A Yoga Sequence for Knee Health

Please remember that this post only provides general guidance around knee health. If you have had a knee injury or recent knee surgery there are many factors that need to be considered before engaging in any rehabilitative exercise regime and its best to consult your doctor, health-care team or physio before starting yoga. 

It may seem a rather obtuse or clinical title for a yoga sequence – certainly not as sexy as A Yoga Sequence for Better Sleep for example (although that is coming soon!) – but building greater knee strength is a subject matter close to my heart, and has been a massive part of my yoga regime for years.

In fact the whole reason I came to yoga was because I had dislocated my knee several times and I faced the hearbreaking realisation that a dance career was just not going to be for me. Yoga early on presented an alternative. I loved the movement, the mindful connection to breath. The grace. It’s not a coincidence that many yogis and yoga teachers are ex-dancers.

Whilst yoga is often touted for its ability to enhance flexibility and range-of-motion, what I often find gets missed is yoga’s fantastic strengthening and stabilising qualities. To be sure it doesn’t have the grunt appeal or forehead-mopping benefits of lifting heavy weights or working with a resistance band but I believe yoga has a LOT to offer those of us with sore, sensitive or unstable knees.  As always it’s all about what you practice.

 

5 Reasons Why Yoga is Great for Knees:

  1. Its low impact i.e. in most forms and styles of yoga we don’t jump or bounce therefore reducing the amount of load, force and therefore stress on the joint.
  2. We use a lot of Closed Kinetic Chain (CKC) style movements and postures which are generally safer for knees that feel weak or unstable and are easier to control and therefore maintain good form whilst doing. CKC movements involve having the foot fixed on a solid surface e.g. the floor, as you do the movement or posture.
  3. We move slowly and mindfully which gives us a chance to focus on good tracking alignment of the knee (misalignment of the knee is a big factor in weak, unstable or injured knees). By taking our time as we consciously move in and out of positions we can retrain our habits and postural tendencies.
  4. Yoga recognises the holistic nature of the body and that knee problems often have their source in musculo-skeletal imbalances further up or down the body. Remember that the site of the injury is often not the source of the problem. When I have clients come to me with knee injuries, I always look at what’s happening in the position and alignment of their feet, hips and spines.
  5. In yoga we build isometric and eccentric strength which are fantastic for building strength and stability in our joints.
    • In isometric work we are holding the muscles and joints in a loaded static position – think of what happens to the muscles of your legs as you hold a Warrior 2 position for example.
    • In eccentric strength work, we gradually lengthen the muscles as we load them, for example, when we hinge forwards from standing into a forward bend the hamstrings are eccentrically lengthening.

 

Designing a Well-Balanced Yoga Practice for Knee Health

With the above in mind, the following sequence is designed to not only work all of the muscles that surround and stabilise the knee but also some muscle groups that seem relatively distant and unconnected. We will also work on stretching out some muscles that when tight can often cause knee tracking issues. Here’s a nifty table that outlines some of the major muscles and connective tissues you need to address for optimal knee health.

Strenghten Stretch
Quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thigh) Iliotibial Band or ITB (a tract of connective tissue running down the side of the upper leg)
Hamstrings (muscles at the back of the thigh) Outer quadriceps (when tight can pull the knee-cap outwards)
Glutes (your bottom!) Tensor Fasciae Latae or TFL (a muscle on the outer side of the hip)
Adductors (the inner leg muscles) Adductors (the inner leg muscles)
Vastus Medialis Obliqus VMO (a small tear-shaped muscle in the inner knee)

 

A couple of tips for practice:

As always the devil is in the details. I often say to my students – you spend the first 6 months in yoga just learning the basics, where do your hands and feet go, the general shape of a pose, remembering to breathe. You spend the rest of your life learning all the little details that make this practice so rich and exciting!

With that in mind there are a few small alignment tips that I think make all the difference when you are working on knee health.

 

  • Root down through the heel bone. When you press your heel firmly into the floor you will feel the muscles and connective tissue around your sitbone engage helping to strengthen the glutes and stabilise the hips. Strengthening the glutes plays a HUGE role in knee health.
  • Check your foot to knee-cap positioning again and again. The knees are the prisoners of whatever is happening in the feet and the hips! If the feet are turned out but the knees are pointing forwards (or even inwards) then your knees end up taking the strain of this misalignment. Happy knees are ones which track in the same direction as the centre of the ankle/2nd or 3rd
  • Engage the VMO. Getting the VMO (that tiny little tear-shaped muscle at the inner knee) to switch on can be tricky. If you’ve injured your knee it is likely that this muscle won’t be firing properly. Rooting through the heel bone can help to switch this muscle on but I also like to bring my fingertips to the area to help give me tactile feedback so that I know when it’s engaging.
  • Do not lock the knee. There is a tendancy for many students to “lock” the knee cap backwards in standing poses, particularly balance poses. Unfortunately this can often lead to torsion, instability and potential wear and tear of the knee joint. Instead we want to keep what I refer to as a slight micro-bend of the knee joint (the leg will still look straight) whilst engaging ALL of the musculature evenly around the knee (front-to-back and side-to-side).

The following practice gives some ideas for the sorts of poses that I regularly use with clients when working improve knee health. All of the poses/movements are designed to be repeated several times through until you feel a comfortable level of fatigue in the muscles without losing good form and technique. The exception to this is the two standing balances – Standing Quad Stretch Pose and Tree Pose which should be held for 30 seconds on each side, and the supine stretches at the end of the sequence which you can hold for up 1 minute on each side. Enjoy and feel free to leave any questions or comments below! 🙂

 

A Yoga Perspective on Finding Meaningful Work

This post originally appeared on Relax and Renew Events, a company that I co-founded with business coach Helen Puddefoot, providing coaching and mindfulness events for women in business.

 

Definition – Dharma

Dharma is a Hindu, Buddhist and yogic concept which refers to the idea of a law or principle governing the universe.The implication of dharma is that there is a right way for each person to carry out their life. If an individual is following their dharma, they are pursuing their truest calling, serving all other beings in the universe by playing their true role. ~ Yogapedia

 

As a yoga teacher I have witnessed some fascinating transformations of students who started yoga and fell in love with the practice. I wrote a blog piece some time ago about how a consistent yoga practice can have a far-reaching impact on seemingly unrelated areas of your life.
 
I have watched as students became absorbed in their yoga practice, and at the same time, started to question and change other areas of their lives. Some started by changing their diets or integrating other health habits, such as getting more sleep, into their daily habits and routines.
 
All too often though, I saw changes that had seemingly no connection. Students on my teacher trainings would realise they no longer had anything in common with their partners or friendship groups, and would start the painful process of letting go of old relationships that no longer served them. Others would talk of their frustration, boredom or lack of connection with their work and fantasise about other career options that would be more in line with their values. I have seen this too many times to think it just a coincidence.
 
Why does this happen? 

There’s something about this practice of yoga that invites us to question and reflect deeply. I often joke to my students, that there’s nowhere to hide on a yoga mat. It’s just you, your body, your breath, your mind and the clear empty space of your yoga mat. The yoga practice will reflect back to you everything you bring to it. If you step onto the mat with anger or frustration – that is what will bubble back up to the surface. Not that there is anything wrong with this. The yoga practice is neutral and just honestly reflects back to us wherever we are at in the moment.
 
What this means is that if you are unhappy about an area of your life, such as your work-life or career, this is what will start to come up for you on your yoga mat to the point that the initial whisperings of discontent may become too loud for you to ignore.
 
Change may be on its way.
 

In yoga we have appropriated the concept of Dharma from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions – the idea that to live a good life means to live in a way that taps into and expresses our fullest potential. We may have several dharmas to carry out in one lifetime, for example, to be a mother, a writer, an investment banker or a carer for an ailing parent.

 
The essential idea is that life flows best, and we are at our happiest, when we recognise and connect to the specific roles that we have been invited on this earth to carry out.

 

This does not mean to say that our dharma is all plain-sailing and joyful. Any career path, no matter how well aligned to our values will have good days and also its challenges and uphill struggles. I absolutely love my work as a yoga therapist but I still moan about doing certain tasks – accounts, emails, maintaining my social media presence to name a few! However, generally speaking, we know we are in accordance with our dharma when we cannot think of anything else we would rather be doing with our life.
 
So how does one find their dharma? This soul-searching is part of the rich journey of life. Some may find it easier or earlier than others, but it really helps when we carve out enough quiet time in the busyness of our day-to-day schedules to tune in and really listen to the callings of our hearts.
 
Yoga and meditation practices are perfect for this deep inner work because they give us the time and space to sit with ourselves and to allow insight, self-revelations and mini-epiphanies to rise to the surface.
 
With this in mind I have recorded a brief 10-minute meditation designed to help you explore this idea of dharma and its personal relevance to you. This meditation aims to help develop greater personal insight into your current relationship to your work and to develop clarity around your future career dreams and aspirations.

 

I recommend doing this meditation on a regular basis as our dharmic roles will change and evolve with time – what may be right for us now, may and probably will change a few years down the line. The questions in this meditation are also perfect for a journaling practice. Click on the Soundcloud link below to access the meditation:
 

7 Unusual Tips For How To Begin a (Dare I Say It DAILY) Home Yoga Practice!

 

It sounds obvious, but the main factor that determines whether you will receive the benefits you’re seeking from your yoga practice, is whether you actually DO the practice! And this is where the importance of a home yoga practice comes into play.

 

Yoga is not a passive therapy – we have to become active participants in our own healing, we have to take responsibility and make it a top priority – nobody else can do it for us.

 

Yoga practice requires discipline and a commitment to action. It’s not enough to commit just the once either. We have to continuosly renew our desire to practice by reminding ourselves why it is so important to us. Regular, consistent practice is key.

The power of yoga and its benefits are cumulative. Each practice builds on the one before.

 

I liken it to saving money in a bank – each time you make a deposit in your savings account the pot of money that you have to spend and enjoy later grows. Yoga works in the same way. Every time you practice, you’re investing in your future health and well-being. The more deposits you make now, the greater the benefits you’ll reap going forwards.

 

All that said I know as well as anyone how life can get in the way, and how easy it is for the things that are important to us to end up slipping to the bottom of the pile, in favour of the things that are more urgent. Like anyone, I have gone through periods of minimal practice and become frustrated at myself for not making my health more of a priority.

 

Invariably at some point in my work with a private client we end up having a heart-to-heart about home practice or the lack of it!

 

Here are the 3 most common obstacles to practice that I hear from clients:

  • Not enough time
  • Not enough space to practice or living in a disruptive house – guests staying over, kids running amok, dogs slobbering over the mat etc.
  • Not sure what to practice

 

Having spent the best part of 18 years developing a home practice I can sympathise with each and every one of these (albeit contending with two cats that use the mat as a scratching post rather than a slobbering dog!).

 

I have developed, however, a few strategies that have been super useful in both addressing the obstacles to action and in cultivating a consistent home practice that I not only enjoy but that helps keep me inspired and motivated.

Read on for my top 7 tips for helping you to begin (and stick to) a home yoga routine.

1. Have a plan of action

One of the biggest roadblocks to getting started, particularly for beginning yoga students, is having no idea what to do. Have you ever unrolled the yoga mat, stared at its blankness and realised you have no idea what you should be practicing?

 

This is why it’s so important to have a plan of action for what you’re going to practice BEFORE you get out the mat. By narrowing down the field of possibility and making some decisions about what you’re going to actually practice, you free your mind up to just get on with the enjoyment of doing it. No more trying to think about what to do next or how long the practice should be.

 

All of my private clients get bespoke home yoga sequences emailed to them after each session. I write instructions with each pose to give an idea of main cues to watch for, as well as how long to hold the pose and how many repetitions to do.

 

Now obviously if you’re not one of my clients what can you do? Fortunately in the internet age we are absolutely inundated with information and there are lots of wonderfully generous people out there creating sequences for you! Here are just a few I have created in the past that you might like to check out:

 

A Yoga Sequence to Reduce Stress ­

A Yoga Sequence for Desk Workers

A Yoga Sequence to Build Core and Lower Back Strength

 

2. Follow the Power of 5

This is another one of my favourite technique for clients who:

  1. Don’t know what to practice
  2. Feel overwhelmed by choice
  3. Don’t have much time

 

I call it my Power of Five principle and it’s dead simple. Say you only have 5 minutes to practice yoga – which by the way is a perfectly respectable amount of time and can still be enormously beneficial – then this is what you do!

 

 

To fill 5 minutes you need to choose:

  • 1 breathing practice – this could be anything ujjayi, belly breathing, alternate nostril. Practice for 1 minute
  • Pick 3 of your favourite yoga poses – practice for 1 minute (or 30 seconds per side if you’re doing a pose with 2 sides). Choose the poses that make you feel good and that you enjoy. Some of my favourites would be a supine twist, cat-cow, downdog, low lunge, 1 minute of sun salutations, handstand at the wall
  • Finish with 1 minute of mindful stillness either in seated meditation or supine in savasana

 

And there you have it, a short beautifully balanced yoga practice! The great thing about this technique is that it is also very scalable and could be easily extended to 7, 10, 15 minutes etc. Just choose a few more poses and lengthen the breathing and savasana to 2-3 minutes each.

 

3. Tack your yoga practice on to a pre-existing habit

This is a technique I learnt from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit book.

 

The idea is that you tack the new habit you want to build (a.k.a creating a home yoga practice) on to the end of a habit that you already have well established.

 

This is actually the way I developed my meditation practice – I simply added it on to the end of my well established yoga practice. Examples of habits that yoga could precede or follow on from include:

  • After you’ve brushed your teeth (morning or evening)
  • Once you return home from work
  • Before breakfast
  • After your morning cup of coffee

4. Put it top of the to-do list

Time for a bit of tough love. This is actually something I’ve been working on a fair bit myself this year with some other habits I’ve been wanting to develop. It slowly dawned from this potent realisation:

 

The to-do list NEVER, EVER ends.

 

Combined with these words of wisdom from Parkinson’s law:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

 

Meaning there will always be something else you could be doing other than yoga. It’s very tempting to put off doing things for your health until all the other things on the to-do list are done. Inevitably what happens is that the to-do list expands to fill all available time and space, and important health habits such as going for a walk, meditating, cooking a healthy meal etc. get pushed to the side.

 

To counter this I’ve been exploring doing the health habits first and the to-do list second. Initially I was really worried that I’d start getting behind with work and things would start falling apart but in fact I found the opposite to be true.

 

Since I now have less time to get stuff done, I’m more efficient, procrastinate less and actually get more things accomplished in the same amount of time (Parkinson’s Law beautifully demonstrated – bit of a game changer in all areas of life to be honest).

 

So give it a go – for the next week why not put the yoga practice top of the list and see what happens?

5. Use an app to track progress

Having previously worked in the videogames industry and being a bit of a geek, I get how powerful reward systems can be for reinforcing certain behaviours.

The reason gambling is so addictive is that it creates a very powerful connection between an action and a positive stimulus, and we can use this knowledge to help us build and continue with more positive habits such as developing a regular yoga practice.

 

There are lots of apps out there that help one to stay on track with their habits for anything from exercise to meditation. I currently am using Sattva, an online meditation app that helps me to track my daily meditation practice. It cleverly reinforces my desire to continue by showing on average how many minutes I do each day, rewards me with trophies for reaching certain milestones (e.g. 100 minutes of meditation) and shows my best streaks – numbers of days meditated in a row.

 

I don’t want to stop meditating because I’ll lose my best streak status and I can see how close I am to getting my next trophy. I don’t see why an app like Sattva couldn’t be used to track a home yoga practice either. It may sound trivial or even superficial but hey if it keeps you on track, then what’s not to like!

 

6. Do it at the time of day that suits your body and your schedule

For a long time I used to feel guilty that I did not enjoy practicing yoga first thing in the morning. Yogis are famed for their love of pre-dawn starts and of course the whole idea of Sun Salutations is that they’re practiced as a way to greet the sun and prepare the body-mind for the day ahead. This all sounds lovely…unless you’re a night owl.

 

I am one of those people who find it difficult to string sentences together in the morning, let alone contemplate putting my body through the rigours of any kind of physical practice.

 

There have been times when I have had to practice first thing because that was the only time it would happen, but I’ll be honest it’s not my preference. I personally love, and have a schedule that’s flexible enough to allow me, to practice in the late morning or afternoon.

 

I try to encourage my clients to let go of all the preconceived ideas about when they should be practicing and instead experiment with different times to see what suits their bodies and their schedule best. If that means practicing before you go to bed then go for it!

 

The key is to find a time and then roughly stick to it.

7. Use online classes

This has been a game changer for my own personal practice. It’s usually tricky for me to get to public classes and I’ll be honest I prefer practicing on my own anyway. However I do still love instruction and learning new things from teachers.

 

This is where the plethora of online yoga platforms has been such a godsend. There are loads to choose from – some are free, others charge a small monthly fee but give you the chance to trial them out for a couple of weeks before committing. The key is to try a few and see which you prefer.

 

Below are some of my favourite options for online classes:

www.yogaglo.com – $18 per month, free 2 week trial

www.yogainternational.com – £12 per month, free 30 day trial

www.doyogawithme.com – free

 

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