Below is a picture of my Standing Head to Knee Pose a couple of weeks before I headed to Teacher Training in 2011. As you can see I had a lot of work to do. But then, knowing what I know now, it’s not too bad. The knee is not “locked” yet, but even after 6 years of practice I wasn’t really sure what a “locked” knee actually meant.
In the beginnings of my practice I often heard from my teachers that a locked knee does not mean hyperextending the knee. And that was it. There was no further explanation, just that it was not bent and it wasn’t pushed back. For someone that naturally hyperextends their legs when simply standing, as does a large portion of my family, this was exasperating. It got to the point that I was scared to truly lock out, yet I think I knew I didn’t have it yet. While teachers brought up hyperextension they never taught the students that were overly flexible how to work or what muscles to engage. So, I simply did my best with the information I had.
The reason I know that I am not locked out yet in the picture above is because of the foot. The big toe is starting to ride up off the floor and the other toes are starting to curl up to bear the burden of the extra weight. The inside of the foot has too much space underneath and I am starting to bring the weight out to the side. If the photo was straight on from the side I’m sure there would be a mini bend happening at the knee. But this picture was taken long before people took pictures of their yoga practice regularly, before it was popular to post yoga pictures to Facebook and Instagram and therefore, the only one I have.
A few weeks later I was off to Teacher Training and there, in about week 3, I knew without a shadow of a doubt I was not locked out yet. I knew that although I didn’t want to hyperextend, I still had to get the knee back into position over the ankle joint a little bit more to get the quadricep to engage. I had to start all over again, go back to the beginning of the posture and figure it out.
And eventually I got it. And then, over time, eventually I lost it. I became too good, no good and was very talented at hyperextending my knee while keeping the front of my foot down. I was expert level. And I found every couple of months or so I’d have discomfort and pain in my in one of my hips, my piriformis muscle screaming at me and my sciatica flaring up. Yet, I had no idea I had gone so far away from correct alignment or what was causing my body to react in this way. I just thought it was what it was.
I understood that many people believed that in a locked knee position that the knee should be stacked over the ankle and the hip stacked over the knee, but for extra bendy folks I thought that this wasn’t always the case and that this was as good as it was going to get for me. The thigh was contracted, the knee cap lifted up, and there was weight at the front of the foot. Check, check, check.
And then I had a teacher take me aside and inspire me to go back and work on it. I was told that what I was doing was wrong form and I could fix it. So, I did. 11 years into the practice and I was once again back at the starting line with the locked knee. It was humbling and frustrating and…completely worth it.
What I realized was this. I was not using my strength, but leaning into my flexibility. In the beginnings of correcting it, my shins would burn as they were actually being asked to be a part of the posture. The more I worked for it, the more I realized how little of the leg muscles I had been using for the last 4 or 5 years. The muscles at the top of the thigh, including the Sartorius muscle and the tensor fasciae latae (starting at the top of the thigh connected to the hip and running down the sides of the thigh), were completely disengaged as the knee pushed way out of alignment behind the ankle joint, allowing me to crash extra weight into my hip. Also, my foot placement was off. The toes were grounded down, make the single standing leg balancing postures possible, but the ball of the foot was arching up off of the floor, pulling more weight into the heel than I thought.
I will tell you the first couple of weeks working on correct alignment felt like I was roller skating on the standing leg. It felt wacky and weird and I could swear the knee was actually bending when it wasn’t. I couldn’t hold anything for very long and it’s still not perfect months later, but I get closer every day. The body can change – you simply have to ask it to change to start to make it happen.
Below is a short video clip in which I show you the difference between hyperextending and truly locking out. Enjoy!
Students and teachers what is your experience with the locked knee? I would love to hear your thoughts this week.
Love the blog? You will love the book! Follow my yoga journey and the accomplishments of five of my students, as well as, recount some of the most popular blog posts in my first book: Views from the Podium: The Life & Times of a Hot Yogi.