Locking the Knee in Bikram Yoga
What Does "Lock the Knee" Mean Exactly?
In Bikram Yoga, many of the standing yoga poses are characterized by having one or both legs locked out. This technique involves the knee joint (amongst other elements of the leg), and I thought I'd take some time to explain what locking the knee actually means. Having had an aggravated knee for a while, I hope you will learn a little more about what steps you can take to protect the knee while practicing yoga. By locking the knee, you will:
- Protect your knee;
- Lessen the effect of previous knee injuries;
- Reduce potential osteoarthritic symptoms; and
- Enjoy a renewed bounce in your walk as you learn to strengthen your large leg muscles and relax the hamstring.
How to Lock Your Knee
Rather than just straightening the leg in a standing pose, try to actively engage your quadriceps. By implementing the correct technique, you will never have sore knees again, your walk will feel lighter, and you will prevent any future knee issues. As an added benefit, your hamstrings will gain more flexibility and lengthen more easily, which is a boon for many of us who sit at desks all day or have tight hamstrings from athletics.
An Example of Incorrect Knee Locking
An Example of Correct Knee Locking
Why Is It Important to Protect the Knee Joint?
Take a close look at the two photos above. What do you notice? See how the image of the incorrect technique does not show muscle definition around the top of the knee capsule compared to the picture on the bottom? Good. The leg in both these photos is actually locked straight, however, one demonstrates good technique and the other does not. So, what is the difference and why is it important? The difference is determined by:
- The use of the quadriceps;
- How the quadriceps act as a suspension system for the knee joint; and
- How the quadriceps interact with other large leg muscles, such as the hamstrings.
Why Tightening Your Quadriceps Is Important
Your quadriceps are your front thigh muscles between your knee and your hip. You should be able to see some muscle definition around your knee joint simply by tightening the quadriceps (it might take a bit of practice and can be far easier to practice laying down). This action will do a couple of key things for your yoga practice:
- Your knee will be held in a supportive position.
- Your hamstring will be forced to relax by a mechanism known as reciprocal inhibition (I had to look it up, too). Reciprocal inhibition means that when one muscle is contracting, the other cannot be engaged due to a nerve mechanism in the body. You can take advantage of this!
It took me a while to realize what was meant by "locking the knee." For ages, I was simply straightening my leg and leaning on it. Not good. For a few weeks after that, I had sore knees! Then I remembered my physiotherapist's instructions to squeeze the front thigh muscles. As I concentrated on this in the standing poses, I could see the kneecap lifting up and the locked out leg became strong and powerful, not just straight. My knees stopped feeling sore almost immediately.
What I Learned From Physiotherapy
As it turns out, it is often not the knee cartilage that causes knee issues or knee pain. The lack of surrounding support from the large leg muscles—the calf, quadriceps, and hamstrings—is the leading cause of knee issues. The quads need to be engaged to help lift the kneecap and effectively assist the knee joint. (I'm not a sports physician, but this is what I have gleaned along the way.) Apparently, this is also important for anyone suffering from symptoms of osteoarthritis.
In 1993, I managed to break the neck of my femur (the top of the thigh bone). I had a "GK Nail" inserted into my femur surgically (pictured above). In subsequent years and with poor physiotherapy, I developed knee issues and a painful inner thigh. One day, after switching physiotherapists, I was asked to contract my quadriceps, to which I replied, "I am!" After she explained the importance of engaging the quadriceps to protect the knee joint, I searched for rehabilitation in the form of Bikram Yoga. There is no question in my mind that yoga rescued my knees and totally rid me of the previous pain issues I was experiencing.