Wondering Out Loud

A student's question in class brings up an important discussion about protecting the knees in Fire Log Pose.
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Funny how these things start: someone in class wonders out loud what to do about knee pain during Fire Log Pose, a Lotus Pose prep, one Tuesday night. So I veer off the planned sequence for a few moments to address the very relevant question. After all, how many times have you had just such an issue arise in your body in class? And often, we just tough it out, perhaps thinking that it (the pose and the pain) can’t last that long. But if we were to really honor one of the primary precepts of yoga, ahimsa, non-harming, especially to one’s self, we probably ought to start wondering out loud more often in class.

Before we get to how to modifyFire Log Pose in order to do it safely while still gaining the benefits of the pose—increasing the external rotation of the top leg thigh to prepare the hips for the famous Padmasana—let's look more closely at the full pose.

Agnistrambasana (Fire Log Pose) is done seated with the shin bones, the tibia and fibula, stacked one above the other, with the top ankle area resting on the bottom leg's thigh near the knee. Another way to think about it is that the shins are oriented parallel to the front of your mat. This requires a decent amount of external rotation at the hip joint of both legs to avoid sending strain downstream and into the knees. In fact, when working toward Lotus, it's almost always the knees and ankles that I am worried about protecting, especially among students who tend to push themselves beyond the clear pain signals the body sends out.

Although you will likely feel the stretch more loudly in the top hip, which is where you want to be directing the work anyway, you may ignore some signals, such as a more subtle pain or ache coming from the bottom knee. This knee is particularly vulnerable to injury, including meniscal, ligament, or other soft tissue damage among other things, due to the pressure and weight of the top ankle and leg pushing down on it, especially if it does not easily rest on the ground before you put the other ankle on top of it. This usually indicates the bottom hip can’t adequately rotate out enough for the bottom knee to be safe.

So what’s a tight-hipped yogi to do? Well two things can keep both knees and the pose still effective: First, consider propping the bottom knee with a towel, blanket, a folded-over corner of your mat so it's fully supported (not lifting off the support) before placing the top ankle into position. But what I think works better for almost everyone, is to tuck the bottom foot back toward the opposite hip, so it rests diagonally on the mat, instead of parallel to the front of your mat. The top shin is still parallel to the front of your mat, as the ankle rests on the opposite thigh. Could you still prop the bottom knee if it still does not rest on the ground? I’d highly recommend it!

Baxter Bell, MD, teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area and internationally, and is director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio's teacher-training program in Oakland, California. He is a contributing writer for Yoga Journal magazine and for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and created Yoga Journal’s Yoga for Stress DVD. Follow him on his other blog, Yoga for Healthy Aging or his website.