Oh My Aching Knees! ​​4 Knee-Friendly Yoga Poses

Second only to back pain, knee pain is the most common musculoskeletal complaint that brings people to a doctor. It’s also one of the main reasons I hear for why people abandon their yoga practice. This doesn’t have to be the case. Actually, yoga can help strengthen the muscle groups that support the knee joint, reducing or eliminating pain altogether.

Now you may be thinking that bearing weight on your knees is not possible, but there are plenty of ways to modify yoga poses so you can still get your practice in. Below are four knee-friendly poses. But first, let’s dive into the muscle groups that are required to make the knee work the way it’s supposed to.

Quads, Hammies, and Glutes

The goal is to promote strength and flexibility in the muscles that support your knee. This not only helps reduce stress on the knee joint, allowing it to absorb shock and be less vulnerable to injury, but helps with your balance. These three are the most important muscle groups to focus on:

1) Quadriceps: Your quadriceps, or quads, are the main drivers of your knee joint. Located on the front of the thigh, the quads run from your hip to your knee. They straighten the knee from a bent position and help maintain proper alignment of the patella (kneecap). Weakness in the quads creates instability in the knees which impacts both gait and balance. Practicing poses like Chair Pose (Utkatasana) and Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) build strength and stability to the quads and knee.
2) Hamstrings: The hamstrings are critically important for moving and stabilizing the knees. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run along the back of your thigh from the hip to just below your knee. These muscles make it possible to bend the knee and extend the leg back. 

When tight, the hamstrings can create imbalance in the forces across the knee resulting in more stress on the quads and patella. Yoga poses that stretch the hamstrings, like Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) and Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana), keep them flexible to prevent knee pain.

3) Glutes: Your gluteal (buttock or butt) muscles are the largest muscle group in your body. They are also the muscles used most for simple, everyday movements like standing up, stepping down, and walking. 

 

  • Tight glutes tend to pull the pelvis and hips back, placing tension on the hip flexors and quads. They can also create stress in the tendons of the knee, potentially contributing to pain around the kneecap.

 

  • By contrast, weak glutes, particularly the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus located on the outside of the hips, can allow the thigh to rotate inward resulting in knock knees. This position exerts excessive stress on the knee joint and can lead to degeneration of the knee joint and arthritis. Poses like Kneeling Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana) and Bird Dog (Parsva Balasana) engage and strengthen the gluteal muscles for better knee alignment.
Ready to have stronger knees? Try these four yoga poses that target the inner thighs, glutes, and hamstrings. Before you start, you’ll need a chair, a yoga block, and some wall space, like the back of a door.

4 Knee-Strengthening Yoga Poses

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Warrior II works all three muscle groups, including the abductor muscles of your outer hip, specifically gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These muscles play a key role in knee alignment. If weak, these muscles allow your knee to collapse in—something you want to avoid.

1. Stand facing the long edge of your mat. For extra balance support, stand with your back to a wall and a chair to your right. Step your feet about four feet apart.

2. Turn your feet to the right and check your stance. You should be able to bend your right knee and still see the tips of your right toes. If not, widen your stance so that your knee comes over your ankle with the shin perpendicular to the floor.

3. Keeping your right knee bent, inhale your arms to shoulder height, reaching your right arm forward and your left arm back. For extra balance support, hold the back of your chair with the right hand.

4. As you stay with the right knee bent and arms extended for three breaths, hug the thighs towards each other to engage your glutes. This will prevent your front knee from drifting inward, helping to strengthen the muscles around the knee.

5. To come out of the pose, lower your arms and straighten your knee. Move the chair to your left side and repeat.

Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

Like Warrior II, Extended Side Angle strengthens all three muscle groups– the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Be sure to bring the same alignment awareness to the bent knee as in Warrior II.

1. Starting in a wide stance (as in Warrior II), lean your upper body forward and bring your right forearm to rest on your right thigh or on the back of your chair. Place your left hand on your left hip. Check that your right knee is aligned over your ankle.

2. Bring your left hand to your shoulder or extend it alongside your left ear to create a long diagonal line from your outer left foot to your left fingertips. Keep rotating your chest open and gaze upward if able.

3. Stay here for three full breaths. Then lower your left arm and return to center. Move the chair to your left side and repeat.

Staff Pose Leg Lifts (Dandasana)

Dandasana is a seated version of Mountain Pose (Tadasana). It helps to stretch tight hamstrings and strengthen your core muscles. The addition of leg lifts helps strengthen the quadriceps for better knee alignment. If you have sensitive or arthritic knees, opt for the chair version below.

On the floor:

1. Sit with your back to a wall, legs straight in front of you with your feet flexed. Rest the palms of your hands flat on the floor by your hips. Take three full breaths here, lengthen your spine with each inhale.

2. Next, on an inhale, engage your right thigh to lift your whole leg away from the floor. Don’t worry about how high. Lower the leg to the floor as you exhale.

3. Repeat, lifting your left leg away from the floor. Alternate legs for a total of four repetitions on each leg.

4. Finish by relaxing your feet and ankles. Gently bounce your knees up and down to release any tension in your hamstrings and the backs of the knees.

In a chair:

1. Sit towards the front of the seat of a sturdy chair. Your arms can rest on the armrests or you can hold the sides of the chair.

2. Extend your right leg so the heel rests on the floor. As you inhale, engage your right thigh to lift the heel off the floor, keeping your knee straight. Exhale to lower it.

3. Repeat this three more times. Then lift your right leg and hold for three breaths. Lower your heel to the floor and repeat with your left leg.

4. Finish by sitting all the way back in the chair. On an inhale, lift both legs, knees straight and feet flexed. Hold this position for two breaths before lowering both feet back to the ground.

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Bridge is a great pose for strengthening the glutes as well as the inner thighs. Using a block between your upper thighs helps to engage the glutes and quads. If getting down on the floor isn’t possible, skip down to the directions for Bridge Pose at the wall.

On the floor:

1. Lie on your back with your feet about hip-distance apart and knees bent. Place a yoga block between your thighs, just above your knees. Your arms should rest by your sides, palms down.

2. Engage your abdominal muscles and glutes. Press down into both feet to lift your pelvis. Squeeze the block as you lift your hips, coming only as high as you are able. Pause for one count.

3. As you exhale, slowly lower your spine and pelvis to the floor, keeping your abs and glutes engaged. Repeat four more times, staying with your hips elevated on the final repetition for three breaths.

4. When finished, hug both knees into your chest, rocking side to side a few times.

At the wall:

1. Stand with your back to a wall in Mountain Pose. The back of your shoulders and buttocks should touch the wall. Place a block between your thighs, just above the knees. Rest your palms on the wall near your hips.

2. Keeping your back in contact with the wall, slowly slide down the wall as you walk your feet away and lower into a “sitting” position with knees bent. Engage your abdominal muscles and glutes.

3. Maintaining a slight arch in your low back, inhale your hips away from the wall. Pause for one count. Then slowly exhale your hips back to the wall. Repeat four more times, staying on the final repetition for three breaths.

4. To come out, press your palms into the wall as you walk your feet back, sliding your spine up the wall until you are back in Mountain pose. Step away from the wall and shake out your legs.

There are many other poses that can help support and strengthen your knees, and most can be modified so sensitive knees don’t prevent you from practicing yoga. If you’d like to learn more about protecting and caring for your knees, join me for my 6-week series on knee health starting April 8. You can learn more and register here.

Be well!

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