The Journey to the Locked-Out Knee

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.

standing-head-to-knee-2011-views-from-the-podium

 

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.

 

locked-knee-standing-bow-pulling-pose-views-from-the-podium

 

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.

locking-the-knee-sept-2016-views-from-the-podium

 

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.

thighanatomymuscleanteriorWhat 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.

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy reading:

The Nemesis Posture

Beautifully Broken

How to Cultivate a Meaningful Yoga Practice


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4 thoughts on “The Journey to the Locked-Out Knee

  1. One of the simplest tips I give my students who hyperextend is actually to engage the deep muscles in the back of the hip to prevent rotation of the femur.

    In order for the knee joint to go beyond 180°, the femur bone actually has to internally rotate. If you can engage the quadratus femorus (QF), the strap like muscle that goes from your sacrum to the outside of your thigh bone, it will stop you from internally rotating the thighbone and make it impossible for even the most bendable yogis to go into hyperextension.

    You mentioned in the article that you were engaging the muscles at the top of your thigh. When you’re deep in the back of the heel, the quads can really go slack because you don’t need their strength and are leaning into the ligaments at the back of the hip and the knee. I would be a little bit cautious when you’re talking about muscles and remember that they only do one thing, contract.

    Most of the quadriceps muscles job is to extend the knee. Squeezing harder will make the knee joint go back more. The solitary exception to that rule is the rectus femoris, whose job is to flex the hip, too. So, engaging the top of the thigh will either get you a straighter knee or a more bent hip, but it won’t help prevent you from hyperextended my knee. Does that make sense?

    In the video, the second picture is much better, but not just because you engage thigh. In fact, it’s the way you’re using your butt and hip muscles that allows you to use the muscles of the quad better.

    And you’re totally right. Most teachers don’t give a lot of info about it. That’s because we were never taught anything but, “lock the goddamned knee” and most teachers don’t know how to help people.

    We can change that by continuing to explore the body and our understanding of anatomy and biomechanics.

    I hope all is well,

    Sara Curry

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • I love this Sara! Thank you for taking the time to add to the conversation – that was the whole part of the article. It was my hope that students would find a new way to approach these postures and that teachers would think about better ways to teach them. Your words are encouraging and make me want to take an even further look at this. I’m always glad to hear from you – hope all is well on your end as well!!

  2. I’m a super bendy girl with a history of knee injuries (I’m also a bit of a klutz!)… I’ve been working on my locked knee since I began practicing a little over four years ago and it remains a work in progress. I love this post and will keep it in mind.

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