 minutes)
- Sturdy Knees (29 minutes)
- A Vigorous Intro to Yoga: Standing Poses (30 minutes)
- Intro to Yoga: Alignment (42 minutes)
In this article, I focused on what you can do with your knees in some of the most common poses in yoga, and my hope is you can use these principles to start questioning what you’re told, to learn more, and stop worrying about what you look like.
Embrace your body for the amazing physical structure that it is…
…and maybe care more about your knees than your abs.