Updated: Apr 3
I started this post to raise awareness about the risks of practicing Virasana, but it's evolving into a love letter to the Truly Awesome Human Knee. I have been hanging out with knee anatomy this week and I feel such awe and respect for the intricacy of this joint!
In a nutshell, I do not think Virasana is a safe pose for most people to be doing. We may not realize the damage we are doing until we are older. Some people can do this pose safely, but genetics are a major factor in the availability of this asana. Any benefits this pose might have can be achieved -- far better - in other ways. So I think this pose is not worth the potential risks.
Don't "come at me", Virasana enthusiasts! ❤️ Just hear me out. Or at least join me in an anatomy geek fest. 🦴💪🤓🧠🎉❤️
The human body is amazing, adaptable and resilient. But not every pose or movement is healthy for every body. Intelligent discernment is a big part of yoga. We should educate ourselves so we can make informed decisions about how we treat our bodies -- these amazing machines that sustain our consciousness every day.
Let's look at Knee Movement. Check out this video!
Our knee is a complex joint, and it's pretty much made to move ONE way. In a hinge.
Look at all those ligaments connecting the thigh bone (femur) to the lower leg (tibia and fibula). Aren't they amazing!? You can actually see what they are meant to do by where they attach.
In walking, the upper leg glides over the lower leg. The gliding is lubricated by Articular Cartilage. The two Menisci provide cushion and support. (Meniscus singular, Menisci plural). In fact the menisci kind of make a perfect little nest to receive the femur.
The femur and tibia are made to go together in a certain way, and the bones show the way. Like puzzle pieces. Like destined lovers. ❤️❤️❤️
Just looking at these images make me want to respect those knees and not twist them. 😍
Let's talk about some of the things that can go wrong.
Many people experience loss of cartilage and meniscal tears, just from "the normal aging process." 🤪 "Even an awkward twist when getting up from a chair may be enough to cause a tear if the menisci have weakened with age." (source)
This is important! Ligaments keep our bones together, and they don't have much sensory feedback. That means that you can't always "feel" it if you are over-stretching them.
Over-stretching ligaments, repeatedly, over time could have cumulative damage and bigger problems down the road.
If you over-stretch them, they don't repair or grow back. That means even a small overstretching of your ligaments can make your bones not fit together as tightly as they should, and the joint is more vulnerable.
A big overstretching increases instability, and wear and tear. A huge overstretching or rupture, you have serious issues. For example, ACL tears usually happen while playing sports, but they do also often involve a twisting of knee in another context.
Well, Virasana is all about twisting the knees.
Virasana is a pose in which you twist the lower legs out to the sides and sit between the feet. That is a lot of twisting and adding weight to the joints in the twist. 😱
The Bottom Line
Knee pain and injuries are really common, especially with older adults. You may not be an older adult now, but if you're lucky, you will be. The only other alternative is -- as my mother used to say -- live fast, die young, and be a beautiful corpse.
Ligaments, menisci and cartilage, once damaged, are never the same. Injuries to these tissues may require surgeries.
So if you're in yoga class and Virasana is offered, think on this: 🤔
In order to do this pose, your thigh bone needs to be able to internally rotate in the hip joint. Part of that ability comes from your bone structure. Some people simply do not have the bone structure to allow that internal rotation. Which means the lower leg moves more to try to compensate.
It may not hurt today, but it might still be causing damage. Repeating the same ligament overstretching over time could have consequences.
If you’re a woman, you’re more susceptible to knee problems!
Wider pelvis for child bearing = bigger angle of pelvis to thigh to knee = more susceptibility to twisting
You’re also more at risk of the kneecap sliding out of its patella groove
Women tend to have ligament laxity due to hormone changes, especially in pregnancy
There continues to be a gender gap when it comes to domestic labor. I wonder if anyone has every had knee issues while scrubbing floors and chasing toddlers? 🤔😜
Other factors that might cause issues in this pose: large calves 🖐, a genetic tendency towards laxer ligaments 🖐, tight hip muscles🖐, pre-existing wear and tear from sports🖐, pre-fatigue from other movement that week . . .
Given that the knee joint is meant to move in a hinge, most injuries occur from twists, and virasana is asking you to do a deep knee twist and SIT INTO IT, you've got to ask yourself one question:
Do I feel lucky?
Well, do ya, punk?
This pose doesn't even stretch the quadricep muscles very efficiently! I say "no thank you" to virasana. I have many other ways of stretching my quadriceps safely and efficiently. (next week's blog post?)
The collateral ligaments "go lax" when the knee is bent, and that is why many think Virasana is totally ok. But is it totally ok, for every body, forever, in all cases?
"With practice, all will come." Practice is not the only factor. Yes, some yoga postures may not be accessible today. And in time, with practice, they may be accessible. But just because you can do something doesn't mean it's good for you. And genetics are a huge factor here. Practice poses that create integrity and strength, and much will come. If you want to take on a pose to "discipline" yourself, try plank! For that matter, "with practice, all will come" is much more meaningful in a meditation practice.
Yoga encourages us to listen to our bodies and intuition. If it hurts, don't do it. If it doesn't hurt, go for it! Well, some things don't hurt today but cause small amounts of damage over time -- and then you have a different story. Smoking is fun and doesn't seem like it hurts . . . until it does. Arthritis can cause a gradual wear and tear of the joints over time. Why help it along with excessive twisting?
"Screw home mechanism" is a healthy twist of the knee -- yes, when standing, the tibia does do a slight twist of the lower leg from the upper leg -- it's small and specific. It doesn't mean that all knee twisting is all good all the time
After studying the anatomy of the knee and looking at how femur and the tibia are immaculately contoured to fit into one another as they move in a hinge - - and looking at the clarity of the ligament and meniscus engineering -- the intended pathway is really clear and intuitive to me. The prana (intelligent energy of the universe) has manifested on the material plane by creating this world in general, and this body in particular. When you look at the human form, you see the pathways of prana. I do not want to stress my knees or disrespect the natural pathway of the subtle energy -- so I choose hinge.
Hey, I'm not a doctor or a physical therapist. If you are one, or have some good information to share with the world, I'm happy to be a receiver and a conduit. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here's at least one physio who backs me up.
Movie Reference: Dirty Harry
Knee Movement Video: I cobbled this together by screen-recording a YouTube Video by Dr. Walter H. Schmitt. YouTube channel: MichelleatAKSP. Video: Knee Motion Video Anatomy. Original Animation by Primal Pictures. I do not have the rights to any of this, but I'm also not making any money off of this! I am providing this for inspirational purposes. Please do not sue me. My intentions are to spread information and inspiration.
Enjoy some more awesome anatomy videos and view the sources behind this blog post:
Cover Image Source: Jan Padilla at Unsplash
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