by Kara-Leah Grant, Musings from the Mat
My knees ache.
They have been since about April of this year – about three months into a regular Mysore-style Ashtanga practice, two or three times a week. I also do a regular home practice of vinyasa, prana-led asana (slow and steady), meditation and pranayama.
I’ve been able to do Half Lotus for some years now, including Standing Bound Half Lotus (without the forward fold).
I have never had any prior knee issues or pain. Although my grandmother (maternal side) and mother have both had knee reconstructions.
In April, when this knee pain kicked in (ironically direcly after a Yin practice with long holds in Half Pigeon), my inclination was to regard it was ‘just part of the process’.
I was also concerned that poor alignment in any of the Half Lotus postures could be aggravating my knee. I started paying even more attention to how I was folding my knee, the alignment of my hip and how I was folding forward.
My teacher, Peter Sanson, often reminded me to stop wrenching myself into place – which surprised me. I didn’t think I was doing that at all. but still, he would tell me;
During my Ashtanga practice, there wasn’t any pain as such, it was just that my body didn’t seem to want to take the same shapes anymore. I went from binding with ease and folding forward into Standing Bound Half Lotus to not being able to bind, to not being able to fold forward, to not being able to even bring my knee into Half Lotus.
The posture completely slipped away from me. What was I doing wrong?
Plus, usually I can sit in Half Lotus for 30 minute plus meditations but found I couldn’t even sit cross-legged and had to prop myself up.
Part of me had a sense that my hips were being asked to open more than they ever had before and there was energy getting ‘stuck’ at my knees, which was causing the stiffness and pain. If I could just allow my hips to open up, my knees would be fine. If I could just release the way I was unconsciously ‘holding’ at my knees, they would be fine.
Curious about this I played around in my prana-led practice doing small-barely-at-all movements that mostly focused on sitting with one leg bent, a hand on that knee and breathing through the hip and the knee allowing it to soften and release. I found this helped enormously.
Peter had left for seven weeks right about the time I realised I needed to talk to him about what was going on. Somehow though, I never found the space or right moment in the yoga room – it was still, quiet and focused with little discussion about this or that.
In his absence, struggling more and more with stiffness, I asked one of his assistant teachers, explaining I was having trouble with my knees.
“That happens sometimes.”
At the time, I took that as a good enough answer – I attributed my knee pain experience to blocked prana and kept working as mindfully as I could.
Yet it still niggled at me. I was still worried – I love my knees and I don’t trust the process enough to just keeping working through pain.
Finally, I discovered something that stopped the pain in it’s tracks. I didn’t do any Ashtanga for about two or so weeks as I was away in Bali on retreat. While I was still practicing yoga, there weren’t all the half-bound Lotus movements and my knees felt almost back to normal.
Almost – but not. While I could sit cross-legged for meditation again, sitting in half Lotus wasn’t an option anymore.
Taking a break from Ashtanga felt good but I also missed the practice and the teaching. Peter usually corrected my alignment in Standing Bound Half Lotus – shifting the placement of my hip. It felt much better when he did that, but for whatever reason, I could never grasp the felt sensation of where he was putting me.
That he made this adjustment suggested my knee pain was coming from bad alignment.
Earlier this month I moved down to Wellington and started Mysore at Te Aro Ashtanga with Mike Berghan. Again, I had a two week break in the move, which helped my knees. Starting back in, I hit the wall again at Standing Bound Half Lotus. It’s become my nemesis as I attempt to find a way to safely work with the posture without skipping it entirely.
Back when I was getting the bind and folding forward I was feeling all kinds of releases through my hip, lumber and thoracic spine. It felt like medicine for my body and I was revelling in it.
Now I can’t even approach it. This is difficult – I want to be where I was and yet know I must accept where I am.
The first session with Mike he sat with me on Seated Bound Half Lotus and gently showed me how to roll on to the outside of my hip . I finally realised what I’d been doing wrong with the alignment of my hip through all the Lotus postures.
I’d been missing the scoop down and under and toward the other leg of the hip, which results in bringing the bent knee toward the other leg, rather than out on a 45 degree angle.
This care and attention from Mike helped enormously. Now I knew how to work with the hip better. Likely that movement wasn’t even available to me six months ago because of the extraordinary tightness of my lumber spine and pelvis.
Unfortunately, after four Ashtanga session in two weeks, I hit the mat today and my knees were just stiff. Not pain as such – but stiff.
In Standing Half Bound Lotus I felt like crying because I couldn’t even figure out how to approach it. Even all the hip tucking in the world and gentleness with my ankle and knee didn’t change the fact that it felt like I was going to break my knees by bringing my foot anywhere near my groin.
And I don’t want to break my knees
I’m not interested in pushing through the pain, or getting to some fabled place that could take years.
So I gave up. I flexed my ankle so I could be sure that the knee was as protected as possible, and allowed that ankle to sit down just above my knee.
This made binding impossible and the hip tuck almost impossible too. But my knee felt safe. From this position, it was impossible for me to fold forward and get my hands on the ground, so I didn’t. I tiled forward, engaging my core and rested my hands lightly on my thighs for some support.
Seated Half Bound Lotus has been slightly easier over the past few months. Sure, I was binding and folding forward with ease, and now I don’t, but I could still get into the Lotus at least. Not today.
Maybe it was because my head was full of thoughts about my knees – I was worried. Why? I’ll say it again:
I don’t trust the process. I don’t trust what we’re actually doing in asana because I’ve read of too may injuries even in experienced practitioners who are mindful in their approach. I was afraid.
Maybe this was blocking me. Maybe this was making me stiff. Maybe. Or maybe I was applying discernment to my process.
At Seated Half Bound Lotus I made a decisions to ‘fuck the process and do whatever it took to look after my knees’. As I made that decision, I felt hot tears well up inside me. Ah… now I know what these particular tears are. They’re shame.
I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do the practice, I felt ashamed that my body is not good enough – that I’m not good enough.
There was a sense that because I can’t do this, I won’t attain the Golden Fleece as such… that I won’t be loved.
I felt all of this rise and I could see into the heart of it and I allowed it to be as I continued on in the practice, slow and mindful and ever protective of my knees.
At Marichyasana B I paused and considered. This posture has been attainable for me the past six months, but I didn’t want to force my knee into it. Instead, I took the Half Lotus aspect and placed one hand on my bent knee and breathed there, allowing prana to guide my hip in small tidal motions – in and out, in and out, in and out.
I wasn’t doing Ashtanga anymore, I was back in my home practice which is prana-led. Surrendering to this organic flow of the body I made my way through Marichyasana C and toward D. Again, I started slow on the Lotus knee. Usually Mike adjusts me into this posture and I’ve been making good headway in releasing tension around the back of the pelvis.
Today he just looked at me and said:
I felt seen and understood it that moment – that is was ok to look after myself and my knees. That I wasn’t opting out, I wasn’t weak, I wasn’t shirking… I was simply caring for myself.
On my way out the door Mike nodded at me:
Great practice. Really good today – you were gentle with yourself.
Maybe so, and yet I’ve also touched the core of something. There’s tears in my eyes as I write this now. This giving up and accepting myself where I am – being gentle and accepting – it’s like shedding a skin.
Yet in Ashtanga there is this idea that we practice through pain as the body makes itself new. Witness this article on Rebelle Society by Anne Finstad: The House of Pain Ashtanga Yoga
After seven years of practice, my knees stopped hurting. And as people will tell you or you can see if someone sticks with the practice over time and through these things, the body is made new.
Seven years of knee pain? Really?
But there’s other articles out there which take a different perspective – the kind of article I wish I’d read before I started my Ashtanga practice. While I knew to flex the foot to protect the knee, I didn’t know that this also helped engage the muscles of the leg and should be done even when the foot isn’t going to be flexed in the posture.
My advice for yogis entering poses with external rotation of the hip and knee bent, and particularly for Ashtangis, would be to bend your knee fully and engage the muscles along the entire length of the leg –- i.e. flex (dorsiflex) your foot with toe spread — before entering a full pose that requires hip external rotation. ~ Yoga Injury & Safety: Ashtanga & the Knee
It’s not an instruction I’ve ever heard from any of my teachers either – which is not to say they haven’t given it, just that I didn’t hear it. Plus, all the Ashtanga I’ve done has been Mysore so there’s been little alignment instruction.
Unfortunately, that kind of care of the knees and acknowledgement of how we can practice more wisely is not held by all teachers.
Some have this kind of attitude:
Forgive me but I don’t care about your pain, small or large, because it is infinitely tiny and nothing at all compared to the possibilities for healing that are right in front of you. ~ David.
You know what? Screw that too. Pain is an indication that something needs to be taken care of and those kind of dismissive statements shame students who are experiencing pain.
Even worse, now that I’m doing research on knees and pain, I’ve realised that I didn’t know how to optimally enter any Half Lotus posture in a safe manner. Just knowing that might have protected my knees more.
After writing this article, I hit the yoga room determined to care for my knees. I even brought a small towel to place rolled up under my knee joint when the leg is bent, experimenting with creating space in the joint.
Mike came over to adjust me in Marichyasana C. As he helped me move into position he said:
You’re doing all the right things to manage the pain but don’t let it distract you. Keep the focus on Mula Banhda and creating heat to burn away the tightness and emotions on the back of your pelvis.
It was an astute observation.
In a flash I saw the middle ground – I saw how we can become identified and distracted by the pain we’re experiencing and let it take us away from what we’re doing on the mat. This is as unfortunate as completely ignoring the pain and breaking our bodies because we hold fixed ideas about the magic of the process.
Somewhere in the middle lies discernment.
Somewhere in the middle lies wisdom.
Somewhere in the middle lies our yoga practice.
Here we neither identify with the pain nor give our power away to the practice. We hold firm and steady but with ease, exploring our bodies through breath and movement.
My knees don’t hurt during the day anymore.
I can sit cross-legged again and when warmed up I can safely enter and sit in Half Lotus.
More than this though, I can sense where the tightness is around my pelvis that needs to let go and I know how to bring my awareness to that place.
Best of all, I’m not going to break my knees for the practice.
To close, some wisdom from Leslie Kaminoff on Lotus and our knees.