Getting Free: Beating Pain Through Yoga

My journey to be free from pain started 10 years ago.

I started taking an interest in exercise and maintaining my body in the beginning of my college years. I would use the elliptical, run the track and generally try to move more. I always felt like I was pushing myself at a medium level of intensity, but my goals were just to not gain the Freshman 15.

During this time, I started to notice pain in my kneecap or below it while ascending stairs. It was a prominent, sharp pain... and the key that made me realize my body was changing, and not for the better.

In the years since, my knee pain intensifies when I go hard. When I do squats, explosive movements or even lunges, the pain starts to come back. It shocks me out of the illusion of progress I get from pushing my edge. I've quit running due to how it makes my knees feel, coupled with my fear of inflicting long-term damage on an already fragile body part.

The months leading up to my wedding were a breaking point. I entered a course of physical therapy treatment... my third in the past 10 years.

The third time was indeed my charm, but yoga has played a big part in the fact that at 28 and after a lot of struggle, I'm largely pain free. During the first two courses of treatment, I hadn't dedicated myself to my practice in the way I did with the most recent treatment.

Even as my muscles opened and got stronger, I faced challenges in many poses. I had to modify things and then beat down the ego that rose inside me, telling me that I look like an elderly woman on the mat. But I had to come into certain poses with care. I cringed at the thought of lowering into Malasana, as my doctor had advised me never to do the *ass to grass* squats that are so popular with Crossfitters. My knees are just not built for it. I even used to experience a bit of pain in Utkatasana. The angle is more subtle than Malasana, but the squat motion was trouble.

"You have to treat your knees as if they are precious little eggs, and that you have to protect them from all harm and pain," an orthopedist told me. I was just built in a way that they don't quite line up, and thus create friction and pain in the booty-burning poses.

Lately, I've continued to incorporate the original physical therapy exercises I did every day for a few months. I do them a couple times a week, and I do yoga 5 - 7 times a week. This combo has, over the past few months of consistency, really strengthened my leg muscles.

Now when I come into what were once trouble poses, I feel much more stable and (with the exception of the muscle burn) comfortable.

The key to knee health is building strength in the surround muscles of the hip, hamstring and quadriceps. These are the goals I strive toward in both yoga and physical therapy, to keep my lower joints healthy. My physical therapist directed me to work on strengthening the hip joint and gluteus medius, in order to essentially pull the other muscles into balance.

For leg strengthening, I use Warrior 2 and Utkatasana. Lengthen the leg muscles with balancing poses like Warrior 3 and Tree pose, which will make all of the muscles on the standing leg fire away!

I also regularly work on hip-openers. The ladies in my Tuesday night vinyasa class know I love them! I often practice Lizard pose, Pigeon pose, Bound Angle pose, and even Revolved Triangle pose, which all feel likedeep openers to me. I still need a lot more opening before I can safely access any form of Lotus, or the Fire Log pose.

But I'm patient, and I'm caring for my damaged knees like the delicate flowers that they are! And it's paid off. I can still practice yoga and have made tremendous strides in my practice by listening to my body. I heard a quote once that said "If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won't have to hear it scream." And I'm so grateful that I did!