If you were ever in a choir, did you have a teacher who said, “Don’t lock your knees, you might pass out!”? Well, I never really knew what locked knees felt like until I started practicing yoga seriously, and it turns out our middle-school choir teachers were right.
If your knees are completely locked in place in the joint, as in pushed straight as far as they can go, they are ‘locked’. Your knee joint is a lever that can extend to 180 degrees, and when fully extended, the joint develops a particular quality.
If you lock your knee joint when standing, the ball and socket of the joint is forced ever so slightly out of place, usually overextended backward. In the long term, this can damage the joint cartilage and lead to aching, creaky, and even arthritic knees.
But in the immediate present, like in your yoga practice, there are some pretty compelling additional reasons to avoid locking your knees.
Why We Should Avoid Locking the Knees in Yoga Poses
When our knees are locked, they have no give. Think of your body like a coiled spring—when we’re at rest and relaxed, with none of our joints locked, we can bend every which way, just like a relaxed spring. When our joints are locked, our body becomes a compressed spring—rigid and packed, with much less potential for movement.
Locking the knee joint in particular makes it more difficult to give your body the support it needs, especially during standing poses. The locked knees immobilize your whole leg, and often warp the tilt of your pelvis, making it tilt forward. This can knock your spine out of relaxed, controlled alignment and into a more rigid position as well.
Occasionally, knees can be locked so tightly that the joint obstructs blood in your veins, and they have a hard time carrying blood back to your heart from your lower body—this is why some people may start to feel lightheaded or even faint.
All of these physiological changes mean that your body is not only at much greater risk of injury, but also much less able to do the things we’re aiming to do in yoga poses, like...balance and stretch.
How to Avoid Knee Locks
So how do we avoid these locked-knee pitfalls? Let’s go over some tips:
The first, and perhaps most important piece of advice I have is simply to be very aware of every part of your body. We do this with the breath. Let your inhales and exhales guide your focus and attention inward, into your body and how it feels and what it’s doing.
Stay with this breath and let it be the main focus of your practice, especially as you move through poses where the knees are held in a 180-degree position. This will help you remain grounded in your body while also being able to let it move to the background, letting you focus your attention on other details as well.
Start in Mountain Pose
Begin your awareness simply, with an easy Mountain pose, and try to give your knees what I call a ‘micro-bend’. This is not fully bent knees, just relaxed and with a little give—someone should be able to gently push you and you wouldn’t fall over because your knees have a little flex to them.
Engage the Details
One way to help your knees stay flexible is by engaging the body parts that we wouldn’t immediately think of when we think ‘knees’. To focus on this joint, we first have to think about our feet.
Lift up and spread out all your toes, placing them back down on the mat one by one and gripping the mat with purpose. Sink the heels and the ball of the foot down into the mat, rooting down into the ground. At the same time, feel like the arch of your foot is being pulled up.
Thinking about this has a similar effect to rotating your thighs inward, towards one another—both of these actions require you to actively engage the whole leg dynamically, and your knees can’t be locked for that.
Think About Your Core
Pull the belly button back toward the spine and draw the pelvic floor up toward the ceiling. This will help align your spine as you pull the crown of the head up toward the ceiling as well, lengthening and growing tall.
At this point, you should feel almost like you’re about the jump off the floor—the feeling here is like preparing for a jump, but without bending your knees to any extreme degree—it might be barely visible, but that’s the feeling we’re going for in the body. You’re coiled and full of potential, like a relaxed spring.
Try Other Poses
Try to extend this awareness as you move into other standing poses. Try Tree pose. Avoid resting your foot into the opposite knee joint in this pose, going for either the calf or the inner thigh.
Give that standing leg a little bounce—sink down a little bit and then bring it all the way back up to standing but keep the tiniest bit of flexion in the knee.
In Triangle pose, avoid resting your hand on your leg—this can put pressure on it that may force our knee back into a locked position.
Instead, use your core to hover the hand off the floor inside the leg, or try using a block. For even more of these kinds of adjustments, check out ‘How to Avoid Locking the Knees In Standing Poses’.
Some yogis practice with locked knees on purpose—they find that it gives them more flexibility or makes the pose more intense. Some Bikram instructors even encourage it! However, the scientific literature indicates that as a long-term practice, it’s not beneficial for joint health.
As always, do what feels best in your body, and don’t try to push past what your body tells you is good. Our body will usually tell us when something feels the way it should or if we’re taking it a little too far—we just have to stop and listen.
Image credit: Alyona Lezhava