Q: My brother is a cyclist and is developing severe knee problems. Are there any poses that will help strengthen around his knees without straining them?
—Terri Morgan, Glendale, Arizona
Esther Myers' reply:
Since I'm not a cyclist, I asked Sunny Davis (a fitness consultant, yoga teacher, and former cycling coach), for her advice. She suggested that your brother begin by making sure his bike is set up correctly—normal riding should not have a negative effect on the knee. He should also analyze whether he is using all of the muscles in his legs as he pedals or if he's letting the quadriceps do all of the work, a common problem for many riders.
In both yoga and fitness, we need to strike a balance between strength and flexibility. Cycling builds strength, which can lead to stiff or tight muscles, so a yoga practice can serve as a complement to counteract rigidity.
Your brother should study with a yoga teacher who has a good understanding of alignment and can help him correct potential structural imbalances in his knees, hips, and feet. But if he's not ready for a private teacher yet, he can experiment with the poses that follow.
He can begin by practicing standing poses such as Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), and Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Hand to Big Toe Pose). These poses will strengthen the legs (which should help stabilize the knee joint) and provide a good stretch.
I also suggest that he experiment with the placement of his feet in the standing poses until he finds the position that puts the least amount of strain on his knees. My teacher, Vanda Scaravelli, taught the standing poses with a very short distance between the feet. (These poses are illustrated in my book, Yoga and You. It feels strange at first, but I have noticed that my students report less strain on their knees. As your brother's knees heal, he may find himself changing the poses again.
He should also try Supta Padanghustasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), with the leg straight up in the air, to the side, and across the body. It will stretch the back, inside, and outside of the legs, respectively. Another pose that will stretch the front of the thigh without straining the knees is a low lunge pose with the back leg bent.
In addition to these poses, your brother should include backbends in his yoga practice, since cycling keeps him in a crouched, forward-bending position for long stretches of time. He can start with Sphinx, which is a version of Bhujangasana (Cobra)—the difference being that you rest your weight on the forearms. Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose) with the hands clasped behind the back is another good pose for opening the chest and upper back.
One final thought on dealing with injuries: A basic principle in yoga is nonviolence (ahimsa). It is important to remember this in our asana practice, too. I was given a wonderful example of the application of ahimsa some years ago when I was teaching a workshop in Florida. One of the students in the class told me that she had been able to heal a long-standing knee problem. I was very impressed and asked her how. She said, "I never did anything that hurt my knees." While this may sound obvious, it's a nice reminder to listen to our body's limits. I think we all succumb to the temptation to push it a little bit far too often.
The late Esther Myers' 10 years as a student of Vanda Scaravelli inspired her to find her own unique, organic approach to yoga. Esther taught classes across Canada, Europe, and the United States before her death from cancer in 2004. She left behind a practice manual for beginners and a book titled Yoga and You, as well as two videos, Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga and Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors.