A few of my clients have been recently asking for a morning mobility yoga sequence that they can do on a regular basis.
Personally, I try to make some time in the early morning to do some sort of mobility/yoga practice. Sometimes this will mean 10-15 minutes, sometimes a little longer. Either way my days seem to go a little more gracefully and fluidly when I have spent some time connecting to, and taking care of my body, before the demands of the day set in.
I have created a sequence that includes some of my favourite ways to move my body in the morning. Many of these are simple, functional type movements that take care of major places where tension gets stored, namely the shoulders, spine, hips, legs and feet.
This whole morning mobility yoga sequence will take about 20-30 minutes depending on how many repetitions you make of each movement and how long you dwell within each pose. If you have less time feel free to skip some of the movements out, instead choosing the poses that feel most useful or relevant for your body on that particular day.
Here are a few guidelines for getting the most out of your practice:
Be kind and respectful of your body
As we get more tuned into our unique body experience, we start to see how the body is constantly evolving and changing. Your mobility, energy-levels, balance, co-ordination and strength will vary day-to-day based on a whole number of factors, including what kind of acitvities you did the day before, how well hydrated your tissues are, the quality of your sleep and even what kind of mood you’re in. Be kind and respectful of where you’re starting your practice from.
It’s also worth noting that your body is probably at it stiffest and most inflexible in the morning – therefore be patient, manage your expectations and recognise that this is the not the time to create new personal bests in terms of flexibility!
Bring a spirit of playfulness and curiosity to the practice
I prefer a more fluid and dynamic practice in the morning – I will rarely hold stretches statically but instead use this time to explore the full range of motion in my joints, moving gently in and out of stretches.
The spirit of this practice is exploratory and I invite you to bring a sense of playfulness and curiosity to the movements. Don’t be fixed or rigid but allow yourself to take the visual template of each movement or pose and then feel free to explore in and around that position, finding angles and ranges of motion that feel useful, interesting and opening for your body.
It’s fine to explore non-traditional alignments – the body is capable of moving in a variety of unique and interesting ways, so don’t limit yourself and enjoy yourself!
Work with an awareness of your breathing
In yoga, we typically emphasise moving in co-ordination with the breath and this can be a powerful way to quieten the mind, calm the nervous system and reduce the tendency to hold the breath, particularly during difficult or awkward-feeling movements.
However, I am aware that syncing movement to breath can be confusing for beginning students, so my main advise is to just stay tuned in to your breathing and aim for a fluid, regular, gentle, three-dimensional breath. Watch for any restrictions, tension or holding around your breathing. This is why I recommend starting with a minute of deep diaphragmatic breathing. Place your hands on your lower ribs and work to gently expand and soften the bottom of the ribcage front-to-back and side-to-side as you breathe.
You might find it useful to use the inhale breath during parts of the movement that accentuate lifting or lengthening of the spine. The exhalation is useful for movements where we are folding forwards, twisting or using some amount of muscular effort.
The feet are the very foundation of our skeleton and as such, play a critical role in our posture and movement habits. With 26 bones in each foot and multiple joint surfaces, a healthy, balanced foot has the capacity for an enormous amount of mobility and adaptability to the surfaces it walks upon. Unfortunately due to restrictive footwear and the monotony of much of the surfaces we now walk on (think carpets, tarmac, flat surfaces) the feet are not getting exposed to the kinds of challenging terrain and environments that keep them supple, strong and healthy.
Our feet are becoming increasingly stiff. The aches of our feet which are critical for healthy biomechanics in the knees, hips and spine begin to collapse, and in so doing we suffer from a sort of internal collapse (the ability to connect to our pelvic floor and core are very much linked to the support of our foot arches). Our toes shrivel, curl and deform and as the feet lose their mobility and strength we become vulnerable to a whole host of foot disorders such as plantarfasciitis, sprained ankles, bunions, shin splints and neuromas.
Dysfunctions in the biomechanics of the feet also have a tendency to ripple upwards causing instability and poor tracking in the knees, pain and dysfunction in the hips and even back pain. Indeed many therapists, including myself, look at the feet as a key contributory factor in lower back pain.
This makes sense when you think of the following analogy. In a building, if the foundations are unstable or weak, this will lead to subsidence and ultimately structural failure or collapse as you go higher up the levels of the building. Our skeletons are much the same, lack of mobility and stability in the feet can, and most likely will, end up causing problems for the joints that stack above them.
When I work with a client for the first time I spend quite a bit of time educating them about the important role of the feet and how they should be moving. The following exercises are just some of the ones I regularly turn to when working to bring the feet back to balance.
Massage, Sensitisation and Circulation
The first few exercises are all geared to re-awakening your brain-body connection with your feet. The soles of our feet are covered in nerve endings that transmit important information about the environment to our nervous systems and brain. Many of my clients are working with feet that are often de-sensitised and lack good circulation which is what these first few exercises work to address:
Plantarfascia ball rolling
I have a love-hate relationship with this exercise but it is one of my favourites for both waking up the feet and helping to work through tension and tightness in the sole of the foot. Thanks to our increased understanding about the role of fascia/connective tissue and its impact on our mobility we now know that rolling out the fascia of our feet has a knock-on positive benefit on the flexibility and mobility of the whole back of the body. Try this: From standing, come into a forward bend position reaching your fingers towards your toes. Take a few breaths and just notice how you feel, the level of intensity of stretch/sensations and where the tightness is located. Now take a spiky ball and roll it firmly under the sole of your foot for 1 minute. Put enough pressure through the foot to be uncomfortable but stop before the point you start to cry!
You can make long scrubbing motions, little circles or even just hold the ball still as you apply pressure through a particularly tender spot.Repeat on the other foot. Now come into your forward bend position again, reaching down to touch your toes. Notice the difference! How does the body feel now? What is the level of intensity? Most people find the second forward bend a lot easier, with more range of motion and less overall tension particularly in the spine and hamstrings. The moral of the story is this – if you have a tight lower back or hamstrings, roll out your feet!
This is also a particularly useful exercise for clients working with plantarfasciitis, heel pain and neuromas. Aim to do this at lease once a day or even keep these balls under your desk for you to roll your feet out whilst you work!
Fingers Between Toes and Foot Massage
I encourage my clients to get into the habit of massaging their feet or better yet getting a loving friend, partner, family member to step in. If you are prone to foot cramps you could do this with magnesium oil, which is thought to help reduce cramping and soreness in the feet.
using your thumbs to rub firmly through the soles of the feet. Work into the
heels, balls of the feet and around the toes.
each finger between each toe. Do the best you can – if you can’t get each
finger between each toe that’s fine – just do what you can, it does get easier
with time. Now stretch the fingers out to spread the toes out. Repeat this a
few times. You can also point and flex the foot and roll it around in circles,
keeping the fingers threaded between the toes. Continue for 1 minute and then
repeat on the second side.
These next few stretches are about improving the pliability and mobility of the feet. It’s worth saying that many of these exercises can be quite uncomfortable and awkward when you first do them. Persevere – work within a tolerable range of sensation and avoid anything that brings on acute pain. Monitor the sensations in the foot both as you’re holding the pose and also after and adjust your position accordingly. Aim to hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, gradually building up to 2 minutes for each pose:
Sometimes jokingly called Broken Toe Pose! Not an easy posture but so valuable and worth persevering with particularly if you do a lot of sport or running. Again, like many of these exercises it gets easier with time. Play with your edge but don’t push into acute pain. If you have bunions be mindful to keep the weight even across the ball of the foot and try to get the toes pointing straight forwards as much as possible rather than out to the sides.
Come into a squat position with your toes tucked under and your knees parallel and hip-width apart. Make sure that all your toes are tucked under you – you may need to work to get the pinky toes under! Make sure that your feels are not sickling outwards but instead gently draw the heels towards each other so that all 10 toes are pointing straight forwards and the heels are right behind the balls of the feet.
If your knees are sensitive you may need to lean into the hands, lifting the hips slightly or try rolling up a blanket/towel and tucking it behind your knees before bringing your hips back towards your heels.
You can rest your hands on your thighs (more intense), bring blocks under your hands or bring your hands to the floor either side of your knees (less intense) to help take some of the weight off the feet.
Start by coming into a kneeling position with the toes pointing straight back and the tops of the feet on the floor. This pose may be enough if you’re already feeling a stretch in the tops of the feet or front of thighs. Again, make sure that your heels are not sickling outwards but instead gently draw the heels towards each other so that all 10 toes are pointing straight back and the heels are right behind the balls of the feet. Putting a tight yoga strap around the ankles can also help with this.
If your knees are sensitive you may need to lean into the hands, lifting the hips slightly or try rolling up a blanket/towel and tucking it behind your knees before bringing your hips back towards your heels. Skip this pose if the knees are acutely painful.
The next stage is to explore lifting either one or both knees away from the ground. This will increase the stretch through the top of the foot and shinbone. Again make sure heels don’t roll outwards, keep them hugging in. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to 2 minutes hold.
Half forward bend with a rolled blanket or yoga block
Take a yoga
mat and roll it up to about 2-3” thickness in diameter. Step the balls of the
feet onto the roll with the heels on the floor.
You can bring a chair or 2 yoga blocks on the floor in front of you for support. Hinging from your hips and keeping your spine long (avoid hunching over), bend your knees slightly and start to forward bend bringing your hands to the chair, block or floor.
Shift your weight so that it’s balanced right over the front of the heels. Without rounding your back, locking out the knees or shifting your weight back, gently try to press the thighs back. You should feel a deep release around the ankles, calves and up into the hamstrings. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to 2 minutes hold.
Garland pose with a rolled blanket or mat under the heels
Start with your feet a little wider than your hips with the heels on the mat roll and the toes on the floor. You can keep the feet parallel or allow the feet to turn out slightly – check that the kneecaps are pointing in the same direction as your toes.
your spine long and lower abdominals lightly engaged, start to bend your knees
and lower your hips towards a squat. If the heels lift, put more height under
your heels. Allow the heels to sink down and feel the pelvis hang away from the
spine. You can bring your elbows inside of your knees and use the arms to
gently press the thighs out, knees over toes.
If this pose is relatively easy for you, you can do this without any mat roll under the heels. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to 2 minutes hold.
Strength, Stability, Proprioception and Balance
These last few exercises are designed to work on the stability and strength of the foot, ankles and lower legs. Be prepared for a lot of wobbling! In fact the wobbles and constant micro-adjustments are all part and parcel of the body building strength and you will find these decrease as you get more stable. Standing on the block whilst balancing adds another challenge dynamic into the mix – as you get stronger you can make the surface you stand on less stable for example by layering a soft spongy blanket on top of the block. Closing the eyes also ups the challenge level quite significantly!
Mountain pose – feet hipwidth apart
This is a useful exercise to see how you distribute your body weight through your feet and to make some micro-adjustments to be in greater balance.
Come to stand with your feet hip-width apart. Stand with your feet parallel with the 2nd/3rd toes pointing straight ahead, or if more comfortable for the knees slightly turned out with the big-toes pointing straight forward.
Standing tall with your spine tall and your knees unlocked, close your eyes and notice where your weight is. Is it more on the right foot or left? More towards the front balls of the feet or towards the heels? Now explore the following 4 small adjustments:
Explore shifting your weight so that you are balanced between left and right foot.
Bring the weight to the center of each foot, with the weight right in front of each heel.
Now lift all 10 toes off the floor (keeping the balls of the feet on the ground). Notice how this action lifts the inner and outer arches of the feet. Can you keep this lift of the arches as you gently relax the toes down?
Try to bring an even sense of weight between the big toe, little toe and center of each heel – like a tripod of support.
Notice how these little micro-adjustments change the feeling throughout the rest of the body.
Big toes raised
Now keeping the adjustments you just made in mountain pose intact, see if you can lift just your big toes off the floor, whilst keeping the other toes on the ground. Can you do this without locking your knees, or rolling to the outer edges of the feet? Try this a few times! It will potentially be very frustrating/difficult to do when you start but persevere – we are strengthening the neuro-muscular pathways of the feet. Repeat this action 10 times.
Four toes raised
The same as above but this time keep the big toes down and try to lift the other four toes off the ground. See again if you can do this without rolling to the inner edges of the feet or locking the knees. Repeat this action 10 times. Even if the toes don’t cooperate there is still value in just thinking about doing the movement – eventually the brain and the body will cooperate!
Heel raises with a chair
The key with this is to lift the heel straight up so that the weight is spread evenly between the balls of the feet. Avoid rolling the ankles outwards or inwards as you lift and lower. Squeeze and engage the glutes and legs as you lift and lower – you should feel this work in the glutes and backs of the legs.
Holding onto the back of a chair. Place your feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other. Inhale to lift your heels up, coming onto your tip-toes. Exhale to lower the heels. Make sure your body stays upright – try to avoid leaning forwards or back as you lift and lower. Repeat this action 10 times. Take a rest and then repeat 10 more times.
Hip stabilisation – leg circles
This exercise is designed to strengthen the muscles of the outer hips and improve the biomechanics between the feet, ankles, knees and hips.
Stand your right foot on the block (or book) and hover the left leg up so that the hip bones are now level. The standing right knee should be unlocked and the outer hips firming in. You will start to feel the outer hip of the standing leg working. Make sure the standing right foot doesn’t turn out but points straight ahead.
With control and without moving the hips or upper body, start to gently circle the hovering left leg and foot, forwards, out to the side and backwards as if you were tracing a circle with your big toe on the floor. Keep the outer hips firm and still and watch that the standing knee continues to track forwards over the toes – don’t let it roll in! Do not let the upper body lean forwards and backwards – isolate the movement just into the leg. Do this 5 times in one direction and then 5 times in the other direction. Switch sides.
Standing tall place your left foot onto the inner ankle, calf or thigh of your right leg. Make sure the foot is placed above or below the knee rather than directly on the side of the knee. Keep the hips and toes of your standing foot pointing forwards, as you widen the right thigh to the right by squeezing the buttock muscles gently. Find one point of focus to gaze at for greater balance and stability. Firm the muscles of your legs and outer hips in, lift tall through the sides of the waist and extend the crown of the head to the sky. Hands can rest on your hips, in prayer at the chest or reach them skywards.
To make this pose more challenging for the muscles of the feet, ankles and hips, you can stand on a soft surface such as a rolled blanket or spongy yoga block. To test your balance and proprioception still further you could explore closing the eyes! Hold for 5 breaths and then switch sides.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! 🙂