II.16. heyaim dukham anagatam
The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.
—Yoga Sutras, translation by B.K.S. Iyengar
I have gotten an overwhelming response from my post about the process of straightening the legs in Iyengar Yoga. Of course there are two sides to every coin, and in this case it is the plight of the knee hyperextenders.
A hyperextended knee occurs when the knee is bent backward (see above) and can damage ligaments, cartilage and other stabilizing structures in the knee. It may sound cliche, but the statement holds true that flexible people have a much more distinct disadvantage in Asana than those of us who are naturally stiff. That is because often times knee overextending practitioners are not aware that they are pushing too hard in the back of the joint until one day they are met with severe knee pain.
As a diagnostic test, do Utthita Trikonasana in front of a mirror and look at the back of your knee on the side you are leaning toward. If it is this shape (see below) than you are overextending. There is a distinct “look” to a hyperextended knee as fellow blogger mbdyoga commented the “tibia head is way behind the lower femur.” From a distance, the leg appears as though it is caving in from the knee joint.
Here is what the knee should look like:
If you are in the hyperextending camp, here are a few exercises you can do to create awareness of what a “normal” knee should feel like.
First, place a block in the back of the calf in Utthita Trikonasana. This will allow you to press against something without hyperextending the knee.
Next, do Upavistha Konasana (Seated Angle Pose) on the floor with no blankets underneath the buttocks. This will allow you to again press down on the floor without risk of knee hyper extension. In forward bends don’t sit on height because you will hyperextend the knee.
Lastly, find a corner or a door jamb and extend one leg up into a modified Supta Padangushthasana (Reclined Big Toe Pose). Notice the other knee is bent to avoid hyper extending that leg too. Press the whole back of the leg against the structure to get a feel of what a “straight non-hyperextended knee leg” feels like.
Then take the awareness gained from these exercises into you daily practice. As a warning, I have heard that it feels like you are not stretching at all if you are ultra flexible. Be okay with that.
And until you have integrated this awareness of non hyperextension into your practice, I would advise doing “bent leg” forward bends in lieu of straight leg forward bends.
As I normally say, these exercises are only the tip of the iceberg. Fellow blogger Stephanie Tencer from Studio Po in Toronto, Ontario has further reflections on this subject from her own experience with hyperextended knees. To be safe, find a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in your area. I hope many of you find this post helpful. As always, I am open to commentary and criticism. It only creates more awareness for my own sadhana.