Knee pain: A beautiful message to get back on my yoga mat

By Nya Patrinos

I began experiencing chronic knee pain in the late 90s, but it wasn’t until after I had knee surgery in 2000 that my pain became unbearable. My orthopedic surgeon told me that recovery would be difficult because of the amount of scraping that was done under my kneecap during surgery to put it in proper alignment.

Postsurgery, I went to many sessions of physical therapy, where I learned an elaborate way to tape my knees for support. I did lots of exercises on the pilates reformer, and although that was helpful, I continued to experience pain, especially when driving and walking up and down stairs. I started seeing a chiropractor with a sports medicine focus. We worked on strengthening my legs with light weights and an exercise bike, but I still had pain. I moved on to working with the acupuncturist in his office. I felt great after the sessions, but the benefits did not seem to carry over to the next day. Everything I did felt helpful, but nothing alleviated the pain.

This experimentation with different healing modalities occurred over 4 years, and by the end of this process I had become frustrated and depressed—I felt worse postsurgery than I had before it. But I didn’t give up.

The missing link

I had dabbled in yoga for years, but in 2004 I took a Hatha Yoga class in the Ghosh style. The morning after that class, I felt like something was better in my knees. I was so elated that I decided to go again—and again. Now that I am a yoga therapist, I believe that my knees responded to the integrative approach of stretching, strengthening, mindfulness, breath awareness, and deep relaxation that Hatha Yoga provides. The other modalities I had tried were singular in focus, whereas yoga was holistic.

I learned in yoga therapy training that a key to alleviating knee pain is supporting the structures around the knee by having strong quads and hamstrings above and strong calves below. It is also important to be aware of the alignment of the knees in relation to the feet. In addition, development of flexibility and mobility in the entire leg is crucial for healthy knees.

I believe these poses were key to my personal knee rehabilitation:

  • standing mountain (tadasana) and seated staff (dandasana) for postural alignment;
  • chair (utkatasana) and warrior (virabhadrasana) I, II, and III for quad and hamstring strength;
  • bow (dhanurasana), hero (virasana), and dancer (natarajasana) for quad flexibility;
  • pyramid (parsvottanasana) and seated and standing forward folds (paschimottanasana and uttansana) for hamstring flexibility;
  • eagle (garudasana) for detoxification and purification; and
  • corpse or relaxation pose (savasana) for rejuvenation on the cellular level.

My knee pain is not cured, but it is managed. The pain comes back when my yoga practice is not consistent. I understand this as a beautiful message that reminds me to get back on the mat! When my weight goes up, I also feel a change in my knees; research has shown that for every 1 pound of excess weight lost, the knees experience a 4-pound reduction in stress. I’ve learned, too, that just going to yoga isn’t enough. Although I need to practice at least four times a week to be pain-free, I also need to practice in a deliberate, focused way.

I thank my knees for reminding me to keep my yoga practice disciplined and consistent. I also thank my knees for leading me toward a life in yoga, something much more profound than just rehabbing a structural issue. To paraphrase Nischala Joy Devi, what keeps me coming back to yoga is not fear of knee pain but the special feeling that occurs when I am on the mat, when I experience something magical inside that touches a mysterious part of myself.

Nya Patrinos, MFA, C-IAYT, has a Diploma of Merit in Yoga Therapy from The Ghosh College of India in Calcutta and a Certificate in Yoga Therapy from Integrative Yoga Therapy.