Three Verbal Cues That Drive Me Bananas
“Microbend Your Knees”
This cue was all the rage in the late 90s, and I fear it is coming back into fashion, as I’ve heard it a lot recently. Admittedly, I did a lot of micro-bending in my 20s. So much so that, by 30, my knees ached regularly; they hurt just standing in line at the grocery store, in tadasana, mountain pose. It took a great deal of conscious effort and a strong yoga practice to unwind unhealthy muscle memory and create new habits. But the practice of unlearning the micro-bend ultimately healed my knees completely.
Why did we ever start saying this? I get this question from students in our yoga teacher training programs all the time. (along with “what does it mean when my teacher says to micro-bend my knees?”)
The effect of a good yoga cue is like a balm that soothes the nervous system of everyone in the room. Each student will look different in the pose, but the energetics and muscular actions are alive and well within them. A good yoga cue brings the practice of yoga to life.
But ask ten students in a typical yoga class to micro-bend their knees and you’ll get ten different responses. And not the good kind of individual difference seen in a room full of yogis engaged in the same shape. Some students will look like they are actively slumping to achieve the micro-bend effect. Others are practically in utkatasana, chair pose.
Your yoga teacher knows that knee safety is a big deal. And yoga attracts a lot of quite flexible people. And flexible people tend toward hyperextension (defined as the ability of a joint to move beyond “straight” or 180 degrees). Standing lock-legged is another way to wreck your knees, and another reason yoga teachers use the cue. But do they have to?
Try This Instead
The best way to strengthen your joints is to actively use the muscles that surround them. To protect your knees, train yourself to use the muscles of your upper leg to lift your kneecaps upward, not press the knee joint back. You can test for how well you’re protecting your knee by feeling the little triangular bone, the patella, which sits at the hinging point. If you can’t wiggle it around, voila, knee joint protected and you are on your way to optimal knee health.
If you are a committed micro-bender, it can take some time to create the neurokinetic chain between brain and quadriceps: be patient and keep trying. Most people require at least a few weeks before they feel the benefits of less knee pain and more strength.
For the next step in subtle cues that strengthen the knee joint, check out this youtube video on janu sirsasana. (it’s also embedded at the bottom of this article).
Teaching Refinements For Yoga Teachers
* Look at where your students’ kneecaps are pointing. If their kneecaps are lifted, and pointing straight out over their middle toes, then the pose is solid.
* Have students test their quadriceps strength (the muscles best-suited to protect the very delicate knee joint), after cuing people into a micro-bend: you’ll likely find a lot of mushiness, what I call “lazy legs.” Then guide your students into proper muscle actions. Showing both the “wrong” (lazy leg) and “right” (super strong warrior legs) way gives your students an experience, and experiences are more powerful than words.
* In my classes I sometimes walk around tapping students’ upper legs just above the knee and whispering individual reminders to “be strong here” or “lift this muscle upward” if I see a lot of lazy legs. (For some reason, teenagers love it when you talk about their lazy knees).
* It’s OK if students (yourself included) continue to use and love the micro-bend. Nothing works for everybody, and there’s bound to be someone who will always love this cue. However, as a culture of yogis, we’ve gone to an extreme with it. The purpose of this article is to speak from the other side of things.
Eliminating the laziness that results from this one cue, then bringing quadriceps power online in standing yoga poses will transform your yoga practice into one that is sustainable and beneficial across your whole life. Who wouldn’t want that?
Stay tuned for the second cue arriving next week: “bring your shin to parallel with the short edge of your mat in pigeon pose” and why that yoga cue just drives me bonkers.
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