Oh dear….it’s time discuss the famous phrase ‘lock the knee.’ The phrase that has delivered the hot yoga community countless bouts of scorn and criticism. In my opinion it is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted concept in hot yoga classes today. So misunderstood, actually, that I try to use many different ways of explaining it when I’m teaching as often as I can to help people, especially beginners, find the action of locking the knee safely and properly. It is one of the most challenging things in the world to execute and maintain. As my yoga practice grows and changes, I have realized that there are many many layers to becoming more deeply engaged and aware of the leg/knee and that doing it properly is (just like all the asanas) an ever-expanding and endless exploration of the body.
If you are asking yourself, “What is ‘lock the knee’?” because you’ve never heard a teacher use this phrase before, let me explain…In a lot of hot yoga classes, this phrase is used to urge the practitioner to make their leg straight and fully engaged from the hip to the foot and everything in between. It is used to make sure that practitioners are protecting the knee joint with their strength, especially in standing and balancing poses. It is used to elicit attention and awareness back down into the foundation of the body when it can sometimes get lost in the predicament of balancing (“Please don’t let me fall on the person next to me.”), stretching (“Oh my God, when did I get SO STIFF?”), and weight-bearing (while keeping a most relaxed facial expression, of course). Most people hear this cue and think that it means thrust or shove the knee back as far as it goes, which would be hyperextending the knee joint. This isn’t what teachers mean for you to do.
1. A straight standing leg. Not a hyper-extended knee, not a bent knee. Just a simply straight leg. Hip stacked on top of the knee, knee stacked on top of the ankle joint.
2. Use the leg muscles to keep the knee ‘locked’ in this position. Take a 360 degrees tour with your awareness around your knee to see that it is supported the whole way around. It is really easy to access the strength and support in the front of the knee with the quadriceps muscles. The more challenging ways to feel that support are at the inner knee, outer knee and back of the knee.
3. Distribute your body weight equally throughout the bottom foot. This is the key to finding support in those harder to sense areas of the inner, outer and back of the knee. The toes should be spread, with the bottom of the foot open to the earth. Most people sink back into their heel and outside edge of the foot. Which can cause hyperextension at the knee joint and also make it very difficult to balance. When you bring the weight more balanced throughout the foot, what generates that shift is the engagement of more muscles throughout the calf, inner thigh, hip, and even the upper thigh. This creates a lifting sensation of the whole thigh, away from the knee joint. A feeling of elevated spaciousness in the knee is present rather than a sinking and aching feeling into the knee joint.
4. Don’t let your attention waver from these aspects for even a wink, because if you do, one or more of them will disappear. It takes constant attentiveness and tenacity to maintain!
The reason the knee joint is safer to balance on in this locked position is because of the way the knee joint is built. The knee is a hinge joint meant to flex and extend, in order to bring the lower leg forward and backward. When other movements of the lower leg/upper leg relationship occur, this is when injury can happen to the structures that comprise the knee joint. What keeps the knee on the right track are the muscles, their tendons and most of all: the ligaments. The knee is least vulnerable when the leg is straight because the collateral ligaments on the inner and outer knee are the most supportive in this position.
When the knee bends, those two ligaments (LCL and MCL) become more lax and their support of the knee joint greatly diminishes.
This increases the risk of damaging those or other ligaments between the upper and lower leg bones especially while bearing the weight of the entire body on just one leg instead of two. When the knee goes into hyperextension, there isn’t the muscle tone and support to keep space in the knee joint, which puts tremendous pinching pressure onto the meniscus (the cartilaginous pillow between the upper leg bone and the lower leg bone) which can, over time with repeated misuse, tear or wear away.
Yoga is supposed to heal our bodies, right?! So, trying to find strength and support as a balance to going further into depth is the way we keep yoga as a beneficial practice rather than just another mindless activity that causes injury or strain. I didn’t say it was going to be easy, but I will say that it is going to be endlessly challenging and fascinating. The more I learn to notice the detail and subtlety in my hatha yoga practice, the more I learn to be mindful of detail and subtlety in my everyday life. Try to see how the benefits of exploring detail in your yoga practice and body ripple out into your day-to-day existence.