I realized not long ago that most yoga students understand little about why teachers do and say what they do in a class. I was acting a little like the Wizard of Oz, making demands from behind an all-knowing curtain, with no explanation as to why. But there really is a method behind what might sometimes seem like madness. This series aims to pull back the curtain and expose what goes on in a yoga teacher’s head.
If you hyperextend, microbend your knees.
It’s an infamous instruction that confuses new and seasoned practitioners alike. The first problem with it is that most students have no idea if they even hyperextend their knees or not (unless they were dancers or gymnasts or have taken a teacher training).
How do I know if I hyperextend?
Hyperextension is the anatomical ability to take a joint past it’s normal limits of mobility. It’s something your body simply does or doesn’t do, based on how you’re put together. The knee is a condyloid joint, it moves in three different ways. It flexes (bends), extends (straightens), and has a limited amount of rotation available in certain positions. Hyperextension of the knee is when it can extend beyond straight. Sit with your legs straight out in front of you on the floor and press your knees as straight as you can. If your heels lift off of the floor, they hyperextend.
See also The Hyperextended Knee
The second problem with this cue is that those who do hyperextend and know it, often don’t solve the issue simply by slackening their knee joint. “Microbend” simply doesn’t teach the efforts required to keep everything safe and working.
What Your Teacher Could Say…
“Straighten your knees. Now engage the muscles at the back of your leg as if you’re trying to bend your knee slightly, as you firm the muscles above your kneecap to keep your knee straight.”
Hyperextenders must learn to contract their hamstrings and calf muscles (which bend the knee) enough to straighten it and then maintain that effort while using the quadriceps to keep the knee straight. It’s as if you’re letting the muscles that bend and straighten the knee duke it out in a fist fight. But neither wins. It’s a stalemate, and the knee stays straight and supported from both sides. No matter your level of flexibility, you can benefit from that stability.
Key Yoga Poses:
All straight-legged poses
Try it in any pose where your knees are straight. Think:
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Dandasana (Staff Pose)
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
And the list goes on…
Why We Bother:
Strength + Stability
The problem with hyperextending your knees is that it requires no muscular effort to keep the knees straight or to prevent them from bending. And when there is a lack of muscular effort, there is a lack of skeletal stability. Wobbly skeleton = recipe for injury. Thus, in straight-legged postures, the knees, hips, and spine are all at risk of injury when there is no muscular support. Hyperextension of the knees also leads to overstretched and lazy hamstrings, lower back injuries, SI joint injuries, and more.
This lesson is frankly something everyone could benefit from, because someone who is stiff now can easily end up on the hyper-mobile side of the charts with a consistent and long-term asana practice. Use this muscular effort in your legs throughout your practice—regardless of your flexibility—and you’ll see huge rewards in terms of strength and stability. Your skeleton will thank you—very much.
About Alexandria Crow
Southern California’s Alexandria Crow comes from an Ashtanga Yoga background. Today, the YogaWorks teacher offers vinyasa flow classes with methodical and challenging sequences that encourage mindful attention. Besides her work inside the pages of Yoga Journal as a model and writer, she’s appeared in Yoga Journal’s Fitness Challenge and Total Body Yoga DVDs, as well as several ads for HardTail Forever.