Asana – Protect Your Joints with Proper Alignment

2 April 2013

One of the most important responsibilities of a yoga teacher is to help their students get back in touch with their bodies. As we grow older, most of us gradually “grow out” of our bodies, often decreasing our ability to understand how our bodies really function, and then we tend to miss or ignore the built-in signs and/or warnings that can alert us to any current or potential future problems with our joints and connective tissue. By re-learning (or even learning for the first time) about the basic structures and functions of your body, with the help of your yoga instructor, your practice becomes a great starting point for getting back in tune, avoiding complications or problems.

Learning how to protect and care for your joints, tendons and connective tissues (knees, elbows, hips, etc.) during yoga, – is one of the most important step to help ensure you have a lifetime of safe and rewarding asana practices.

Your feet are the foundation…

When practicing yoga, start with your foundation, your base (the feet), and then build from there. If the feet aren’t properly aligned, then it’s likely that the rest of the body, starting with the knees is also misaligned.

A good place to start is by looking at your body in Tadasana (Standing or Mountain Pose). When you stand in Tadasana, look down at your feet. Some of us stand with our toes pointed out (outtoeing), or our toes pointed in (intoeing or “pigeon toed”). In yoga, it’s important that your feet to are parallel.

Next, notice how your weight is distributed on your feet. Do you tend to put more weight on the balls of your feet or do you tend to lean back with more weight on your heels? Check a pair of shoes that you’ve worn for a few years, you’ll get a good idea where you place most of your weight on your feet.

During yoga practice, you are encouraged to distribute your weight onto the “four corners of your feet;” this includes the inner and outer heel, and the ball (both the big toe and the pinky toe side of the feet). It is good for students to practice lifting their toes, spreading them out and then lower each toe, one by one, back down to the floor or the mat.

Now take a quick look at your knees. It’s common for students to lock their knees when they come up into Tadasana or the half-lift from forward fold and quite often they don’t realize it’s happening. Locking or hyper-extending the knees are hard on them and will tend to cause pronation or supination in the feet (see illustration above). Be aware of that habit and correct it by micro-bending the knees.

The Warrior Poses

Asana - Protect Your Joints with Proper Alignment

Warrior I

The Warrior poses are an awesome way to help you learn the basics of protecting your knees throughout your yoga practice. Starting with Warrior I and II, it is necessary for you to watch the alignment of your feet, the distribution of your weight on your feet, as well as well as the alignment of your knees. You also want to make sure you stand tall in the torso, drawing the belly/core up and in for support; avoiding leaning the torso forward.

Make sure you check the position of your feet. For example, while in Warrior II, look at your feet. Your front heel and back heel should align or your front heel may line up with the arch of the back foot. As far as the set distance between your feet, find what is most comfortable but make sure that your front (bent) knee stays above or slightly behind the front ankle.  Essentially your feet should end up below your wrists.

Asana - Protect Your Joints with Proper Alignment

Warrior II

Next, press into the big toe and pinky toe sides of the front foot, as well as into the outer edge of the back foot as you simultaneously lift up through the arches of both feet. At this point it’s important to engage the inner thigh muscle (the vastus medialis) of your front leg along with the other quadriceps muscles so that you properly align the knee. Pressing down into the big toe as you lift up through the arch of the front foot helps engage these muscles.

Keep a close check on your knees to ensure that your front knee always stays above or slightly behind the front ankle. If the knee drifts or creeps forward in front of the ankle, this will generally cause strain to the area.

You can protect your knees and strengthen the vastus medialis by following three basic rules for the warrior poses.

  • 1. Make sure your knee is bent properly to a right angle, so the weight is centered in your heel. If your toes are gripping, it’s a sign that your knee is going too far beyond your heel.
  • 2. Don’t let the inner arch of your foot collapse, for this is a sign that your knee is turning inward too much. (These two actions—grounding and lifting—will keep the knee from turning inward or outward too much.)
  • 3. Make sure that the heel, kneecap, and hip joint of your bent leg are in the same plane by allowing a slight turn of the hips.

With appropriate instruction from a certified yoga teacher you will soon become aware that there are many details to learn in terms of proper alignment and form in yoga. These principles are not to make your sessions burdensome, but rather, they are there to ensure that your practice supports and strengthens your body for many years to come. So, with a “certified” yoga teacher you can rest assured that he/she fully understands anatomy, kinesiology and proper alignment, and that they are qualified to teach you and help you practice safely every time you roll out your mat!

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