How to have happy knees (in yoga and in life)

I want to teach you how to use your feet.

So yes, this post is about knees. Promise. But happy feet equal happy knees.

Our knees work in collaboration with our feet and pelvis to keep us upright. How we hold our weight when we stand and walk (let alone run), and whether or not we're engaging the muscles in the feet, legs and hips the way they've evolved to engage will dictate whether we're comfortable in the knee joints (and just generally, really).

Learning how to use your feet will help ease any tension/pain in your knees.

The foot low-down (excuse the lame joke)

Your feet are your foundation. And they are, as a result, a very complex structure. Around a quarter of the number of bones and muscles in your entire body are below your ankle. 

Look at all those little bones in there! They need muscles to support them too.

Look at all those little bones in there! They need muscles to support them too.

They're so complex because they've evolved to adapt to whatever surface it is that we're walking on -- and before we built footpaths and roads, and put our feet in shoes, that would've been some pretty uncertain terrain. Unfortunately, not using the feet to their full potential has a knock-on effect on the legs and hips and -- you guessed it -- the knees.

So for happier feet (and knees and hips) the first and most important thing you can do is to spend as much time as you can barefoot, to get some of that adaptability back into the muscles and joints in your feet.

Where to put your weight, and where your toes and knees should be pointing

Your foot is a set of three arches like this:

Why are drawing apps so hard to draw with? But you get the picture. Three arches, three points of contact. Also, I really need to paint my toenails again.

Why are drawing apps so hard to draw with? But you get the picture. Three arches, three points of contact. Also, I really need to paint my toenails again.

You want to make contact with the ground at the point in the centre of each of your heels, the point under the ball of your big toes and the point under the ball of your little toes. The outside edges of your feet should be parallel to one another; the toes may even turn in slightly.

Your weight, however, should be back in that centre point in the heel.

Try it. Stand up with your feet hip width apart. Make contact with the ground with those three points, but bring your weight back into your heels. All of it. Yep. All of it. Keep going. Good that's it. But keep those points on the balls of the feet pressing into the floor. Try not to scrunch your toes too much. Tricky huh? Feels pretty weird, am I right?*

What you're trying to do by bringing your weight back into your heels is line your knees and hips up with your ankle joints, which allows your body to use the different parts of the leg more evenly, and keeps each of those joints from compressing (ouch!). From the side, when you're standing, you want to look like this:

Beautiful! Lovely alignment, Ms Artists' Mannequin. Knees on top of ankles; hips on top of knees.

Beautiful! Lovely alignment, Ms Artists' Mannequin. Knees on top of ankles; hips on top of knees.

Most of us, unfortunately for our knees, look more like this (Nadine's still working on this too.):

Oh no! Even on the artists' mannequin you can start to see the extra pressure in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back. Ouch.

Oh no! Even on the artists' mannequin you can start to see the extra pressure in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back. Ouch.

Lining the knees up from the front

You also want to line everything up from a front-on perspective.

So from the front, you want your legs to look like this (straight up and down and with the knee caps pointing out over the outer toes -- the little ones):

This is almost perfect alignment. Her left leg is still turned in a little too much -- turns out it's almost as difficult to put a mannequin in correct alignment as it is to do so with a human!

This is almost perfect alignment. Her left leg is still turned in a little too much -- turns out it's almost as difficult to put a mannequin in correct alignment as it is to do so with a human!

Rather than this:

Does she look like she needs to pee? Funnily enough, not using your feet and leg and hip muscles properly does often mean you can't use your pelvic floor muscles properly and, ahem, might need to stand like this more frequently than other folk.

Does she look like she needs to pee? Funnily enough, not using your feet and leg and hip muscles properly does often mean you can't use your pelvic floor muscles properly and, ahem, might need to stand like this more frequently than other folk.

This is what we yoga teachers are going on about when we talk about internal and external rotation of the various parts of the legs. We're trying to get you to have each of the parts of your legs pointing in the same direction, so the muscles of the legs are engaged evenly. Doing this takes pressure off the knee joints. Happy knees! Hurrah!

This is true in poses more complicated than simply standing with the feet hip width apart. 

A similar joints-in-legs-lining up principle applied to Warrior One.

A similar joints-in-legs-lining up principle applied to Warrior One.

Other things to help with problematic knees

Now, wouldn't it be great if we could all just go immediately from what's essentially dysfunctional use of the feet, legs, knees and hips, to wonderful alignment and a pain freeeee existence? Yes, it would. But unfortunately a lifetime's habitual (mis)use means that's at least very unlikely. 

Chances are (and this had definitely been the case for me), you'll have tightness somewhere that needs releasing and weakness somewhere that needs addressing, in order to stand and walk and move around using the body in the most advantageous way.

Step one: spend as much time as you can with no shoes on. (I'm repeating myself, I know, but it's important.)

Here are some other things you can do to help your knees:

Practice standing in the way described above as often as you remember -- not just in a yoga class!

Hip stretches, hamstrings and calf stretches, high squat (chair or awkward pose), pressing down with one foot at at time on a tennis ball. (Click on the image below to see a picture of each of these.)

Rolling feet out on a tennis ball.

* Standing with the weight back in the heels like this feels really weird because most of us are used to wearing a heel of some kind (and I'm not even talking about high heels, which, well, don't even get me started -- they look lovely, but they cause chaos in the structure of the skeleton, let's just leave it at that for now). We're used to bringing the weight forward into the toes. But ultimately, this weakens the muscles in the arch of the foot, and changes the way the muscles are used in the legs and pelvis, which means that we come to rely either on the joints themselves or inappropriate muscles just to keep us upright. Let alone walking.