Growing up, I competed year-round in wrestling, a very intense combat sport. It provided many physical and mental benefits that I still utilize today. However, the grueling nature of the sport took a toll on my body. By the age of 18, I sustained three knee injuries, all of which required surgeries.
After college, I traded in my wrestling mat for a yoga mat, and I was surprised how yoga helped clear my knee pain, eliminated tightness and built strength to support my knees. I felt so good, that this past winter, I decided to get back into running and high-impact workouts. Unfortunately, my previous knee injury history caught up with me and this led to a meniscus tear and yet another surgery on my knee.
After surgery, I returned to my yoga practice. Within the first week, I was able to walk seamlessly and go through a full yoga practice without pain. Within a month, I was cycling and lightly jogging. When I saw my surgeon for a post-operation appointment, he was impressed that I was doing so well. I attributed my ability to recover quickly to yoga. If knee surgery is in your future, therapeutic yoga can help tremendously to speed along your progress, alleviate pain and help prevent future injuries.
Optimal Knee Alignment
For healthy knees, whether you are sitting, standing, walking or working out, point your feet and knees straight forward and about four inches – inner-hip width – apart. This stacks your knees over your feet in a straight line, whereas bringing your feet together often makes the legs bow at an angle.
Everyone’s foot shape is slightly different. Therefore, a good landmark to make sure your feet are straight is to look at your feet. And if you were to draw a line from the base of your second toe straight back, it would intersect the center of your heel.
Avoid turning your feet out when you can. And if you need to turn your feet, make sure you aim your knees the same direction as your feet. This will help prevent torque on your knee joint and helps with the healing process.
To help avoid knee pain in any position, get grounded in your lower body. From your pelvis down, root down evenly across the entire base of your feet to avoid pronating or supinating your feet. Bend your knees slightly while standing or walking to accentuate a heavy quality in your feet and to engage your leg muscles to support your knees.
These key actions will align your feet, which directly affects your knees. It will also help ensure a healthy gait function – or pattern of movement in your feet as you walk or run – which is important to establish after knee surgery.
The Best Yoga Poses to Practice After Knee Surgery
Pose: Supine Hamstring Stretch
How: Lie on your back with your legs extended out long and flat on the floor. Point your knees and toes straight up towards the ceiling. Bend your right knee in towards your chest and hold the back of your thigh with both hands. Slowly straighten your right leg and flex your foot with the sole of your foot parallel with the ceiling. Make sure your foot and knee do not twist and your knee is in line with your foot. Only straighten your leg as much as you’re able, so you don’t feel any pain in your knee.
Hold the back of your right thigh with both hands and press your leg against your hands enough to feel a slight lift in your low back. As much as you can maintain a neutral curve in your low back and a straight leg, walk your hands up the back of your leg and draw your leg towards you. Hold for ten breaths and switch sides.
Why: After knee surgery, the knee and muscles around it get tight and sore. This hamstring stretch is a great pose to mindfully work on regaining a healthy range of motion. It’s also safe to practice as soon as a week after surgery because it’s a non-weight bearing stretch.
How: Stand with your feet hip-width, about six inches, apart. Point your feet straight forward, keep your heels firmly planted on the floor and bend both knees slowly until your thighs are parallel with the floor, or until you feel any discomfort in your knees. Reach your arms overhead and alongside your ears. Lift your chin parallel with the floor. Hold for five breaths and repeat up to 10 times.
Why: It’s important to rebuild strength in the muscles around your knee after surgery. Downhill skier is a simple and effective way to develop power in the quads and glutes while also working on gaining some mobility by bending your knees. It will also help support and stabilize the knee joint after experiencing trauma from surgery.
How: Stand with your feet straight forward and hip-width apart. Place your hands on your hips, shift your weight onto your right foot and lift the left foot five inches off the floor in front of you. Flex your left foot and straighten both legs.
Then, hinge your upper body forward at the same rate as you swing your left leg straight back until your body is in a “T” shape. Keep your hips square, straighten your legs and lift your elbows up to engage your shoulders. Look slightly forward to lengthen through all sides of your neck evenly. Hold for five breaths and repeat on the left leg. To challenge your balance, reach your arms overhead.
Why: Warrior three is a good balancing position that works on stabilizing your knee joint after surgery. It builds strength in your glutes and through all sides of your legs, especially the hamstrings, which are more challenging to access. Working on your balance is essential as you start to re-enter physical movement after surgery.
How: Lie down on your back, bend your knees and place your feet straight forward and inner hip-width apart, with your ankles under your knees. Root your feet, lift your hips and lower back up. Clasp your hands behind your back and set your shoulders even with the base of your neck and underneath your body so that your chest lifts and shoulders set back.
As much as your knees and feet do not turn out, lift your chest, hips and lower back. Take several breaths, slowly lower your hips back down to the mat and press your hands against your thighs just below your hip flexors.
Why: Bridge pose is an effective way to strengthen all sides of your legs, along with your glutes and back, after knee surgery. It offers more stability with a larger foundation than standing poses, which makes it safe to practice shortly after surgery and helps speed up recovery.
How: From down dog, step your right foot forward in lunge, with your front knee over your ankle and your back foot vertical. Lower your left knee to the mat gently. Pad your knee with a towel if it gets uncomfortable. Slide your front foot forward enough so that when you straighten it, your left knee is slightly behind your left hip. Flex your right foot such that the second toe is aimed straight up and is even with the center of your knee cap and the center of your hip crest, thereby stretching your hamstrings evenly.
Place your hands on either side of your right shin to the floor or on blocks. Without moving your front foot, draw it back towards the wall behind you to engage your leg. Maintain square hips, lengthen your lower back and create an even rate of rounded quality about your upper and mid back as you fold over your front leg. Hold for 10 breaths, or as long as you don’t feel any pain in your knee. Then switch sides.
Why: Practicing half split, while engaging your front foot evenly, will strengthen your outer shins or peroneal muscles. The shins help to bolster stability and strength below your knee and around your foot that is crucial to avoid future injuries. This posture also stretches the hamstrings, which get tight after surgery.
How: Lie on your back, bend your knees and place your feet hip-width apart and straight forward. Rest your right shin across your left thigh in a figure four position. Flex your right foot to protect your knee and gently set your right knee forward, away from you. Keep your left foot planted on the floor, lengthen your back and place the back of your head on the floor. Hold for 10 breaths and then repeat on the second side.
Why: Outer hip and IT band tightness create an unhealthy pull on the knee joints. This pose stretches your hips and outer legs to help avoid tension on the knees. It’s a gentle hip opener that can be done shortly after surgery.