4 Yoga Mistakes that Can Cause Knee Pain

Sadie Nardini by Sadie Nardini | July 15th, 2009 | 59 Comments
topic: Fitness, Health & Wellness, Healthy Aging, Yoga

Senior Woman Warrior

Yes, yoga is known for its healing powers and ability to transform your body and mind into a lean — yet much less mean — you.

However, it’s also a physical exercise and often a vigorous one. As such, if done incorrectly, it can also cause pain and even major injury. One MD friend told me recently he’s never seen this many muscular and joint issues stemming from yoga. And by “issues,” he means ruptures, pulls, tears and herniated discs. All of which could, and do, halt yoga practitioners in their tracks every day.

Now, I’m not trying to cast a dark cloud over your practice. I want to give you the power to protect your precious knees by handing you the knowledge it takes to be mindful to your potential trouble spots when you’re on the mat. I want most of all to see you keep your body healthy and help your yoga experience remain empowering — and last a lifetime.

This week, we’ll focus on the knees. For a more in-depth study about how your body works within the poses, I recommend the fabulous Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff.

For our purposes today, I’ve simplified the complex structure of the knee into instructions you can use the very next time you practice, knowing that you are moving away from potential injury and toward balance with each session.

We’ll focus on common yoga mistakes that can cause knee pain and how to avoid them. The below four poses exemplify how the knees can be taken out of alignment during yoga, and since the principles of alignment apply to your whole practice, you can use the information to keep an eye on all your other poses, too.

An added bonus is that when you free your knees, you’ll gain more strength and stability, and your body will release into flexibility more fully. So when your knees win, so do you!

Enjoy,

Sadie

4 poses to move from knee strain … to gain!

Please warm up first with three to five Core Sun Salutations, and remember to breathe slowly and deeply through your nose for the entirety of the practice.

1. High Lunge

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When you’re in Down Dog, as you step one foot forward toward a lunge preparation, you want to hit two points of alignment right away:

  • Your foot should step to the same thumb (right foot to right thumb), not to center between your hands.
  • When you come up, this will bring your knee wider, pointing directly forward from your hip joint rather than buckling the knee in toward center, moving it off of the hip line. You’ll bring the weight on your knee joint into balance.
  • Your toes and fingertips should be in the same line, so your foot is all the way up, not lagging back behind your hands.

When you come up, this will ensure that with a bent front leg, your knee will hover over your heel or back toward your body more, but not jut out over your foot, causing pressure over the front of your knee.

Applies to: Any standing pose where you step forward with a bent front knee such as Warrior I and II, Side Angle, Reverse Warrior, Chair Pose, Eagle Pose

2. Warrior I

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Bring your awareness to your back leg in this pose. One rule of knee health to observe: Your toes, knee and center of the hip should all be facing the same angle.

This means that if your back toes are facing diagonally out in a 45-degree angle, then your knee should also be turned to face the same direction as the toes — to 45. The problem arises from a commonly taught but incorrect instruction that can wreak havoc on the knee joint: “Square your hips forward in Warrior I.” I hear this in many a yoga class — and it’s anatomically misaligned.

With your back foot anchored at 45 degrees, if you try and turn your hips farther forward than 45 degrees, it’s your knee joint that will take the twist. Now, sometimes yoga twists are good, but in this case, the knee is not meant to twist and doing so can cause chronic tweaks or serious damage.

So, when in your Warrior I, allow your back hip to roll open just enough to bring the center of your thigh and hip into the same angle as the toes and knees. In Warrior I with your right foot forward, for example, your hips should face diagonally to the right, not totally open like a Warrior II or fully squared forward like a Lunge (whose lifted back heel makes the forward hip alignment knee-safe).

From your diagonal hips, spin your top body forward, not from the pelvis but from the ribs, heart, shoulders and head. You’ll feel more muscles activate in your core and back while maintaining space and freedom in your knee and hip.

Applies to: Any anchored-foot standing pose like Warrior I, II, Side Angle, Triangle, Reverse Triangle (really watch the knee in these revolved poses!), Parsvottanasana, Malasana

3. Triangle Pose

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In these straight-legged poses, pay attention to your front knee. It’s easy to:

1) Lock the knee and hang out in the joint instead of activating your leg muscles for support.

2) Press too hard back into the joint, which can cause hyperextension or overstretching at the back of your knee.

Instead, let there be a microbend in your front knee, so you’re not jamming back into the joint and slacking the muscles. Then firm your muscles around the thigh and knee and press out through your foot as if you’re stepping on an accelerator.

Which, when you think about all the benefits you’re getting by moving out of the joint and into your strength…you are.

Applies to: Any straight front leg pose that bears weight, like Parsvottanasana, Warrior III, ½ Moon, Tree Pose, Standing Splits

4. Pigeon Pose

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This pose asks you to externally rotate or turn out your front leg, which puts a good amount of pressure on the knee, especially if you have tight quadriceps (front thighs), adductors (inner thighs) or hip rotators (outer hips).

When you fold forward, the tilt of your pelvis causes even more stretch around the knee. If misaligned, the shear pressure on your knee joint can be too much.

When you come into Pigeon, three common mistakes and their solutions are:

1) Flexing your foot

A flexed foot can cause the lower leg to cease its external rotation, again, causing the knee joint to take the twist as you bend forward. Instead, “froint” the foot — point the foot but draw the toes back and press out through the ball of the foot, as if you’re wearing high heels (yes, guys…even you).

This will allow the whole leg to more freely rotate, releasing the knee.

2) Grabbing the foot and pulling it forward to take the shin more parallel to the front of the mat

Just because the shin is forward doesn’t make the pose more advanced. In fact, yanking the foot forward or hooking the flexed foot around the wrist, knee to other wrist, means you’re working to get your shin forward into a certain look of the pose, but you might be seriously compromising your knee joint.

From this moment on, never grab your foot with your hand in this pose. Instead, back your foot off toward the opposite hip crease and make sure your hips are level (not rocking over to rest on the bent leg’s hip).

Then, to deepen the pose if this feels fine on the knee, you can move your knee slightly wider and scoot your back leg straight back a little more. The front knee should be either in front of your hip or a bit wider, and you can repeat that adjustment (knee wider, back leg back) a couple of times. But don’t wait till you feel a huge stretch to fold forward, remembering that tilting the pelvis into a fold increases the knee strain. So save some room to move for your forward bend.

In this way, your shin and frointed foot will come forward naturally and totally hands-free.

3) Working with the hips too low if the knee hurts

For some, bending the front knee in Pigeon and having the hips lowering can pull the quadriceps and front of the knee, straining the knee joint before it stretches the hips. If you feel knee pain before a hip stretch, work on tighter front thigh muscles first by raising your front hip onto a rolled blanket or block(s).

Allowing your quads to release by lowering your bolster little by little over time will eventually get you into the hip muscles without overwhelming your knees.

Applies to: Any externally rotating leg poses, like Ankle to Knee, Gomukhasana, ½ or Full Lotus (I don’t recommend the Lotus poses due to their extreme knee torque), Flying Crow, Supine Pigeon, Janu Sirsasana

Comments

  1. Thank you I found this article to be extremely helpful ,not only for my personal practice, but as a teacher to bring this information to my students.

    I followed your suggestions, and immediately, felt the difference.
    I’ll be sharing this knowledge in my class tomorrow.

    Namaste,
    Clay Goldstein

    clay goldstein | July 15th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  2. Great, Clay–glad I could be of service to you, your students, and all your knees;)

    Namaste,
    Sadie

    Sadie Nardini | July 15th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  3. Thanks for the tips. I had knee surgery about a year ago for a torn ACL. Pigeon is my favourite pose and still bothers it sometimes. I am going to try the “froint” this evening!

    Charlotte | July 15th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  4. thanks for this article! three out of four of these bother me, and i really appreciate the tips! terrific!!

    Nancy | July 15th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  5. Hey Nancy–
    Which ones bother you, and where? I can give you some modifications that will help!

    Sadie

    Sadie Nardini | July 15th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  6. Gaiam also has my Strong Knees DVD to help people with knee pain.

    Chantal Donnelly | July 17th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  7. : “Square your hips forward in Warrior I.” I hear this in many a yoga class — and it’s anatomically misaligned.
    Sadie thank you for pointing this out…I was new to yoga and the instructor kept saying this and I also read the same advise on Yoga websites. But it never felt right to me and I have always resisted warrior 1 because of this.
    I would think squaring your hips with your leg in that position would actually torque the knee if your hips are not flexible?

    Kat | July 18th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  8. Hi Kat–

    Exactly. It can torque the knee even IF your hips are flexible. People think the leg can turn out healthfully from the hip, which, if the foot isn’t anchored, it can. But in a standing pose like Warrior 1, when the foot is grounded, turning the hip forward against that is not healthy for the knee joint.

    I hope this frees you to re-discover the pose, which is so empowering when it’s properly aligned.

    Namaste!
    Sadie

    Sadie Nardini | July 19th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  9. This is great, thank you. Would you consider following this up with some similar feed back on poses that stress the hips? My knees are shipshape, but after major hip surgery as a child I find some supposedly simple poses (Warrior 1) to be incredibly challenging, yet others are so refreshing. (Pigeon, Cow Face) Any thoughts? :)

    Marie | July 24th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  10. I will do that–I have some great suggestions for you.

    Namaste!
    Sadie

    Sadie Nardini | July 24th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  11. Great advice …… I have been making these mistakes and have been suffering from knee pain ……. thanks so much ….

    Ginny | July 28th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  12. Hi Sadie

    Just wanted to share with you that I have used your advice in my classes, and my students are extremely grateful. They noticed the difference immediately when doing Warrior 1. Thank you again
    I also would appreciate any advice you can give on hip openers and balance asanas.

    Namaste,
    Clay

    clay goldstein | August 1st, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  13. “froint” the foot? I have been taught by Anusara teachers to “floint” (flex + point).
    Is there a difference between the two, or just a typo?

    devilee | August 16th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  14. These are some great teaching tools that I am going to use in my yoga classes this week! It makes such perfect sense! I have been trying to torque my body to fit this Warrior I pose for years. Love this! I’m going to start re-learning and re-teaching this pose immediately. Love the Froint, or Floint term too. Thanks Sadie!
    :)
    Jill

    Jill Slater | September 6th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  15. Thank you for this article! Finally some answers! I’ve been having knee pain from these exact poses but my instructors were unable to give me detailed ways to fix the problem. Thank you again!

    Maria | November 16th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  16. Thanks so much! I have been doing a series of hip openers that includes pigeon, and yesterday I felt a weird sensation in my left knee as I tried to get my right leg back farther and more straight. I had the front (left) foot flexed, and was trying to keep the shin out straight too. Now today the knee is a little sore. I am going to skip pigeon for a little while and try your suggestions when I go back to it.

    I have also always had the same trouble you describe with Warrior I, and resisted that instruction to bring the hips straight forward because it seemed impossible. Thanks for explaining!

    Jessica | December 11th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  17. My interest in yoga has come to a quick hault due to excessive knee pain. I’m extremely excited to use these suggestions to hopefully further my practise! Thank you!!

    brent | February 1st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  18. Hello. I was wondering what causes pulling in the back of the knee and how to eliminate it? The actual knee is fine.
    Thank you :)

    Rose | July 29th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  19. Rose – I’m having that same problem! The back of my knee has been hurting for about a month and is keeping me from doing a free yoga class at the lake. Help!

    justiceJ | August 2nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  20. Great article!!! It really helps. Thank you so much! :)

    Andrea Rosario | October 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  21. Thanks for the Warrior I advice! I am pigeon-toed and so I had been thinking that maybe I just couldn’t do that pose the way that normal humans can. I will happily let my hips be at an angle now and avoid the knee pain.

    Lindsay | October 12th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  22. Pigeon pose is my favourite. Just printed this out. I know its going to be an excellent addition to my daily workout routines!

    Mary | October 12th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  23. Great article, I’ve been wondering for weeks about the source of the pain, and to you guessed it…I’ve been doing these poses on a weekly basis. Thank you!

    Abe | October 14th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  24. this explains soooo much! I have been doing warrior 1 incorrectly for a long, long time. they always say to square the hips! However, I gave up on the pigeon pose a long time ago :D

    Missy | October 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  25. This was a helpful article. However, some of my knee problems are the back knee in pigeon. Any sort of pressure on my knees when they are fully facing down irritates them. Do you have any advice or suggestions?

    Thanks
    Nancy

    nancy | November 18th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  26. I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to give the opposing view here :) the squaring of the hips can be accomplished safely in Warrior I if the back femur is rotating inwardly to bring the hip forward and down. This is the action that allows the hips to square – with the inward rotation of the femur, the knee remains in line. Some practitioners will need to play with a 10-45 degree angle of the back foot depending on the shape of their legs and how much ankle flexibility is available. Energetically, the square hips, square shoulders of this pose is well worth working towards.

    sorsha | February 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  27. glad I found this, my knees are not great anyway (too much running) & have struggled with pigeon pose on my right side with knee pain. Will absorb your advice & see how I get on. Very useful & interesting.

    John | September 7th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  28. I started hating Warrior (any variation) and pigeon. Every time I’m warrior 1, my instructor keeps telling me to push my hip lower and hurts my knee so much, that sometimes I want to cry.

    Last time we’re doing pigeon with the right leg, he asked us to twist our body’s to the left. My knee ached again. What am I doing wrong.

    Simone Costa | November 24th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  29. This was very helpful, Perfect Suggestions & Explanations. Thank you!

    Kirti | February 3rd, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  30. thanks so much!! helped loads.

    Cait | February 16th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  31. Thank you so much for these tips! I was aligning my calf to the top of the mat in pigeon and causing quite a bit of knee pain. I will try the tips here and see if it helps.

    Yoga Newbie | February 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  32. Hi there,

    What’s up? Just wanted to tell you, I loved this post. It just so very helpful. Keep on posting!

    Kent | February 29th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  33. Hi Sadie,

    I loved this article and I am plnning on teaching Warrior 1. I know that a lot of people probaly torque thier knees bases on teacher cues–such as square the hips.

    In your example,”So, when in your Warrior I, allow your back hip to roll open just enough to bring the center of your thigh and hip into the same angle as the toes and knees. In Warrior I with your right foot forward, for example, your hips should face diagonally to the right, not totally open like a Warrior II or fully squared forward like a Lunge (whose lifted back heel makes the forward hip alignment knee-safe).”

    Did you mean that your hips should face diagonally to the left w/the right knee foward?

    Also–can you please let me know where you teach warrior 1 from..mountain? And what are three directions that you give to get your students in the pose correctly?
    Thanks!!!!!

    Lu | March 5th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  34. Very helpful information about alignment. I used some of this content on my blog post and linked it back to you. http://www.daytonayogabellydance.com/2012/03/15/knee-deep-in-yoga-substitution/

    Daytona Beach Yoga | March 15th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  35. I just finished reading ‘The Science of Yoga’, and frequently throughout the book I was surprised that there was no mention of Sadie Nardini. I consistently look up postures and sequences broken down by Sadie as she is mindful of anatomy and safety in just the very way that the message of ‘The Science of Yoga’ strives to transmit. Thank you, Saidie for your knowledge and lack of disregard for the ability of yoga do not only heal but injure if practiced without the very mindfullness I know I can always find in your guides. Jai Yoga!!

    Becky | March 22nd, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  36. Thank you! Your timing with this info is PERFECT!(for me and my students)

    Info | July 1st, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  37. Thank you, Sadie, for this very informative piece on Pigeon. I have been working on reducing knee strain as I grow more interesting; this piece answered my questions.

    Joy | August 29th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  38. YogaKneez.com for a pain-free pose. My knee pad allows the knee to sink into the pose to create comfort for painful extremities so practicing yoga can be perfected and comfortable.

    Therese | October 6th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  39. I’m currently struggling with chondromalacia of the knee. Before I learned the issue, I was in search of a mat that would help with knee pain. I discovered Vernice Vita. It’s not the cheapest but it is worth every single penny. I still have to use a blanket for some poses with my knee as I cannot put pressure directly on the patella at the moment. But this mat is a true lifesaver for those with knee issues. I can’t see myself ever using another. **I do not work for the company. I am seriously in love with my mat and want to share what I’ve found!** And Sadie, thank you for the tips. I will be printing and sharing this info with my fellow teacher trainees.

    Rebekah | October 26th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  40. Hi Sadie,

    Thank you for this article. I hurt my knee doing yoga and was wondering what did I do wrong. Reading through your article made me realize, I must’ve done the warrior & triangle pose incorrectly. Plan to resume yoga keeping your tips in mind.

    rgds,

    Anand | October 28th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  41. I was new to yoga and the instructor kept saying this and I also read the same advise on Yoga websites.

    Acupuncture Kansas City | December 17th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  42. Thanks so much. This is really easy to read and understandable.

    Lauren Cleaver | December 17th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  43. A highly informative article, i like how you’re gone into detail on self treatment methods. These are great, but it’s also important to mention that, even if the worst comes to the worst and you need surgery, medical advancements have made treatments on areas such as this routine procedures, often without requiring an overnight stay.

    Great article.

    Rebecca C | March 4th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  44. I injured my knee from pigeon pose and it’s been hurting on the outside for several week, what should I do? Stop yoga or other exercise? thanks for the help!

    Marie P. | March 7th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  45. Hello,
    I had a left leg knee ACL surgery on May 10, 2012
    And now I have joint Power Yoga. I just want to ask that is Power Yoga is good for my Knee because when I do exercise it pain’s me sometime.
    Please help me.

    Sunny Gupta | April 4th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  46. sadie – my knees THANK YOU!!
    i’ve been having a lot of trouble in the last few months, especially in warrior I, pigeon, angle to knee, etc. i thought i just had a ‘bad’ knee, but really, it was bad instruction that resulted in bad habits.

    lana | April 8th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  47. Cant agree…Sorry ! on the advice for Warrior one. Hips, feet and knees need to face the same way otherwise back knee suffers and lumbar spine is compressed. Peter Blackaby (Yoga teacher and Osteopath) has an excellent book “Intelligent Yoga” which explains the whys and wherefores in detail

    Julia Osbeck | May 9th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  48. The common knee conditions you have shared here has been really helpful not only to me but also to many people out there who are in need of a knee pain relief. I really appreciate what you have here and keep this up! Thanks, anyway!

    Isabella Stewart | July 21st, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  49. I ran across this article after my knees started hurting the day after doing yoga. I am just a beginner but after reading this was able to tell exactly what I did that tweaked my knee. Thank you! :) Now I’m a little wiser for next time!

    HealthyJay | October 16th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  50. [...] engage the knees. Gaiam has done a great job of summarizing some key points in this area on their blog. It’s well worth studying. Also, if you have access to instructors certified in Iyengar, Purna, [...]

  51. Thanks for this! I referenced it in a post I wrote about yoga after ACL surgery: http://kneedtoknow.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/asana-after-acl-surgery/.

    Carry | November 7th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  52. Hi there, every time i used to check weblog posts here early
    in the dawn, as i like to gain knowledge of more and more.

    roofing gun | December 11th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  53. thanks Kat for your explain. I am guilty of having overtrained this year, with minimal stretching. I do a lot of cross training – running, cycling, crossfit, badminton. But no matter how much I stretch now, the pain just never improves. I haven’t tried the tennis ball or resistance band exercise which I will begin this evening. I guess I’m just looking for some advice or assurance from anyone with similar issues as I just don’t know what to do..

    MyKneeStretches.com | January 21st, 2014 | Comment Permalink
  54. This has helped me a lot! I have experienced so much lower back and gluteal pain. I literally get knotted up so tight. The lateral band walks hit the spots! Thank you!

    Jennifer | January 21st, 2014 | Comment Permalink
  55. Hi Sadie, Thanks you for this. I have been feeling sore knees when I bend down after yoga class and I felt sore Knees while bending during yoga today. I will keep your tips in mind during class tomorrow.

    Sadi O.

    Sadi Owicz | February 5th, 2014 | Comment Permalink
  56. Hey Sadie,

    The pigeon frointe still didn’t make the knee pain go away :(.

    Best,
    Paul

    Paul | March 11th, 2014 | Comment Permalink
  57. Hi I just started Yoga i love it but my knee pain is horrible I don’t want to quite it, is there any web site , article that you can send me or lead me to that might have correct poses?

    Laura | March 11th, 2014 | Comment Permalink
  58. Hi mates, its fantastic paragraph on the topic of tutoringand completely explained,
    keep it up all the time.

  59. These tips are sooooo very helpful for those of us with compromised knees due to loss of cartilage, arthritis, etc.

    Thank you thank you!

    SS

    sandra | July 20th, 2014 | Comment Permalink

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