alan little’s weblog

on learning caution

6th July 2007 permanent link

I did something really stupid a few weeks ago, and I’m going to come clean and describe exactly what it was so that everybody else can avoid doing it.

Due to karmic burdens, my right knee and hip are much stiffer than my left, especially in lotus or half lotus positions. Yoga is to a large degree about recognising and accepting the reality of where you are, instead of which I decided I was fed up with this after all these years and was going to take drastic action to “fix” it.

I thought about various techniques I’ve picked up for learning/improving half lotus. Two good variations are to take a leg that is in half lotus and, rather than letting it rest on the other leg, take the other leg away and let the half lotus leg make its way to the floor under its own weight. You can do this sitting, as recommended by Donna Farhi (in a very good article to which my previous link unfortunately appears to be broken) or lying down as recommended by Donna Holleman in a class I took with her recently.

I haven’t got to the stupid bit. Donna and Donna are two of the least stupid yoga teachers anywhere.

Getting slightly more stupid now: there’s a thing sometimes called double pigeon that a lot of people swear by as a remedy for tight hips. Other people I know and respect say it’s ok but you have to take great care with the foot and ankle positioning for it to be safe; others still say it’s just downright dangerous and you shouldn’t do it at all. I have always been suspicious of it, and find it exceedingly difficult & uncomfortable, so I don’t often do it. Plenty of the people who recommend it are reputable and non-stupid though, so we’re not there yet.

I’ve been (re-)reading some stuff lately about a stretching technique I actually first learned about in my climbing days, long before yoga, in which you strongly contract a muscle in a stretched position and then relax it again. A stretched muscle tends to tense up to prevent over-stretching and injury; this technique overrides that reflex. It is safe, effective, scientifically proven and definitely non-stupid. The stretched limb needs something to push against though. And here’s where it all goes horribly wrong.

Do not: lie on your back on the floor. Put one leg in half lotus position. Bend the other leg ninety degrees as in a double pigeon and place the outside of the ankle on top of the knee of the leg that is in half lotus. Use this leg to provide resistance while you practice tense-relax stretching with the half lotus leg. Because guess what: physics. While that ankle is pressing down on the knee, the knee is also pressing up on it with equal and opposite force. And that ankle is one end of a long lever, the other end of which terminates at the cartilage on the inner edge of your knee joint.

Damaging the inner edge of the knee joint by squeezing it together it is the most common injury that yoga beginners inflict on themselves by overenthusiastic premature attempts to sit in lotus. Practitioners with ten or more years of experience should know better, but they don’t always.

Fortunately, having been such an overenthusiastic beginner, I have years of experience in dealing with yoga knee injuries. I always knew that knowledge would come in handy for something one day, although I rather hoped it would be for helping other people not myself.

Still I’m learning interesting things this time round. Lotus on the left side is out of the question for the time being; I just need to be patient with that. I can do rehabilitive stretches with my left knee bent as long as I’m very careful about my ankle position and I go into them very slowly. It’s good mindfulness training – the slightest moment of inattention earns me a sharp stab in the knee. Another question presents itself too: if my hip isn’t open enough to get into half lotus without hurting an only slightly injured knee, then maybe it wasn’t as open as I thought it was in the first place. I must have been sitting in lotus with slight pressure on the knee all along. More work to do – it’s just as well I enjoy doing it.

I probably should take glucosamine/chondroitin for a few weeks too in case there’s any actual cartilage damage, although that’s very much secondary to working on hip rotation and careful foot positioning.

No Disclaimer This Time: really don’t do this.

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