Bikram Pitfall #1 – Lock the Knee! Or Die Trying!

Via Peter Sklivas
on Nov 1, 2010
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  1. Bikram Teachers are Obsessed with Pushing the Kneecap Back! It’s such a HUGE deal that I know expert yogis who’ve been handed their money back after taking class & told never to return because they were micro-bending their knee in standing postures. In the fitness world you’d be hard pressed to find a professional trainer who guides clients to repeatedly hyper-extend their knees. What Bikram teachers claim is that by engaging the quadriceps & locking the knee, you strengthen the leg. From the profile, if you look at the knee joint when someone hyper-extends versus bending their knee slightly, isn’t it obvious that hyper-extension is a prescription for overstretching the soft tissue of ligaments and tendons? What’s more, if you look at the hips and spine of someone hyper-extending their knee is a 1-legged standing pose, you will not see corelift in the spine. What you will see are sloppy body mechanics.

    Look at this woman's left Knee as she seeks greater depth. This Progression is typical in Bikram Yoga. Can you see how her weight is collapsing into the back of her knee? While the pose looks superficially impressive, Does her Knee look Healthy?
  2. Why on earth do Bikram yogis hyper-extend their knees while making claims of health benefits? The 1st thing is that many people who practice Bikram Yoga have experienced genuine miraculous healings in the joints. So these people think, “Bikram & his teachers must know what they are talking about.” Right? Well, not so fast. The heat provides a tremendous rehab environment. And so here’s a typical cycle for newcomers in the Bikram world.
  3. Bikram Cycle – The Bikram Hot Yoga practice which heals thousands of injuries in the first 2 years of practice frequently ends up re-injuring the body in the 3rd & 4th years of practice. And the practitioner gets confused. Why is Bikram Yoga not working anymore? Answer: Because your body mechanics suck!
    And no one corrected you because too often the teachers do NOT understand proper body mechanics.
  4. Don’t Get Seduced by the Heat – Don’t get me wrong! I LOVE THE HEAT. But .. and this is a huge BUT … if you think you can defy the laws of gravity just cuz you’re in a HOT room, you are drinking Bikram’s coolaid! If you decide to push your physical edge in a challenging HOT Yoga practice on a regular basis, at first, you will get away with it. You’ll get a fantastic workout. Your brain will produce yummy feel-good chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, etc. Your muscle tone will improve. And your body fat will decrease. Organs & glands will realign with their proper balance. But if your body mechanics are poor, you will develop bad habits of collapsing into the soft tissue of your joints. And 3 years into your practice you may be scratching your head wondering how on earth did I overstretch the back of my knees? The very practice that miraculously healed your body 3 years ago is suddenly betraying you. Now how do you heal himself?
  5. Don’t Blame Bikram or the Heat! Pay attention when you practice. Look, Bikram is doing the best job he knows how to do. It’s not like this man is trying to scam anyone. Nor are Bikram teachers. These guys & gals believe in their method. I just happen to believe that the Bikram method is biomechanically flawed.  And I believe the Bikram empire will crumble within 5 – 8 years. People flocking to Bikram studios will smarten up. Renegade yogis will present viable Hot Yoga options. The yoga market will adjust. Hopefully the quality of Yoga Teacher Training will improve dramatically.
  6. Competition Makes You Stronger!  Bikram loves competition. One of his favorite aphorisms is, “I was born in gymnasium! I was raised in gymnasium! I will die in gymnasium!” The tough little Calcutta yogi sprinted out of the womb driven to win competitions. And he is proud of this ethos. While I admire many qualities about Bikram, I believe Competition is Completely Antithetical to Yoga.
    Practice yoga to awaken your consciousness. Not to impress the teacher or other studio members. Who cares if your leg is perpendicular to the floor when your foundation is crumbling in order to get the leg high? Of course when I practice, I get thrill seeing my toes crest like a second sun rising over the top of my shining bald head. Does it happen every time I practice? No. Sometimes I’m too stiff. And I’ve learned not to force height to meet some concept of how I should look. This is part of growing up on a yoga mat. The reasons I practice yoga are to heal and center myself in a state of unity between my soul & the cosmic soul. If your yoga studio has an overtly competitive vibe, you might wanna find another place to practice.
  7. My Knee is Fine. So What’s biggie? For those yogis who hyper-extend their joints without pain, it’s like the old Alka-Selzer commercial. You can pay me. Or you pay me later. If you’re young, supple & lithe, you’ll probably get away with it for awhile. But it will catch up with you. I know a highly accomplished Ashtanga/Bikram yogini who wishes she’d paid more attention to my warning. Born with a gumby body, she mistakenly believed she could never overstretch her knees. This is a gal who slings sweat with gusto on her mat. Now after 12 years of fierce practice she feels screwed. The ligaments in the back of her knees are overstretched. A month ago she turned to me for advise. Here’s what I told her. 1. Stop all hyper-extension.  2. Dial back the superficial depth of kicking so high or far in postures. 3. Bend your knees slightly in all postures. 4. Notice asap when you abandon your core & come back to the real work of lengthening though your wheelhouse (area from pelvic floor to solar plexus). I also told her that it will likely take 18 months to 2 years to completely heal her knees. As a former Bikram warrior, I went through this same healing process. Regardless of what style you practice, if you’re hyper-extending your knees, shoulders, hips, neck or wrist  … & thinking it’s all good … please re-examine whether you are truly working from your core in your practice. Make it a goal to develop impeccable body mechanics. So you can practice for many decades instead of a few years. BTW: My knees have fully recovered & my practice is fiercer than ever with slightly bent knees!

Stay tuned for next week’s blog: Bikram Pitfall #2: The Hell with Mantras, Bandhas & Ujaya!



37 Responses to “Bikram Pitfall #1 – Lock the Knee! Or Die Trying!”

  1. AMO says:

    I never use the word "lock" in yoga class. When I teach the Bikram series I ask my students to keep their standing leg straight and contract the muscles of the thighs to get balanced and strong. The problem with the "lock the knee" the ethos, is that it wasn't even Bikram's intent, he just didn't speak English well when he first started teaching here and he didn't know how to create an instruction that was more subtle and nuanced, and when he did learn, well, he can be a bit stubborn especially when questioned by those he believes beneath him (ie: anyone) so he won't change it even though he knows it wasn't what he was trying to say. Everyone else goes along because they just don't accept all of that….

  2. Yogin# says:

    What if the studio had only a covertly competitive vibe? I'd detected only covert competition, but that had been enough for me to switch out. (Maybe I'm too much of the old school, but there is much I care to know about asana, but so much more I could care not to know…)

  3. Paul_Harvey says:

    Your question does the knee look healthy could have another question added in that does the spine look healthy.
    The concept of primary and secondary characteristics as a guide to adapting āsana might be considered when looking at the relationship and trade off between focusing on either spine or legs in a pose such as is illustrated above with utthita pāda paścimatānāsana.

  4. PeterSklivas says:

    Preach it, Brother! The spine is primary. Grounding with the standing foot is the support structure for lengthening through the core of the spine.

  5. PeterSklivas says:

    Wonderful knowing there are Bikram/Hot Yoga teachers who deviate from the Orthodoxy!

  6. Carrisa says:

    Love this!! While I do not teach Bikram, I enjoy practicing it on occasion. However, I NEVER lock the knee due to injuries and my personal yoga practice beliefs. The instructors would constantly come over and 'correct' me. 🙁
    Loved the article!!

  7. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for this! I don't teach or practice Bikram yoga. I started with Iyengar in the 1980s and I was used as an example of what not to do in more workshops than I can possibly remember, because my knees naturally hyperextend to an extreme, probably 10 degrees. It took years of retraining to stop my habit of hyperextension. The most helpful instruction I've heard is to draw the tops of the thighbones back until you feel a slight spring in the ligaments at the tops of the thighs (thanks to Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater for this). This also puts the sacrum at an angle that supports the natural curvature of the spine. I do have some issues in the back of my left knee because of the years allowing my knees to hyperextend, but I shudder to think how my knees would be if I'd been told to lock them all these years.

  8. Charlotte says:

    One more thing about hyperextending the knees: Before I started practicing yoga, I always hyperextended my knees because I didn't know better. After 26 years of doing this, my quads sagged downward and were exceptionally weak. I was incapable of doing the old Iyengar instruction of lifting my kneecaps. I had to practice remedial standing poses with the ball of my foot pressing into a wall in order to engage my quads at all. After a year of practicing standing poses like this exclusively, my quads gradually built enough strength to support my knees. So in my experience, locking the knees does not strengthen the quads; it weakens them.

  9. PeterSklivas says:

    If we take all the hyperbole out of hyper-extension & just examine the mechanics, the body will reveal the posture. Especially when bandhas & ujaya breath are steadfast element in the inquiry. When self-examination is abandoned to achieve external praise, injuries will happen eventually. Fortunately there are skilled instructors to whom we can turn.

  10. Naheed says:

    Thank you Peter! I just loved reading this new post. You should keep writing such great posts in the future as well. Last time I shared as how I switched to Bikram yoga, this time I am sharing my experience of Bikram yoga and heat. I don’t use any heating system when I do BY, I just close the windows of my roon and as I live in a city where the temperature reaches upto 47 degrees in summer, so I have noticed it still helps me to advance my practice. The heat works as body opener to the body and for me, yoga on the mat means to be more aware of my body as how it responds to me when I go and come out of a pose. This pose (standing head to knee) has always been a challenge for me but, thankfully, I have learned it fast to do it the right way without pushing myself too hard. I don’t find locking the knee so hard and fast in this pose for me it’s importand how I feel after I come out of it, my knee is not bended either but I don’t hardly pressed on keeping it locked. I first look at my comfort ’cause I believe, I do yoga to make myself better not to hurt myself. A pose shouldn’t become a pain for me instead it should be a bounty.

    It’s my honor to read your posts and post a comment. Keep the good stuff coming! Blessings!


  11. Thanks for another interesting and provocative blog, Peter. Great to have you here.

    Bob W.

  12. PeterSklivas says:

    The marriage of love, acceptance & devotion into a fierce hot vigorous practice is what I call balance. Almost every day I learn new ways to serve the varied needs of people. As an example, an individual studying in my Yoga Teacher Training asked me if she could use a double-knotted rubber strap (I cut up old yoga mats & tie the strips together. A great prop for stiff dude Eagle arms). This woman has short arms & has a buddha belly. Now I just never thought about using the double knotted strap this way. So I said, "Let's experiment." She can now get her hips forward & up. The posture is a completely new revelation for her. According Bikram dogma, straps are a waste of time. But how can I feel good about serving this dedicated teacher trainee if I eliminate practical tools just because Bikram nixes it. Yes, Yoga practice extends very naturally into creating healthy compassionate relationships between ordinary people in a local community.

  13. ARCreated says:

    I believe Competition is Completely Antithetical to Yoga.
    Practice yoga to awaken your consciousness. Not to impress the teacher or other studio members.
    Thank you thank you thank you…I loved that you started with what is good and now are sharing pitfalls…I love that there can be good and not so good in all forms…
    I have learned that my total disdain for bikram yoga was indeed a bit harsh and I have seen it's posiitve side through you and feel a bit "vindicated" (how unyogi..sigh) reading this page.
    I also feel hopeful that we can integrate the good…I turly value this discussion!!

  14. Agnes S says:

    I practice Bikram yoga for over four years and from my first class on the teachers explain that the "lock the knee" means engage the quadriceps. Also tell the student not to hyper-extend the knees nor bend them. Plus spread the weight evenly on the four corners of the foot. I took other types of yoga and I pulled muscles on some of those classes. Also was very bother some that I never had enough time in one posture to truly get deep and open up any joint or muscle and that I never know what follows. End of those non Bikram classes I never felt complete or relaxed.

  15. Lola says:

    You couldn't be more wrong. Agnes S has it right. I have been practicing for several years, and have been clear from day one that "lock the knee" is not about hyper-extensin.

  16. Healthy Knees says:

    I've been practicing Bikram for 10 years and have no pain in my knees whatsoever because I "tighten the thigh muscle so the whole kneecap lifts up" as it says in the dialogue. To say that EVERY person who practices Bikram has knee issues after 4 years is complete hogwash. Lock the knee is simply a descriptive term to get people to engage their thigh muscle and it works. If people are sinking their weight into their heels and hyperextending their knees then they aren't listening to the dialogue.

    P.S. the woman in the picture still practices and is at most of the Teacher Trainings. Her knees are fine. She has hyper-extended knees as part of her anatomy. Saying that ALL yogis who practice Bikram have the same body as this one woman is complete silliness.

  17. PeterSklivas says:

    Great, Agnes! Sounds like you benefited from skilled instruction which you incorporated in your sadhana. But the Bikram world has loads of sketchy teachers who DO HYPER-Extend & guide others to hyper-extend their knees. Here is the thing about telling studio members NOT to bend the knees … if you look at the person from profile (like the pic above) … once the weight distribution shifts to the heel … corelift is absent … so the language about spreading weight evenly on 4 corners is excellent. From my experience, MOST individuals MUST bend their knees slightly in order to truly ground 4 corners. And, of course you can engage the quad with a slightly bent knee. The next component is to lift out of the arch up through perineum/spine/tongue/crown with the inhaling breath. This is called Mulabandha or Root Lock/Seal.

  18. Mike says:

    Why would anyone want to do the same goddamn poses every day? Bikram will go the way of the Atkins diet, and I look forward to that.

  19. PeterSklivas says:

    Silliness? What are you talking about? What's silly is that none of your Bikram EXPERT teachers correct this woman. Her body mechanics are TERRIBLE!!! Look at her. Just because her knee is not damaged today does NOT mean that she is doing her harm to her knee. Perhaps you possess better body mechanics in your asanas. Remember … this woman posted those pictures as a MODEL of how Bikram Yoga is practiced. She needs to learn how to evenly distribute weight on her standing foot & use her core strength much more. If not, she is/will put stress on the ligaments in her knees. And that most certainly is not silly.

  20. PeterSklivas says:

    Namaste Luke The purpose of this blog is to stimulate a healthy inquiry into Hot Yoga. I hope people share their experiences with passion & respect. I do NOT believe all Bikram yogis have the same body type. At the same time Hot Yoga provides a wonderful venture for healing/rehab/vitality when practiced consciously. And even sometimes when practiced unconsciously. If through these words, folks step onto their mat with greater awareness, then this blog is providing a valuable service. Thanks for your words!

  21. Healthy Knees says:

    Her knees are naturally hyper-extended is what I am saying. She looks like that standing normally! I'm glad you are passionate about yoga, but to make your sole aim as a teacher to put down another style seems very, very un-yoga-like to me.

  22. JT says:

    My first Bikram class was taught by Pete, long ago, and I definitely remember him admonishing against hyperextension. It was good advice.

    I attend a bikram studio now. And the teachers and owners have wisely adopted a habit of advising against focusing on leg straightening. Sure, do it, but get everything else right first – and after.

    I.e. in standing forward bend, focus on keeping the torso-thigh connection, make it a full body stretch, and let the straight legs come when it’s time. Seated forward bend – same.

    And in all cases, when the knee is straight, the entire leg should be engaged. One solid column of muscle. This protects the joints.

  23. rainy day says:

    I think you make some good points. Like with any training just getting a certificate, degree..etc. doesn't make you gifted at what you do. We are all our own best teachers. However any yoga class you attends the same risk of finding a teacher that is less than talented or competent no matter how good their intentions are. None the less Bikram yoga heals.

  24. rainy day says:

    Thank you Mary for a well written explanation of the locked knee! You rock!

  25. Mary Dillon says:

    I have taught Bikram Yoga to many people who have the tendency to hyper-extend. It requires careful observation, and you must show them to keep their leg straight, not beyond straight and into hyper-extension, just straight. Then they must try VERY hard to engage their quadracep- to pull it up….this is extremely challenging for these people, because they tend to be very flexible and not very strong (yet:)

  26. Healthy Knees says:

    Fabulous explanation. Thank you.

  27. Mary Dillon says:

    Thank you Peter for the compliment. I must say that while I enjoy teaching Bikram Yoga tremendously, I am not an unusually marvelous Bikram teacher. I have found so many wonderful, helpful and inspirational Bikram Yoga teachers all over the world. I teach in NYC, and I do not own a studio. Thank you for the forum.

  28. Neil says:

    In Tadasana you stand erect by engaging the quadriceps, lifting the knee caps up, there is no difference between Bikram and Iyenga.

  29. […] [the physical practice of yoga] pushes the body’s limits of muscle lengths and joint ranges of motion. Consequently, many yoga teachers in the West are hyper-sensitive about pain. (Again, the semantic […]

  30. Mata Grace says:

    Yeah Peter, this hits home.
    hanks to my beautiful standing split standing bow pose and hearing BIkrams ranting to lock the knee for years I know have a very ugly "bakers cyst" in the back of my knee from coming forward in my standing split. Who knows if it will every go away. I have fasted and tried prolo-therapy to get rid of it. Its still there, and It may never go away…It is from not lifting up into my root lock and getting lazy in a seemingly beautiful standing split. I have given up my beautiful looking poses for a now beautiful feeling pose…by knee is straight, but not locked, its engaged and lifted into my root lock…
    thank you Peter! I wish I could send over a picture is there a way I can add pictures in here???

  31. PeterSklivas says:

    Neil, are you teacher? How closely have watched Bikram yogis? Cuz if you paid attention, this 5% would the other way. Perhaps 5% are conscious enough to refrain from hyper-extension. Perhaps. But in the name of kicking a leg higher/further/achieving depth, the vast majority of Bikram yogis abandon sound body mechanics. The woman in the picture represents what most Bikram yogis aim for. And this issue is not exclusive to Bikram yoga. Watch Ashtangis in down dog or any one of many asanas. In vigorous practices, it becomes especially important to cultivate impeccable body mechanics because of the intensity in the practice. Yes, Dharma struts but he does it with conscious awareness.

  32. Healthy Knees says:

    Let me clarify then, I think that making a point of criticizing Bikram's teachings as your whole platform for attracting new students is a bit pathetic. My understanding that that your "Core Power" series is essentially the Bikram series with some added postures. To take a gift like that, make a minor change to it, and then call it your own while making your primary aim to shoot down the person who gave you that gift is what seems un-yoga like. Perhaps you are just unable to make a name for yourself without linking it some how , some way back to Bikram.

  33. […] that incorporates a comprehensive yoga workout with a yoga studio heated up to 105 degrees than Hot Yoga or Bikram is probably what you’re looking for. This method of yoga promotes flexibility, strength, […]

  34. GLW says:

    7 years practising Bikram Yoga. Over 2 years teaching and both my knees are fine, even after over 15 years of the sort of abuse that comes with having regularly played soccer and rugby.
    Lock the knee, for sure, by engaging the quads and lifting the kneecap, never hyper-extending it.
    As for the, unsubstantiated claims about the likelihood of, or number of, students of Bikram Yoga who damage their knees. In my experience such injuries are far more likely to occur when students fall out of a posture because they fail to "lock the knee" correctly.

  35. Susan says:

    When Bikram taught all his own classes, he used lots of words to describe the right way to hold a posture. There was no "dialogue" of course. Bikram explained with metaphors, analogies, approximations. His struggling with the language was great, because we knew not to take things literally.
    In standing head to knee, what's been lost is that the momentum of the posture. We should not feel the buttocks and hips sinking to the ground, the energy should not be moving down and backward but up and forward toward the mirror.
    One of the hardest postures to teach properly.
    The energy of this posture is up from the navel toward the spine, then circling forward and out the heel of the leg kicking out. We're reigning in that energy by pulling hard on the ball of that kicking foot, that foot's heel kicking forward toward the mirror — pulling our weight forward. We balance that energy up and forward by strongly contracting the standing leg thigh muscles. Never hyperextended, never collapsed into the back of the knee. The sit bones should be lifting up toward the sky, while the tailbone relaxes downward. A circle of energy in the belly, the hips lifting behind you, all the momentum rolling forward — centered in the belly — not falling forward thanks to the strength of the contracted leg.

  36. Susan Wyler says:

    Bikram taught this posture beautifully, in the old days.
    It's a complex posture, but the problem is not the "locked" leg.
    In geriatric rehab the first thing taught is standing on a solidly locked leg. Not hyperextended. Not sinking into the back of the knee. But fully contracted — yes, locked.
    Fact is, many students are not actively contracting that thigh muscle, they are allowing the weight of their bum to pull the whole posture back and down toward the floor. This is the cause of injury.
    The posture is meant to be lifted, through the belly and out through the lower spine, then that energy, ignited in the belly, circles forward and streams out through the length of the kicking leg. The arms are working hard, the upper body fully engaged pulling on the ball of that kicking foot.
    It's a hard posture to teach properly. It requires a teacher with understanding and attention to detail — for each and every student — day after day until they understand in their own way.
    Poor yoga. This part isn't Bikram's fault. It's just not what it used to be. Sadly.

  37. J Dubs says:

    This guy just wants more students and is willng to make up stuff, impose his beliefs on you to get attention, students and more money. He IS competing with bikram and other yoga and he knows it!

    "Lock the knee" is "bikramese" for straightening the leg, contracting the quadraceps. NOT hyperextending. Quadracept squeezing. Hips forward. Leg Straight. NOT collapsing backwards into the joints. Duh!

    Orthepedists world wide and David Coulter, Author of the Anatomy of Hatha Yoga both agree that leg straightening, quadracept strengthening excercises help relieve and prevent a number of knee problems. According to Coulter, it is also the safest position for the knee to be in.

    Competition is part of life. It is a system that improves individual or group performance. It's about celebrating yourself or your team. You can embrace it and make it fun or stick your nose up and think you're better than competition (ironic?). Nothing is "anti-thetical" to yoga. Yoga is everything. Embrace everything. There is no such thing is bad yoga. Just bad teachers and people who bad mouth others or yoga.

    Namaste Yall!