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