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To Lock or Not Lock the Knees

Is it safe to lock the joints, as Bikram Yoga teaches?

By Richard Rosen

standing

—Cathy Plato Guerra, Katy, Texas

Richard Rosen's reply:

Assuming that you're talking about the knee joints, I took your question to Charles Holman, a Bikram teacher here in Berkeley, California. He speculated that your Bikram teacher probably wanted you to "lock the knees straight," not back into hyperextension.

There are also teachers who want students to keep their knees bent. Larry Payne, Ph.D., coauthor of Yoga for Dummies, says that what he calls "forgiving limbs" (both knees and elbows) help lengthen the spine and protect the knees and lower back, particularly important if you're tight in the hips and hamstrings or if you have a touchy lower back.

Paradoxically, it may be more helpful not to think about "straightening the knees" at all. Instead, focus on working with the two "ends" of the legs: the "heads" of the thigh bones and the heels.

Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), knees slightly bent. Purposely (and carefully) lock the knees back. How does that feel in the knees? Then, bend the knees again and imagine someone is pushing on your calves. Slowly pressing your top thighs back, resist the pressure on your calves and drive your heels into the floor, keeping the tailbone down and in, and the "eyes" of your kneecaps looking straight ahead. How do your knees feel now?

Richard Rosen has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.
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Reader Comments

When I look at the back of my extended legs the calves are protruding a lot as if they are doing the backward work and not the thighs. So when I try your suggestion, it does help to concentrate on getting the thighs back, but the calves seem to get back faster than the thighs. It does seem better when I really lift the knee caps and work the quads.

Pat Cargill

What about instructing students to engage/ activate the quads, which lifts the kneecap? This seems to prevent hyperextension in the knee joint and is easy to demonstrate.

Caroline

When you say pushing on your calves, do you mean something pushing behind to forward on the calf muscles or from front to back on the shin?

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