Paula's Blog Page

Knee Strain through Exercise

Why am I suffering from knee strain?!


Whilst learning tai chi, I have experienced knee pain in the past. And I have seen others take time away from tai chi to recover from various knee injuries.


In my case, I can relate to when the damage has sometimes been caused during classes where I was learning from the greatest tai chi masters in the world.


It's no fun when you are experiencing knee injury from exercise. Today I am writing after a night disturbed by an aching knee. How does it happen? How can we guard against it happening again?


How can this injury happen to me when I regularly instruct others to look after their knees during exercise?


Well, I tried a new form of exercise. I went to an online class for flexibility using ballet barre exercises. It was excellent, and I was very enthusiastic in my response to the instructor's directions. I listened to the guidance on looking after the knees and paid attention to my knees, focusing on my knees' alignment with my feet. I plié like the instructor, turning my feet out as good as Mary Poppins taking to the sky holding onto her umbrella. I sucked in my bottom and tensed my abdominal muscles. I pulled my calf muscles tighter, extending my leg out straighter, pointing my toes with determined force.


On reflection, I was not thinking of my knees, I was thinking of my feet looking like a top-class ballerina, living the dream.

Foot extension and protecting the knee

And Plie... knees in line with feet

This is a common flaw. It's part of the human condition.


As instructors, we talk about protecting the knees and aligning the knees with the toes. We speak about not over balancing and putting a strain on the knee.

In the small hours of last night, I remembered my a-ha moment when I recalled the story about a parachutist that has the mantra "don't collide with the tree". This is an example of the power of negative self-talk. The parachutist hits the tree because the parachutist is thinking about the tree to the exclusion of all else.


So thinking about not injuring the knee, do we invariably damage the knee?


The problem with talking about protecting the knee and moving the foot is we don't know our own limitations.


With your attention in your foot movement, you are more likely to over-rotate, believing in your incredible powers of flexibility, and cause problems in your knee.


My teaching style has adapted over time to this thought, and I now say move the weight across to the other leg and sink your weight down in that leg, feeling into the ground. Now feel into the weightlessness of the empty leg and turn in the hip joint. This feels much more directed to the source of our movement.


Moving with ease


To look at this from another direction. Try this out. Sit on a bench or stool that allows you to sit comfortably with your legs dangling. Relax your legs and swing your feet in circles. You can see there is a lot of play in the knee.


Going back to the class instructions, if you are asked to move your foot and be aware of your knee, your attention is on the foot's movement. The last place you are focusing on is the movement in your hip.


So next time, whatever class you take, whatever instructions you are following, think about what joint in your body is doing the moving, and focus on that joint. The results will be amazing, and you will sleep well at night.