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How to Use Yoga for Knee Pain, Based on Scientific Research 

Yoga for knee pain

There is nothing worse than getting up and feeling a sudden jolt of pain in your knees. Our joints are the crux of our mobility, yet estimated 25% of Americans have some form of chronic knee pain. Americans get over 600,000 knee replacements every year and that 

Can yoga actually help with knee pain? Can yoga help keep our knees healthy so we don’t become part of those statistics?

The research says yes! Let’s explore joint health and yoga to see if a regular practice can really help alleviate those achy knees. 

Common Causes of Knee Pain

While it may seem to be a targeted area, knee pain is more complicated than it seems. Bodily factors like age and obesity are associated with a greater risk for knee pain.

There are also many health conditions that can cause knee pain, including:

  • Osteoarthritis (degeneration of joints)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune inflammation that causes swelling)
  • Gout (uric acid build up causes arthritis ) 
  • Dislocated kneecap
  • Meniscus tear (damage to cartilage around knee)
  • Torn ligament (commonly the ACL)
  • Bursitis (inflammation from knee injury)

These conditions definitely can’t be cured by yoga, but research has shown that yoga can definitely help reduce pain. One study found that yoga can even be equally as effective as the more expensive massage therapy route. 

Benefits of Yoga for Knee Pain

Things like bad posture, poor form when exercising, low muscle tone, improper stretching, and a sedentary lifestyle are all factors that can make knee pain much worse. 

Yoga is a tool for improving your joint mobility, flexibility, and overall leg strength. Remember that knees don’t exist in isolation, therefore knee pain is usually a much larger issue surrounding that area of the body. 

To Reduce Pain, Strengthen Around the Knee

Like many health issues, the problem isn’t just the symptom. Sure, our knees hurt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the pain is coming directly from the joint itself. Our knees are part of an integrated system of muscles, ligaments, and cartilage.

Knees include four major muscle groups:

  • Hamstrings (knee extensors)
  • Quadriceps (knee flexors)
  • Hip adductors (the inner thighs)
  • Hip abductors (the outer thighs)

It is important to build up those muscles in and around the knee so they can support the joint and reduce the risk of injury. Research shows that yoga strengthening poses focused on the knee extensors and flexors significantly improve knee pain and mobility. Let’s explore a couple strengthening exercises that have been clinically shown to improve knee conditions like osteoarthritis. 

Best Props for Knee Pain 

Before you get started with yoga poses to help with knee pain, you’ll definitely want to invest in some props so that you don’t accidentally make the pain any worse. 

The truth is that many traditional yoga poses can put a lot of pressure on those with injured knees, arthritis, or other joint issues. However, yoga should NEVER feel painful. The best props for yoga with knee pain are:

Any time you feel pain, you should stop and gently back out of the pose. Using one or several of these props can help you modify certain asanas so you can still enjoy a good stretch without so much tension on your knees. 

Best Yoga Poses for Knee Pain Relief

Relieving knee pain is a long-run game. It won’t go away overnight, nor will yoga magically fix years of knee abuse. That’s right- you can abuse your knees with a sedentary lifestyle, running on concrete, neglecting your leg muscle building, or lack of flexibility. These yoga poses help you start awakening the knee-support-system we talked about above. 

Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

Scientific studies have shown that chair pose is one of the most effective at strengthening the knees to reduce knee pain. However, alignment is everything in this simple strengthening pose. Be sure to keep your knees stacked over your shins and the weight back in the heels. This will activate and work your hamstrings and glutes. 

Here’s how to ease into chair pose without hurting your knees:

  • Start with feet hip-width apart
  • To help with alignment, place your yoga block between the upper thighs (or simply activate your thighs if you aren’t using a block prop)
  • Flex your inner thighs, hamstrings, and quads
  • On an exhale, slowly sit your glutes back, bending the knees but never allowing them to move forward past the ankles (use a mirror to check alignment)
  • Squeeze the block throughout
  • Hold for 3-5 full breaths 

High Lunge (Utthita Ashwa Sanchalanasana)

Knee caps easily get rolled around in our daily life. If you’re really unlucky, they can even dislocate. The key to keeping knee caps where they’re supposed to be is strengthening the quads. The high lunge pose is targeted strength-building for your inner quad muscles (vastus medialis) to keep knee caps aligned.

How to do high lunge to prevent knee pain:

  • Fold a yoga blanket and place under your knees
  • Come up onto your hands and knees in tabletop (optional: place your hands on two yoga blocks shoulder-width apart if you are still building flexibility)
  • Make sure the knees square beneath hips and hands aligned beneath the shoulders
  • Step your right foot forward between your two hands (or blocks)
  • Knee should be directly over your ankle
  • Tuck the back toes under and straighten the leg
  • Push the back heel toward the floor and keep the front leg at a right angle
  • Optional: flex your core and release your hands to stand up in a full lunge, arms toward the sky 
  • Slowly release by lowering the back knee down and returning to tabletop 

Assisted Supine Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)

Tight hamstrings may not seem related to knee pain, but hamstring stretches actually significantly improve knee health. Studies have found that reduced hamstring strength and flexibility actually increases the risk of knee injury, specifically ACL ruptrues (ouch!)

This reclined hamstring stretch uses a yoga strap to prevent any rotation or hip movement. It also just feels so dang good.

How to use a yoga strap in reclined hamstring stretch:

  • Lay down flat on your back on your mat, yoga strap by your side
  • Allow the low back to feel long and naturally curved
  • Ground and activate one leg, toes up
  • Bend and lift the other leg up toward your belly
  • Bring your yoga strap to the ball of your of your lifted foot and pull down on the strap
  • Slowly extend the leg straight up
  • Loosen or tighten the strap as needed, feeling the hamstring lengthen and the knee stabilize 
  • Gently release the strap and do the other side

Assisted Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana)

A simple bridge pose works wonders for soothing and strengthening the knees. If you use a yoga block, the benefits are only compounded by squeezing the block to strengthen your inner thighs and hamstrings. Again, these muscles are the key supporters of knee stabilization. 

How to practice block-assisted bridge pose:

  • Start laying on your back with a yoga block handy
  • Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet flat to the floor
  • Your ankles should form a right angle with your knees
  • Place a block between your inner thighs 
  • Activate and tighten your thighs together, pressing into the block
  • Allow your natural lumbar spinal curve to stay in place
  • Begin to lift your glutes into bridge
  • Optional: place a bolster beneath the low back for less pressure on the lumbar spine
  • Activate the core, squeeze the block, and breathe
  • Do not push your spine up into a backbend curve
  • Your knees should from a straight line forward from your hip bones
  • After a few breaths, slowly release the low back down to the floor

How to Modify Yoga Poses for Knee Pain

Let’s be honest: strengthening the muscles around your knees is great, but it’s not instant relief. It takes time to reverse improper alignment or weakened tendons.

What about those poses that feel great on your back but make your knees scream? Here are some tips for quick knee relief in common asanas

Warriors I and II (Virabhadrasana I and II)

The Problem: Without proper alignment, warrior pose can place unnecessary rotational pressure on the knees. In Warrior I, the hips are square forward, so it is super important to adjust the angle of that back foot until it feels safe for your knees. 

Quick Fix: Many people keep the back ankle awkwardly rotated, which causes knee pain. Never hold a position that hurts! Adjust the direction the toes are pointing and bring your inner thighs closer together if necessary. 

For Warrior II, the hips are square to the side and your body is opened up. In this scenario, it is important to keep the front knee stacked above the ankle. Contrary to popular belief, you can bring your knee slightly forward over the ankle if that relieves pressure. Again, it is important to also adjust the back foot so the back knee is not over-rotating. I’ve found the best way is to keep the side of the back foot parallel to the wall.

All of these options are safe if in alignment, however, option A and C may be easiest for those with knee pain. Notice the angle of the front and back feet.

Camel Pose (Ustrasana) 

The Problem: Camel pose is an intense back and heart opener that stacks the body on the knees. It can be problematic for people with either knee or back injuries, so we never want to push into this pose without preparation. If camel pose is in your practice, but your knees hate you for it, you just need some extra support beneath the kneecaps. 

Quick Fix: Roll up a yoga blanket beneath your knees. These are some of the best yoga blankets for the job. Super easy! 

Lotus Pose (Padmasana)

The Problem: Lotus pose is just really not made for people with knee problems. 

Quick Fix: The “quick fix” for this one is to just avoid it altogether. There is too much external rotation in the hips and knees, meaning more opportunities for knee pain and pressure. Sit cross legged instead. 

King Arthur’s Pose (Anjaneyasana variation)

The Problem: This epic hip and quad stretch puts so much extra pressure on the knee. It is a variation of a low lunge where you grab and pull that back foot for such an incredible tight hip flexor release. But all your body weight is on that back knee! 

Quick Fix: Put a yoga block beneath your back knee and move the front foot slightly more forward to release knee pressure.

Happy Joints = Happy Yogi

As you probably know, knee pain is a mega bummer for anyone with an active lifestyle or regular yoga practice. Be sure to share some of these tips with anyone you know suffering from knee pain. 

Be gentle and patient with your joints as you awaken them back up and strengthen that knee-support-system in your legs. It helps to warm up a little bit before engaging in any deep yoga stretches. Notice when your knees tell you “stop” and respect that boundary so you don’t cause any more issues. 

Lastly, trust on those props and never be afraid to modify them during yoga classes. Every yogi’s body is different and there is no win in comparing our progress to others.

Namaste! 

About Julien

Julien Raby has been in the web marketing industry for 15 years. An avid yoga practitioner himself, he's now the full-time owner of The Yoga Nomads where he helps yoga teachers earn more from their passion.

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