Lock That Knee!

You aren’t going to be in any Bikram class long before you hear the teacher tell you to “lock your knee, lock your knee, lock your knee!”.  If you practice on a regular basis it’s almost one of those statements you come to listen out for; just like you want to make sure that you are looking like “a Japanese ham sandwich”!

But let’s break this down and figure out what exactly we mean by this very simple statement, because sometimes it can be misinterpreted and if you do not ‘lock your knee’ correctly it can actually be quite damaging to your joints.

In the beginning;

If we look at how our body works in its natural state, the knee does have a slight tendency to hyperextend when we just simply stand still. Hyperextending is when a joint goes beyond a straight line position, so the joint becomes more ‘open’. As we stand and bear weight through our legs we are able to, in essence, “rest” the femur (thigh) bone on the tibial plateau (the top of the tibia bone in the lower leg) and ‘lock’ our knee.  The hyperextension here is only small, maybe 4-6 degrees beyond a straight leg, and in this position the muscles of the leg are able to be relaxed and we can stand like this for long periods of time without using much energy.

However, hyperextension is not something we want to promote or really be developing beyond this.  By forcefully pushing our joints into hyperextension we are stretching the supporting ligaments and destabilising the joints soooo…..

What do we want to be doing then?

Well the term “lock the knee” has been used in weight-lifting and bodybuilding training for many years.  In these sports exercises such as squats and lunges require a lot of power to come from the quadriceps which is a group of 4 muscles located on the front of the upper leg.  So for weightlifting “locking the knee” means the straightening of the leg and the strong squeezing engagement of the quadricep muscles to stabilise the knee joint. 

We do use the term in this sense in yoga too.  You might often hear your teacher telling you to ‘lift your kneecap’, maybe in forward folding postures, maybe extended triangle or downward dog even.  Because to lift the knee cap you actively have to squeeze and engage the quadriceps, and by engaging these muscles it allows the hamstrings (down the back of the leg) to relax and gently stretch.

Buuuut this isn’t exactly what we mean in Bikram…

In Bikram, we are using the term “lock your knee” when we are talking about standing postures; balancing postures.  In these, we want to have as much stability as we possibly can, so we definitely don’t want to be locking our knees in a hyperextended manner.  But we can also improve on simply lifting our kneecap, with some conscious engagement.

What we really want is to engage both the quadriceps and the hamstrings at the same time.  In Sanskrit this is a bandha, or “lock”; using opposing muscle groups together to immobilise the joint.

Bringing it into practice

It is actually fairly easy (and quick) to figure out if you have both muscle groups engaged before you step into a posture;

  • Stabilise your base first.  Standing on both feet, lift your toes off your mat, spread them wide and before you bring them back down one by one.  
  • Bring your weight into your standing leg. Press down through your big toe, pinky toe and heel, evenly distributing your weight, as you lift up through your inner arch,
  • Using your fingertips press onto the front and back of your standing leg, about halfway down, at the same time.  If both areas feel ‘solid’ this indicates that both groups of muscles are engaged.  If you don’t feel this, just gently move your knee either forward (if your quads are soft) or backwards (if your hamstrings feel soft) until you do.

The first time you do this, it might take a moment to find the right position for your knee.  The more you practice you will be able to feel when this moment happens as you start to come into the posture.  But no matter how long you have been practicing it is always interesting just to move around and see how the muscle engagement changes from one position to another.

Next time you are on your mat, try this little trick out and see how properly locking your knee changes your strength and stability.
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