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Can the Knee Travel Over the Toe?

The following is excerpted from the Book; "Yoga - Madness or Meditation". Available on Amazon.

Disciple: I am always told the knee should NEVER travel over the toe. Many yoga teachers swear by this fundamental anatomical “rule”.

This type of a teaching point that many yoga teachers have as part of their verbal repertoire (the NEVER part) is regarded as an absolute truth. This is something that is believed to be true at all times. It is something that is always true no matter what the circumstances. It is a fact that cannot be changed. Have you heard the wise old saying that anytime somebody is absolutely certain about something, they are almost always absolutely wrong?

What we have to understand is the concept of “athletic capacity”. What does that mean? It is the stress your body can tolerate when you create movement. If you run after your kids, you move athletically. If you do Zumba in your lounge, you are moving athletically. Thus, the physical stress your body can endure is your athletic capacity.

So, what is your athletic capacity? What stress can your body/joints endure? Being specific to this question, what stress can your knee tolerate? From my years of teaching and observation, it is more than most yoga teachers understand.

The next time you are in class, take a look at the various students. Look at the variable sizes, shapes, genders, abilities, experiences and the types of bodies - including those who are athletic, muscular or ex-dancers. The types of bodies and people you get in a yoga class are vast. Each body is unique in what it can and cannot do and the how much stress/load it can tolerate. So, is the absolute statement of saying “the knee should NEVER travel over the toe” applicable to each and every one of these students/bodies? Does a statement like this account for the different bodies and abilities in the class? Does this absolute teaching point leave room for variation?

My front knee is over my toe. So is my back knee. How is this unsafe if I have the physical capacity to tolerate this ‘stress’?

Coming from a gym/personal trainer and biomechanics background, I have come to understand that it is perfectly safe for the knee to travel over the line of the toe. It all depends on what is happening as it relates to gravity at that time for it to be considered dangerous and even how far the knee travels over the toe. Are we talking millimeters or inches? Where do we draw the line?

The question should be, can the knee travel over the line of the toe? The answer is a resounding yes as this is the design of the knee. Mother nature has designed the human knee to act as a hinge.

The second question is how far can it go? The answer to that depends on the time spent in that position, the load, the purpose for doing so, a person’s individual capacity to tolerate such a load (which will differ from one person to another) as well as the sizes of the bones in the lower limbs relative to each other. What if the individual has very small feet relative to their thigh and shin bones?

So, the knee can indeed travel over the toe as this is a biomechanical function of the knee, a student should be encouraged to allow their knee to travel as far forward as is comfortable.

On the subject of this nonsensical yoga teaching point, I asked the following question to Dr. Jacob Harden, (Doctor of Chiropractic degree from the Palmer College of Chiropractic in Port Orange, FL, US): “What is your theory on the knee never travelling over the toes? (as it relates to yoga).

Dr Harden’s response was “There is no basis to it (the statement). Yes, moving the knee forward increases the load on the knee but without some sort of measure as to what the knee can tolerate, that information is useless. Load is what makes us adapt so rather than saying it shouldn’t go forward, we should be asking if it is an adequate stressor or an excessive stressor. And a lot of that comes down to how does it feel to you.”

I asked the same question to my tutors at the National Endurance Sports Trainers Association with whom I studied biomechanics. One of the tutors, who was always vague with his answers, was mainly concerned about the amount of force going through the knee. Is there an external resistance? In our yoga poses, the answer is no. It is just our body weight.

In the Warrior 2 pose, if the knee travels over the toe, the quadricep muscles of the front leg works harder than it needs to. We know this because we can feel it. If we just adjust our weight distribution slightly and the front knee is stacked over the ankle, it makes the pose more stable. This means that we can hold it for longer. It is not because all of a sudden, the pose is safer. This has to be understood. And every now and again, why not challenge students and ask them to take their knee further forward than usual? What could happen? Again, to reiterate, the quadricep muscles of the front leg appears to be working harder while the knee itself is fine when it travels past the toe. When a student says, “It hurts my knee”, most of the time I ask, “Really or is it your muscles?” Nearly every time, the student touches their thigh and says, “I feel it here!” I then say, “That isn’t your knee!”. And even if it was the knee, our understanding of biomechanics suggests that under this new stress, the knee will, in fact, adapt and get stronger with time because, as I keep saying, our knee is designed to do this. It is nature! But a yoga teacher with a 200-hour qualification, where sometimes 10 hours of that is spent on anatomy, apparently knows more about the knee than a doctor and a chiropractor and thinks that mother nature made a mistake in the way our knee was designed.

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” – Nietzsche

Disciple: Where did this almost universal teaching point even come from?

I heard way back in my gym instructor days that this idea of the knees not travelling over the toes first gained notoriety in the 70s as the sports science departments of universities tried to establish the safest and most effective way to squat (with an external resistance on your back) without creating shear forces within the knee.

They did, in fact, conclude that when the knee travelled over the toe, the knee was subjected to a greater increase in stress and load; this does sound obvious. Thus, they categorically and authoritatively said, “The knee shall never travel over the toe”.

Many years later and after many more experiments and studies, sports scientists have drawn the conclusion that if we don’t allow the knee to travel forward as far as is comfortable in a squat, we overload the hip joints. The bending of the knee and the natural way in which it travels forward takes some of the load off the hip and makes the movement less stressful on that part of the body. Essentially, this allows for the weight to be evenly distributed throughout the body. So, restricting the knee from moving forward as it would naturally move in a squat puts excessive load on the hips and lower back.

The problem in group classes at a gym is that the instruction of “don’t let your knees go over your toes” had been long established. It had been an effective general rule when trying to teach an exercise to a room full of people with different skill levels, ability levels and tolerance levels. With the change in mindset that many people can allow their knees to travel forward without injury, it became very difficult to apply that to a class full of varied ability and tolerance levels. What if the length of someone’s shin and thigh bones meant the knee had to travel forward?

In a class that has a large number of participants, it is difficult to help each individual participant with their specific range of movement. How do you know who may find it stressful? Even if there is a small chance it may create discomfort, what can be done? So, providing a general “don’t let your knees go past your toes” instruction has become an effective way of erring on the side of caution for the class exercise instructor. As yoga began to be taught in gyms by teachers, many of whom were not level 2 gym qualified teachers (for a time, the minimum qualification required to work in a gym), they started to copy and recite many of the dialogues being used in the other more gym-based classes.

Today, I can squat with a very heavy load on my back and allow my knees to travel naturally over the toe, but god forbid I allow my knee to travel over my toe in my yoga lunge where there is no resistance. Do you see where my disregard for such a teaching point comes from?

The yoga anatomist David Kiel was asked the question on his website if it was safe for the knee to travel over the ankle in warrior2.

“This is something that comes up a lot in yoga classes. I’ve been asked this question many times before about knees as I tell people often to take their knee past their ankle. My position on it has always been there is nothing inherently wrong with your knee moving past your ankle joint. Really far forward is going to add more stress and strain to the knee joint itself, but it’s not like we’re loading loads of weight onto our back while doing it, which would of course increase the forces going into the knee.”

David concludes, “So, in summary, if your knee goes past your ankle a little bit, it shouldn’t be a problem. That’s normal, natural movement. We should be able to sustain that without any trouble. If it’s tilting in, that’s more problematic. And remember, if the pressure’s coming out of the knee, it’s going into somewhere else, which you can also use to your advantage”.

Mika Janhunen (the Chiropractor mentioned earlier) visited the studio recently to speak on anatomy and the human body to help graduate teachers better understand the sometimes complex but often uncomplicated subject. On the question of the knee travelling over the toe, Mika was very casual in his explanation that he does not see a problem with it because “to bend” is the functional design of the knee. He then demonstrated from a standing position how the knee travels over the toe and also demonstrated his deep squat position where his knee clearly travels over the line of his toes. In both instances, he said he experienced zero pain! It is the same as walking up and down the stairs. The pain can be experienced sometimes because we are looking for it! It comes down to conditioning.

Disciple: So, who do I listen to? You or my teacher who I assume will still stick to her guns regardless of what you and your friends say!

Listen to your instincts and your own body. If it feels okay, then it is okay. If it hurts then it is only you who can decide if this is something you need or something you wish to avoid. But try and listen to instincts and not your conditioning. Most of the time when we think for ourselves, the first few dozen thoughts are actually not our own. They are conditioned thoughts handed down to us from other people. I once heard, “It is what it is because you let it be so”. We have to go beyond this to try to find our own reasoning and intellect.

We walk up and down the stairs all day long with a tremendous amount of weight on our knees. When the knee bends, the knee travels over the toe and this leg then takes all your weight and pushes you up the stairs. And somehow miraculously, your knee survives. This is because you have not been conditioned to think this is unsafe. So, your body just does what is perfectly natural. Try walking up and down the stairs and be conscious of NOT letting your knee travel over the toe. You can see for yourself how unnatural it is.

“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” - Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

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