Do you know what it’s like to feel your knees buckle underneath you? One minute you’re standing on straight legs, the next you’re collapsing under your own weight. It’s like someone just took your knees away. What if I told you that many of us experience some degree of knee collapse every day? Specifically what’s called knee valgus.
What is Knee Valgus?
When someone with normal leg alignment stands in anatomical position or tadasana with the feet hip distance, she should be able to trace a straight line from the center of the hip joint, through the knee cap, to the second toe on each leg. Knee valgus shows up when the knee falls in toward the center line of the body away from the hip and ankle. Over time, knee valgus can lead to knee injury, so if you see it, address it!
Knee valgus is particularly common in squats, jumps, and asana such as Garudasana (among others).
What do these all have in common? Weight bearing hip flexion, knee flexion, and ankle dorsiflexion. Basically, a whole lotta “bending” in the lower limbs.
Strength trainer and researcher Bret Contreras breaks it down a bit further in his excellent article on knee valgus and heavy lifting (seriously, check it out –even though he’s not talking about yoga, the principles apply and his illustrations are very helpful!):
“Knee valgus most commonly occurs during upright ground-based activities that require eccentric action of the hip extensors. (This shows up in yoga postures such as utkatasana, garudasana, virabhadrasana 3) Essentially, gravity acting on the body induces large adduction and internal rotation torques on the hips while the hips move into flexion. (i.e., when you fold forward in the hips, your thigh bones happily roll inward) The hips must absorb and reverse the sagittal plane flexion torque while stabilizing the femur in the frontal and transverse planes so the knees track over the toes. (i.e., you need to use the strength in the muscles along the back and outer side of your hips to prevent the thigh and knee from rolling in) For many individuals, this is easier said than done. You’ll commonly see valgus collapse rearing its ugly head during squatting, lunging, jumping, landing, climbing and descending stairs, and even during gait/running.”
How Can You Address Knee Valgus?
First, recognize that it’s there. We can’t change what we don’t pay attention to.
Then assess whether you have the strength and mobility to undo it. You can do this by attempting to undo the valgus both while in a static position (holding utkatasana) and while moving in and out of the knee bend. If you can control the position of your knees with mental effort alone, re-training your movement patterns is mostly a matter of proprioception and consciously preventing the collapse in every asana until it happens automatically (months or years later).
If you can’t successfully hold yourself in utkatasana without some knee valgus, you should start by building the necessary strength and mobility with targeted exercises to strengthen the ankle dorsiflexors (shin muscles), hip external rotators + hip abductors (glutes and more) and to lengthen the hip adductors (along inner thigh) and ankle plantar flexors (calf muscles). There are plenty of ways to target these muscles. Below are just a few ideas for building strength.
External Rotation Lateral Leg Raises: Strengthens Hip External Rotators and Hip Abductors
- Start in table top and lift your right knee off the floor an inch. Turn your thigh/knee out away from the center of your body. You don’t need to try to turn your knee all the way out to the side, just as far as it goes before something else has to shift.
- Keep the turn out of your thigh/knee and lift your thigh to the side as in the previous exercise. Hold for a breath.
- Again, make sure you don’t lean to the standing hip side. Stabilize your body as if you were evenly on all fours the whole time, even when you’re only on three limbs.
- Lower and repeat until you reach “failure” – i.e. you’re consistently unable to lift your leg as high as in the previous rep.
- Repeat on the left leg.
- Rest as needed before repeating each side two more times.
Foot Flexors: Strengthens Ankle Dorsiflexors
- Sit facing a wall with your legs out in front of you and your heels touching the wall. Set your feet hip distance apart (in line with your hip joints, that is). You can prop your seat and/or bend your knees slightly to sitting is comfortable.
- Draw your right foot back away from the wall as far as you can without twisting your foot or ankle. Attempt to pull the pinky-toe and big-toe sides of your foot back evenly! This may take some focus.
- Hold the foot flex for a breath, then relax your toes to the wall.
- Repeat until your muscles are fatigued.
- Repeat with the left foot/ankle.
- Rest as needed before repeating each side two more times.
Of course, if you have no pain in knee valgus, and you are at least halfway there with your strength, you can work on strength and mobility while retraining your movement patterns in your favorite squatting or lunging asana:
“When practicing proper technique work, you end up strengthening the muscles that need strengthening and stretching the muscles that need stretching, all while increasing coordination and grooving proper firing patterns” (Bret Contreras).
This is just one of the reasons we make such a fuss about healthy, conscious asana alignment. We as yoga teachers need to be able to recognize patterns of use that fail to support our students’ self-study. Deep, unflinching svadhyaya is a process of uncovering both the good and the not so welcome in ourselves. In the case of asana, this can include acknowledging our strength and precision and our potentially injurious movement patterns.
We’re here to make learning kinesiology straightforward so that you can see where your students could use your outside eye to guide them to a fully conscious asana practice, aware of what may be hurting or helping them find sufficient strength and mobility for their lives.
Do you have a story of helping your students learn something about their body or practice? What was their response? Let us know in the comments – it doesn’t have to be about “anatomy”!
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