Locking the knee in Bikram Yoga

What exactly does "lock the knee" mean?

In Bikram Yoga, many of the standing yoga poses are characterized by having one or both legs "locked out".

As this concerns the knee joint (amongst other elements of the leg) and having had an aggravated knee for a while, I thought I'd take some time to debunk exactly what "lock the knee" actually means.

In so doing, I hope you will learn a little more about what steps you can take to:

  • Protect your knee when "locking the knee";
  • Lessen the effect of previous knee injuries;
  • Reduce potential osteo-arthritic symptoms; and
  • Enjoy a renewed bounce in your walk as you learn to strengthen your large leg muscles and relax the hamstring.

Using your quadriceps to protect the knee joint

Take a close look at the two photos on the right.

What do you notice?

See how the one on the top does not have the shadow of muscle definition around the top part of the knee joint as the one on the bottom does?

Good.

Now the leg in both these photos is actually "locked straight" and both knees are "locked" in the sense that the leg is straight.

However, one is good, the other most definitely not!

So what is the difference and why is it important?

It has all got to do with:

  • The use of the quadriceps muscle;
  • How it acts as a suspension system for the knee joint; and
  • Its relationship when "clenched" with other large leg muscles, such as the hamstring.

Here's what they put in my left thighbone!
Here's what they put in my left thighbone!

Why your quadriceps are important ...

As it turns out, it is often not the knee cartilage causing knee issues or knee pain - it is the lack of surrounding support from the large leg muscles - calf, quadriceps and hamstring.

The quads need to tighten to help pull up the kneecap and in turn effectively assist the knee joint to function correctly (I'm not a sports physician, but this is what I have gleaned along the way).

Apparently this is also important to anyone suffering symptoms of osteo-arthritis.

I've had personal experience with this as in 1993 I manage to break my "neck of femur" (the top of the thigh-bone. Don't ask).

You'll see in the photo below the large pieces of steel the surgeons inserted inside my bone to screw it together in precise position (it's called a GKNail ... which begs the question, "What the heck do they use for a hammer?").

Anyway, in subsequent years and with poor physiotherapy, I developed knee issues and a painful inner thigh.

After switching physiotherapists, I was asked to "contract my quadriceps".

To which I replied, "I am!".

After she explained the importance of the quadriceps in looking after the knee joint, I searched for some good rehabilitation in the form of Bikram Yoga.

There is no question in my mind that this yoga rescued my knees and totally rid me of the previous pain issues.

And so this brings me to the "lock the knee" issue ...

Learn to tighten your quadriceps!

Your quadriceps are your front thigh muscle between your knee and your hip.

You should be able to see some muscle definition around your knee joint simply by tightening the quadriceps (it might take a bit of practice - and can be far easier to practice laying down).

OK good. This is the action that does a couple of key things - especially for your yoga practice ...

  1. Your knee will be held in a supportive position
  2. Your hamstring will be forced to relax by a mechanism known as reciprocal inhibition (I had to look it up too. It means that when one muscle is contracting the other cannot be engaged due to a nerve-mechanism in the body. You can take advantage of this!)

It took me a while to realize what was meant by "lock the knee".

For ages I was simply straightening my leg and leaning on it.

Not good.

For a few weeks I had sore knees!

Then I remembered my physiotherapist's instructions to squeeze the front thigh muscles - and as I concentrated on this in the standing poses, I could see the kneecap "lifting up" and the locked out leg became something strong and powerful, not just straight.

And my knees stopped feeling sore, almost immediately.

So "Locking The Knee" means?

Rather than just straighten the leg in the standing poses, actively engage your quadriceps muscles and you will never have sore knees, your walk will feel lighter, you will be preventing any future issues - and as a side-benefit, your hamstrings will gain more flexibility and lengthen more easily, which is a boon for many of us with tight hamstrings from sitting at desks all day or from sporting activities!

I'll leave some links here for you to visit as good resources to investigate further.

Some Beautiful Bikram Poses ...

Comments 49 comments

Kathy 8 years ago

Excellent information. I'll be practicing how to use the quad exercise as I have problems in my knees.


Joshua 8 years ago

Goooo Bikram! When i first saw that nail I was confused, then i was shocked, now ive recovered im still confused. So that thing is in your leg?


roger one profile image

roger one 8 years ago Author

LOL! Joshua - it was taken out after 18 mths, no side effects whatsoever (apart from the weak quads discussed). How else did I get the photo of it ha ha!!! Yes that's right, they clean & sterilise the whole thing and give it back.


want2know 8 years ago

Love yoga, usually just go with the flow, great info no more knee locken i promise


Lindsey 8 years ago

I remember learning to lock my knee when I first started Bikram Yoga, and it took a while to really get the message that it was more than just straightening your leg. Thanks for explaining to us more fully what locking the knee really does for your body!


roger one profile image

roger one 8 years ago Author

No worries Lindsey - it's one of the trickier elements of Bikram for sure - and also sounds odd to many as it is totally against what the fitness professionals say (ie never lock the knee in exercise) which is true - if you don't squeeze those quads!

Now as for squeezing the butt at the same time, that one I find a little harder!


Decrescendo profile image

Decrescendo 8 years ago

Oh. Time to hit the gym.


Bikram Yoga Cowichan Valley 8 years ago

Great information on locking the knee! For some if may take years before they can fully lock the knee.

Thanks again for sharing this information with your readers.


Mici profile image

Mici 8 years ago from Australia

Bikram Yoga looks like the ultimate way to stay healthy. I must find time to fit it into my life.


Amber Arendsen profile image

Amber Arendsen 8 years ago from Solana Beach, Ca

great post, I have been practicing hot yoga for about 6 months now. I also have bad knees form prior sports related injuries. I have asked different instructors about how and whether to really lock my knees and gotten different answers. this information along with pictures was soooo helpful.

Namaste


Party Girl profile image

Party Girl 8 years ago

What a great hub, I will read this again as I have bad knees. Keep up the good work!


woracal 7 years ago

Nice information! I'm sending the link to my dad. He has BAD knee arthritis.


yoga dvd fan 7 years ago

Thanks for explaining this. I needed the clarification even though I have been practising yoga for a while.


Steve Mackenzie 7 years ago

Thanks Roger you are a diamond, for researching this. there are a few things in bikram yoga that have challenged my existing understandings and prior knowledge. locking the knee is one of them, issues i have wanted to understand more about. There is solid reasoning and explanation in your answer, many thanks.

What is your take on limiting water intake in an actual 90 min class

I have had approx 10 bikram yoga lessons, there is something about it that just seems right, even though i don't fully understand the philosophy behind it yet.

Steve


roger one profile image

roger one 7 years ago Author

Hey Steve, thanks for the thumbs up! Glad it helped.

Re: water intake. Personally I believe too much during a class can be problematic for a number of quite different reasons (sheer discomfort; pulling focus away from your practice; metaphorically "putting out the inner fire") ... BUT ... what is "too much"?

Most of that will be a subjective decision and also be influenecd by the climate; room temp; how many in the room and how sweaty the room. You definitely *should* replace fluids lost by sweating, so I'm not a believer in the deprivation of water that some challenge themselves with as I personally don't think it's healthy. But to contrats that, I can go a whole 90 mins without water in winter where I practice as it is so dry. In summer I can drink 1.5 liters during class with no discomfort - so you can see why that is a hard question to answer!

The main thing is not to gulp; and to take sips in between poses - just keep yourself hydrated.

Of course, all this presupposes you drink plenty before and after class! (And replenish electrolytes if needed). Here's an excellent article that may help: http://www.bikram-yoga-noosa-australia.com/hot-yog...

You'll find now with 10 lessons behind you that you'll start to make some significant strides (especially "locking that knee hehe) - if you keep it up. More than 3 classes a week is the best schedule for making early breakthroughs. After that, a couple a week will serve as minimum maintenance, tho' more is better if you can fit it into your lifestyle.


Steve Mackenzie 7 years ago

thanks for the extra advice Roger. I have scheduled in 3 times a week, which is pretty good for my schedule. i have ditched some other exercise sessions because i do think there is real benefits to be gained from bikram yoga.

Yes i think the water thing is about being sensible. i can see your point and those of my instructors that a key issue is about losing focus. that's why i have instantly become more aware of the need to hydrate before the class - luckily i have a water cooler easily accessable at work.


Meghana Jain 6 years ago

Thanks for excellent article on locking the knee. I tried it today and my knees already feel much better. I have a sit-stand work station, and being in IT my knee and thigh are above and behind the kneed is sore most of the times. I practice the hatha yoga. If you have any other tips and poses to help the knee area soreness in thigh, please let me know.

I really appreciate your posting and I am so glad that I bumped into it while searching for knee issues.


roger one profile image

roger one 6 years ago Author

Thanks Meghana!

I'm glad it's making a difference for you - it still today makes a huge difference for me - the stronger your big muscles around the knee are, the "younger" your knees will stay.

Especially important if you also do other forms of exercise.

One thing I wanted to add here too - strengthening the large muscle groups - quadriceps especially - also needs to be done with really precise alignment - the kneecap is supposed to lift upwards when the quads are clenched - NOT to one side or the other. If this happens, then ask a sports-physio expert to give you some specific smaller muscle exercises - sometimes they just need to be "switched on" or activated a few times to get the idea. there are specific stretches and easy 2-3 min techniques for this.

If I find a link - I'll post it here!


Meghana Jain 6 years ago

Thanks Roger, I will keep that in mind that I have to get the kneecap to lift upward. Looking forward to your link.


Meghana Jain 6 years ago

Roger,

One question, As I had mentioned I have sit stand work station. When I am standing how long should I keep the knee in locked position?

Thanks,

Meghana


roger one profile image

roger one 6 years ago Author

Hi Meghana,

I would concentrate on 30-60 second periods. I have personally done much longer when standing in queues etc and even if you can hold them "clenched" that long (it's tough!), on release it feels a little weird.

A minimum of 10-20 seconds though to make sure you are getting good muscle recruitment and developing the habit!

Roger

Here's a couple of links I found:

http://www.physioadvisor.com.au/8119350/knee-stren...

http://www.bigkneepain.com/knee-exercises.html

That last one has some good info about the VMO (inner quadriceps) which is the important muscle to activate for correct alignment.


Meghana Jain 6 years ago

Hi Roger,

Thanks, very useful links with good pictures. I will include these exercises in my daily routine.

Meghana


Shealy Healy profile image

Shealy Healy 6 years ago from USA

I have to say that I truly needed to read this article. I am a fitness instructor and teach a specified type of yoga. Tight hamstrings are a problem often. And, knee issues are always a concern for my students. Learning to take more control of the quads is a good strategy to maintain full body health as those tight hamstrings and floating knee caps poorly influences the entire body.

Good job....

Shealy


yoga business 6 years ago

Great article. Thanks for sharing your experience.


Tim 6 years ago

After 13 years of triathlon racing it was time for a change. I have really enjoyed the yoga but noticed increase soreness in my knees. I was considering quiting my practice. I will try your suggestions and look forward to better results. Thank you so much for the clarification.

There should be a "Beginners" Bikram class or classes where all these details could be explained.


roger one profile image

roger one 6 years ago Author

Thanks Tim!

I totally agree with you - a more detailed class and some pre-instruction is essential in my view, as is ongoing coaching.

Increased knee soreness is a sure sign that something is amiss in your pose alignment - or that you might be pushing too hard, too soon!

It's often said that some yoga poses (even the beginner ones) that involve knee twists or require significant knee flexibility were designed for 15-year old boys so they could sit comfortably and meditate for hours on end.

Since most adults practicing Bikram aren't that age, I think it prudent to be careful with the knees - and remember those quads, they are your friends!


John Bilane 5 years ago

These are all great comments. Wait till you get to the part of the education where you find out that locking the (GD) knee is Bikram's pet metaphor for the meaning of life.


knee replacement recall 5 years ago

I am into yoga for 1 week. and all are going just fine. as i read this hub, i have gained a knowledge on how to take care my knees. my mother will love to read this one. and i am convincing her to have a yoga lessons.

Thanks much.


Allan 5 years ago

Roger - great article. I've been doing Bikrams for over 10 years and stupidly on my part have ignored the lock-the-knee instruction and simply held my leg straight. This was more because I couldn't lock my knee as I have little quad strength. Alas now I have developed osteoarthritis and have learned the lock-the-knee lesson the hard way. Would you advise getting to a gym and building up the quad strength before getting back to Bikrams ?


roger one profile image

roger one 5 years ago Author

Thanks Allan!

Hmmm difficult question - it really doesn't matter HOW you re-strengthen your quads - that can certainly still be done in your Bikram class, but I sense that you have some fear about simply holding the leg straight and exacerbating the issue.

So if that IS the case - you could elect to sit out the "locked leg balancing poses" (probably the three in a row) and really focus on simply standing there in Savasana and engaging BOTH your thigh muscles.

I'd be more inclined to go to a physiotherapist who will teach you some thigh-strengthening exercises you can do at home.

And of course, practice squats for quad strength (and awkward pose at home) and also whenever waiting in a queue, practice clenching your quads ...

Hope that helps - I'd also talk to your Bikram instructor - they may have some ideas for you!


Jen 5 years ago

Thanks so much. I had a teacher this morning tell me , "You've been coming for awhile. You should be able to lock your knee." When I try my legs shake uncontrollably. I thought maybe I was just a wuss. Hopefully someone else will teach tomorrow and I'll ask some questions.


DePuy Pinnacle recall 5 years ago

Knowing how to protect the knee is so important, especially for those with defective Pinnacle hip replacements who are using yoga as a way to lessen the pain of their device and improve overall health. Thanks for the info!


BikramNewbie 5 years ago

I was told by a physiotherapist friend that an easy way to get the quad in this knee locking postion is to tighten the corresponding bum cheek. So stand up and to lock the right knee for eg clench the right cheek. If you look down at your knee you will see it slightly move into the correct postion!I had damaged my knee and this exercise really helps improve the knee strength.


roger one profile image

roger one 5 years ago Author

Hi BikramNewbie - yes this is getting more technical now - squeezing the LOWER butt cheek will help further enage the quads.

Everyone should be aware that squeezing the whole buttock too tightly can rotate the leg and disturb your knee alignment, so pay attention to having the kneecap correctly located!


Ing 4 years ago

Hi Roger,

Crucial article for me!

I've been doing yoga for few months, being happy with all those lunges and warriors and increasing hugely my flexibility which is above average anyway, but never ever been managing those standing balancing poses, still in the class 2 days ago I was only shaking and never was able even to get into those poses properly. Luckily, there was a different teacher last time who kept repeating the chorus of "lock your knees".

So, today haunted by the concept of locked knees (good or bad? what it Really Means?), I dug deep into webpages and found your artcle - the crucial one to explain the idea. Result - literally 10 minutes after reading the article twice, I was able to perform all those balancing poses, and by staying stable with nearly an ease! Incredible, I would have never thought it's possible just like that. Nearly cannot believe myself how the understanding of proper technique concepts would turn the impossible into possible in literally just few minutes. Incredible.

Thank you, thank you so very much. Immense respect for your post.


roger one profile image

roger one 4 years ago Author

Hi Ing,

That's fantastic to hear - makes me soooo happy ;)

Funny how badly explained this can be in general ... yet is easily "fixed" in 10 mins ... really happy to hear that and I'm glad my post could help!

Roger


Koen 4 years ago

what about "overlocking" the knee, Bikram appearantly doesn't talk about that....


Peter 4 years ago

In class you can see a lot of people overlocking their knees....what about that ?


roger one profile image

roger one 4 years ago Author

Since both "Peter" & "Koen" are the same person, we'll answer both here.

What do you mean by "overlocking"?

If you mean simply straightening the leg without the use of the supporting groups of muscles, ie simply "leaning" on the bone structure, then that's already answered in the article and yes you see a lot of this poor understanding of "lock the knee". It can sometimes appear to be a hyperextension.


Jen 4 years ago

Its helpful to also mention that while locking the knee and tightening the quad not to hyperextend the knee because I see a lot of that and people end up injuring themselves.


roger one profile image

roger one 4 years ago Author

Actually "locking the knee" really IS about drawing up the quadriceps correctly and keeping the knee in line - I mentioned a good resource for this in a previous comment:

http://www.bigkneepain.com/knee-exercises.html

Hope that helps!


Koen and Peter 4 years ago

Ok Thanks Roger for explaining, cheers !


stephanie crocker 4 years ago

Thanks so much for the article. I've been having trouble with my hamstring (and possibly hip joint) which manifests itself as sharp nerve pain down my leg, often in my knee (especially when cycling).

I've been doing Bikram Yoga for about 3 weeks know, with the hopes of strengthening and stretching out those joints and muscles; however, what seems to be happening is my pain is getting worse.

I talked to my yoga instructor, who showed me how to properly lock my knee. I did that yesterday, but was in intense pain last night.

SO my question is, is it normal to feel worse before I feel better, or should I stop yoga?

(I've seen a doctor, gotten an mri, etc. and they can't find anything wrong with my leg)


Vanda Mikoloski 3 years ago

I'm a Bikram teacher -16 years. I never say "lock the knee". For certain leg structures, it's absolutely out-of-integrity to lock the knee and bear weight on it. If you notice, some people straighten the knee joint, and their knee aligns way back behind a line drawn from hip to ankle. That means they have really long tendons and ligaments that they are taxing to the max when they lock their knees out, contracted quads or not. It's unweildy to just hang there on their long tendons, although it feels comfortable to them, as they are hanging on the maxed-out tendons. BUT a slight bend in the knee forces them to actually use more muscular strength. Just like in the lateral stretch in Half Moon pose. Those bendy people who crank it over to the side and just hang there in flexible bliss ought to come off the deep bend and use some muscular integrity, in my humble opinion! Hope that helps


Vanda Mikoloski 3 years ago

Here's a good article on this. When I see these poor folks with hypermobility in Standing head to knee pose "locking out"their standing leg, I want them to read this: http://www.frontsplitsfast.com/whatto-do-with-sway...


Simon 3 years ago

Interesting article. Practicing Tai chi for many years I had sore knees but taking up Chinese wand exercises, which include some stretches with straight legs (so-called `locked' knees) my knees improved - and after reading this article realised that exercises like the one below made me tighten my quadriceps naturally.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2PlbNdPYjU&feature...


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Maria 23 months ago

then why keep using "lock your knee" instead of explaining about the quads function in most standing poses and balance? "Lock your knee" is very misleading and if you look around you'll see many Bikram students and teachers! are overextending their knees! Most good yoga teachers Know never to use that phrase instead explaining what you just did in your article above.


roger one profile image

roger one 23 months ago Author

HI Maria, and thanks for stopping by to comment!

I totally agree with you. Why teach using a term that is so widely mis-interpreted?

The answer lies in Bikram's teaching model: trainee teachers are required to learn to "recite" an exact script (no way to teach yoga IMO, but let's not go there for a moment).

Once certified, in order to be a "Bikram approved" studio, they must stick to using the script they were taught.

It's my understanding that more and more are splitting from this model, particularly since they do not wish to be associated with the type of publicity Choudury has generated. So perhaps we will see more intelligent and non-script-driven instruction!

Thanks again for joining in.

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