3 Myths About Knee Alignment in Yoga

You’ve probably heard lots of warnings about how to keep your knees safe in yoga:

“Don’t let your knee roll in in Warrior II Pose.”

“Don’t let your knees slide past your toes in Fierce Pose (Utkatasana).”

“Hyperextending your knees will wear down the cartilage.”

Sound familiar?

These yoga alignment myths don’t hold water when we look at the knee’s anatomy. Moreover, they relay a narrative that the human body is fragile and at risk of breaking—an assertion that undermines student confidence and stokes fear. They also suggest that yoga asana is an inherently dangerous activity. 

Folks, most knee injuries are sustained in high-velocity, high-impact sports. Think soccer, skiing, football. Google “What physical activities have the most knee injuries?” Yoga is not on the list.

So why are we so obsessed with knee alignment and safety in yoga?

Flowing slowly and mindfully through a series of standing poses is not likely to impose sufficient stress on the knee to result in injury. And yet we hear so, so many cues about how to protect the knees in yoga poses. Let’s debunk a few common ones.

Knee Alignment Myth #1: Letting the Knee Roll in In Warrior II Pose Puts the Knee at Risk

It rotates when the knee rolls inward relative to the big toe in Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II). Knee anatomy fact: When your knee is bent, it allows some rotation. In fact, it allows about 30 degrees of rotation in this direction. Simply put, this is something the human knee can do.

Now, if you’re playing soccer and suddenly stop running, and your cleat sticks in the grass while you twist your body to kick the ball with all you’ve got, that might be enough torque to injure your knee. Slowly bending your knee into Warrior II and holding for five breaths will not likely cause damage.

Are there reasons to cue pressing the knee open toward the pinky toe side of the foot in this pose? Yes! Many. Here are some of them:

Often, the knee rolls in because we’re trying to square the hips to the long edge of the mat. Most human hips do not allow this range. The impediment is structural—no amount of hip opening will change the way your thigh bone articulates with your hip socket. Giving students permission to let the hips turn toward the front leg in Warrior II Pose acknowledges this reality of human anatomy. It encourages Santosha—contentment with things as they are, in this case, with the physical form we inhabit as it is.

Pressing the knee open engages the external hip rotators. Learning to activate muscles at will promotes body awareness and coordination. These are useful skills to train and have implications in how we move through the world—not just through a yoga class.

Knee Alignment Myth #2: Letting the Knees Glide Past the Toes Puts the Knees at Risk

Knee Alignment in Yoga's Chair Pose or Utkatasana.

The anatomical reasoning behind this one has some validity—but this “misalignment” still isn’t likely to cause injury. Let’s break it down.

Two ligaments crisscross inside your knee joint: the infamous anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and its less notorious pal, the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). We hear less about PCL because it’s broader and stronger than the ACL and, therefore, less prone to injury. The PCL is ostensibly at risk if your knee slides too far forward in Fierce Pose.

The ACL and PCL prevent knee displacement forward and back. The PCL is tensioned when your thigh glides forward on your shin bone in Utkatasana. 

Here’s the thing: your knee goes past your toes every time you walk downstairs! The human knee can do this and a force the average PCL can readily withstand.

Further, this caution against letting the knee go past the toes in Utkatasana often gets translated into poses where thigh displacement forward of the shin bone isn’t at all relevant. For example, in some low-lunge versions, we sink the hips toward the front ankle, and the knee goes way forward from the toes. The difference? In this shape, gravity pulls your thigh bone backward and down toward your hip. It’s not sheared forward relative to your shin, so the PCL isn’t called on to restrain the slide.

Are there good reasons to cue weight in the heels in Utkatasana and to move the knees back in space? Sure!

Again, we’re in the realm of body awareness. Learning to sense where you are in space and to intentionally organize your body parts is one of the great benefits of a mindful movement practice.

Knee Alignment Myth #3: Hyperextension Wears Away the Cartilage in Your Knee

Knee Alignmnet myths and hyperextended knees in yoga poses Look, if this were so, millions and millions of humans would sustain major knee damage just by standing in line in the grocery store. There’d be a major industry around preventing and treating cartilage damage caused by hyperextension. It just doesn’t work this way.

Some knees are capable of hyperextending—of going backward beyond 90 degrees. If this is you, your knee is simply built this way, just as some people have longer arms or curly hair.

If knee hyperextension in Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) hurts, that’s a good reason to avoid it, but if there’s no pain, this is simply something your knee can do. That said …

Are there reasons to back off knee hyperextension? Of course! Valid ones.

Knee hyperextension in Trikonasana results in greater ankle plantar flexion. As your calf presses toward the floor, your foot points more. That can result in an unpleasant scrunching sensation behind your ankle. This would be a great reason to avoid hyperextension.

How to avoid hyperextension, then? “Microbend your knee” is a common cue. The problem is that a micro bend is really just a buckling of the knee. Hyperextenders can better benefit from learning to engage the muscles behind the knee that limit knee extension—the hamstrings and gastrocnemius. Again, this is about using a mindful movement practice to improve body awareness and coordination.

Perfectly Aligning Your Knees Won’t Guarantee Safety in Yoga

Knee alignment myths in Chair PoseHowever, following knee alignment cues will improve your body awareness and coordination. These are worthwhile pursuits, as they benefit the quality of life outside the asana room.

Spreading a narrative that the human body is fragile, that low-load, low-velocity yoga poses are apt to break it, simply fearmongers. It undermines students’ confidence, disempowers them, and creates anxiety around movement. What if, instead, we couch these common alignment cues in a spirit of inquiry—as a means to dive into self-awareness? What if you press your knee open in Warrior II Pose to feel your external rotators in action rather than to “protect your knee”?

See the difference? 

The human knee is robustly capable of sustaining the standing poses we practice in yoga class. Cueing knee alignment can be valuable, but suggesting that these alignment rules are essential to prevent knee injuries in yoga simply broadcasts yoga alignment myths at best and disempowers or frightens students at worst.

Jennie Cohen

Jennie Cohen, YACEP, E-RYT 500, started teaching yoga in New York in 2006 and now teaches aspiring teachers, experienced teachers, and movement enthusiasts all over the globe. Study with Jennie to learn anatomy in fun and practical ways, to build or refine your teaching skills, and to expand your movement repertoire. Jennie’s fascination with the body in motion and her studies of the texts that form yoga’s philosophical foundation infuse her teaching, making it both informative and transformative.

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