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February 25, 2011

How to Save Your Knees with Yoga. ~ Jerry Mikutis

Photo: Oleg Klementiev

Really, Mr. Rogers? Yoga destroys your knees?

A rebuttal to How to Ruin Your Knees with Yoga.

I have to disagree. I’m someone who would know.

In the span of 11 years, due to both overextending myself in sports during my formative years (first tore my ACL jumping hurdles back in 1996) and just plain bad luck (getting hit by a car as a pedestrian in 2007), I’ve had 5 ACL surgeries on my right knee. I have to say, without a doubt, that yoga, especially the so-called dangerous poses such as virasana, is the one saving grace for my knee and overall health.

Exactly how healthy are my knees these days? I ran my first half marathon 2 weekends ago. Guess what? No knee pain at all. Sure, my hip flexors were achy and my lower back hurt. But knee pain? Non-existent.

Photo: Ängsbacka Kursgård

So, Mr. Rogers, your condemnation of virasana, bhekasana and your thinly veiled stab at Ashtanga Yoga all come from a place of fear. To teach people to be afraid of the scary yoga poses, that if we even think of trying them, we’re destining ourselves for knee replacement surgeries 20, 30, or more, years down the line.

Yes, we should be cautious of the unknown—the things that scare us—but it should be approached from a place of awareness and openness and potential. One should bring attention to how does their body feel in this moment in time. Asking oneself “Am I feeling pain or strain (if so, back off) or am I feeling sensation (then stay there)?” gives insight whether or not to stay with the pose in the moment I struggled with virasana for the first 3 years of my yoga practice.

I thought it was a pose for those yogis more experienced, stronger, more flexible. I’d scowl at the teacher who dared to teach it in class, and half the time I’d flat out refuse to do it, protesting all the way that I couldn’t do it because of my multiple knee surgeries.

That changed one day when I was taking a workshop with Tias and Surya Little in 2009. Tias taught virasana, and well, because it was Tias, I did the pose, even though my knees were screaming in pain. I could barely walk that night.

The next day, the Littles’ lead the class into virasana once more. I refused to do it, and I told Surya that I just couldn’t do it because of the fragile condition of my knees. She said to me, “you of all people need to do this pose because virasana heals your knees!”

What?!?

I was in disbelief. This was one of the poses, along with handstand and hanumanasana that I considered the Holy Grail of yoga asana that I would never attain. But Surya showed me the proper alignment for virasana.

(Side note: the handstand is still a challenge, but I finally did a complete split last summer on a hot July day in an Anusara workshop.)

Attention to alignment provides the safety and structure that allows the opening and benefits of a so-called difficult pose such as virasana. I hear so many teachers say “push your calf muscles to the floor”, which twists the knee joint and in that case, I perfectly understand why people are so afraid of virasana—but isn’t it a powerful thing to say instead “draw your calf muscles straight back to your heels”, which creates space and openness to the knees, and what do you know, virasana is healing rather than damaging!

My Reiki teacher, Tracey Ostrand, told me that the knees are connected to the heart energetically. Both are in the middle of their respective systems. The knee is in the middle of the leg, the heart in the middle of the body and the chakra system. They both serve as the unifiers of their respective systems, connecting the upper and lower. Qualities of a hard heart, such as closed, rigid, guarded, ruled by fear, are not unlike those qualities of what one would consider in bad knees.

Photo: Ängsbacka Kursgård

A healthy knee embodies many of the same elements of an open heart, including fluidity and ease of movement, strength, openness and dare I say love? Hard hearts and knees are usually indicative of past wounds, protecting previous hurts.

The love and guidance of my teachers and my own practice to guide me into proper alignment of my body allows me to connect to my heart, my self, and my spirit through freedom and ease of movement, despite my previous wounds.

Yes, I’ve had 5 knee surgeries. And yes, I do vigorous, sweaty Ashtanga and vinyasa flow yoga. And yes, I do full on lotus. But I also compliment those practices with a more restorative yin yoga—that I give my muscles a rest, so I can allow the expansion to come to the joints. And my knees have never been better, largely in part of the knowledge and support of my teachers and my knee surgeon.

And most importantly, I believe abandoning the idea that we should be afraid of certain things can create new possibilities for your body, and, yes, your soul, on and off the mat. For fear is the opposite of love.

Wouldn’t you rather love your knees than create fear for them?

Jerry Mikutis, a Chicago yoga teacher, has been enchanted by yoga ever since she stepped onto the mat in 2005. It was the only place where she found clarity from the mental stresses of life and ended up losing 50 pounds in the process. In addition to yoga, she is fascinated by meditation, Reiki, running, knitting, service for the higher good through volunteerism and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Find Jerry at Jerry On The Mat.com, @jerryonthemat on Twitter, and on Facebook.
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