Awareness of Knees: Sensing Opening and Closing

For this month's continuing education focus on knees, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about sensing opening and closing by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also register for the August 6th telecourse with Debbie Rosas and special guest Paul Gould.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

There’s no way around it. If you walk, dance, run, skip, hop, or get up and down and out of a chair, you use your knee joints. If your knees don’t feel good, and if they don’t function properly, everything you do becomes compromised. So what’s a person to do? Learn to heal your knee joints, take care of them as you move in and out of exercise classes, and most importantly, use them the way they are designed to be used. Do these things and you will enhance your overall movement potential and the comfort you experience while living and thriving in your body.

In order for your knee joints to properly function, your hip joints, knee joints and ankle joints must all be properly aligned and must work together. When this is the case, you have the strength, mobility, stability and agility your knees are meant to provide you with, and you also have the freedom to use your legs to do just about anything you want.

Beyond understanding the form and function of your knee joints, you must be able to recognize the sensation of healthy knee joints and know what you can do to make unhealthy knees feel better. The good news is that no matter what condition your knees are in, you can improve how your knees function and feel with some simple body literacy knowledge.

Read on to learn about the design of the knees, how they work, and what you can do to support them.

Sophie Marsh, Nia trainer, says:

Have you ever had a moment in life that brought you to your knees? Mine happened a few years back, when, in the middle of the night, I found myself like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray Love, on my bedroom floor. I was crying, rocking myself and praying. Parts of my life felt so incongruent with what I believed to be real, true and important about the world that it was like my body couldn’t “stand” in the lie anymore.

The knees are the largest, most complicated and vulnerable joint in the body. When on our knees, we sense vulnerability, humility and reverence, so it’s no surprise that we beg forgiveness, propose marriage, receive blessings and offer thanks from this place.

For years my tendency had been to lock (hyperextend) my knees, closing off the movement of chi, breath and sensation in my body. The misalignment of one joint affects the whole, and so over time, my pelvis tilted, my shoulders became rounded and my head moved forward. I assumed a posture of submission. Lucky for me I practice Nia or “Knee-ahh!” and in each moment I am self-healing, tweaking my movement choices as small acts of kindness to feel better.

In Nia, The Body’s Way, the inherent design and function of the body, guides us to move with optimum safety, comfort and pleasure. So what does The Body’s Way tell us about the knee joint? The knee is a hinge joint. Its function is to transition weight from the torso to the ground. Designed primarily to bend and straighten, backwards and forwards through one plane, the knee can also be slightly rotated when flexed (bent). Two rounded balls called condyles, located at the lower end of the femur (thigh bone), are cupped in two shallow grooves at the top of the tibia (shin bone). Two plates of fibrous cartilage called menisci cushion the transfer of weight in the joint.

The bones are held firmly together by strong ligaments situated within and around a joint capsule that is filled with synovial fluid to nourish the bones and discs and reduce friction. It is important to maintain lubrication of the knee joint by regularly moving it in its planes of motion. Additional cruciate ligaments twist and wrap around the joint for stability, while tendons of the thigh and leg muscles give additional protection as they pass either side of the joint. Covering the knee joint is the patella (knee cap), which is part of the tendon of the quadriceps muscle and acts as a built-in kneepad to protect the joint from impact.

In Nia we sink and rise through three planes of movement--high, middle and low--to create cardiovascular conditioning without repetitive jogging and jumping that negatively impacts on joints. As we move towards the earth and back up again, keeping the knees spring-loaded creates a sensation of dynamic ease, a feeling of being relaxed and ready.

The Body’s Way also tells us that power and support comes from behind and underneath. By pushing down to go up, we engage the muscles in the back of the body, especially the gluts. This also helps us avoid overusing the quadriceps or placing unnecessary tension on the knees as we sink, rise, walk, dance and move through life. As I reclaim my birthright to feel to heal through Nia, my body is finding its happy alignment. Now when I feel “weak at the knees” I celebrate my vulnerability, knowing that by honoring my body’s truth, I can bend and flow in life with ease.

Sophie's tips:

  • Standing in Cat Stance, play with spring-loaded joints on the supporting leg while opening and closing the knee joint of the free leg, like a cat flap! Change legs by shifting your body weight through a Heel Lead, sensing the "smile line" of the pelvis.
  • Play with "agility feet" by imagining you are walking on hot sand. This triggers the reflex to withdraw your foot quickly from the floor and trains the most efficient muscle pattern for lifting the leg and finding ankle-knee-hip alignment.
  • Choose a color as a memory trigger. Every time you see that color, check in with your knees. Sensing relaxation at the joint, breathe in and notice when your knees are “at ease”.
  • Imagine happy faces on the front of each joint–ankle, knee and hip. Play with Toes In, Out and Parallel, and sense these three joints in alignment as your foot changes directions.
  • Walk as if there’s a cloud between your shinbones and thighbones, and imagine the kneecap as a little balloon floating effortlessly upwards.
  • From Sumo Stance, sink and rise while sensing for dynamic ease. As you lower your body, check that your knees stay aligned rather than rotating in as your tailbone moves back and away from your knees. Push down to come up, activating the muscles in the back of the body to sense support from behind and underneath.

Leora Cooper, Black Belt certified Nia teacher, says:

I became aware of my knees when I had pain as a new Nia White Belt instructor. I knew it was important to align my “knees over ankles” and “keep the knees at ninety degrees.” Yet I didn’t understand how the knees worked or connected, let alone the bones, ligaments or muscles.

The move that involved an alternating stance to the right and to the left with a Cha-Cha-Cha in between made me curious. Why was the knee painful only on the right side? Then I observed my right knee collapsing. I repeatedly practiced these movements until I adjusted them by spreading equal weight on both feet in the stance, producing a pain-free stance! After some study into the anatomy of the leg, I suddenly understand the magic of the knee.

The knee is connected to the femur (thigh bone) above, and the tibia bone below. The other lower leg bone, the fibula does not connect to the knee, but to the ankle. The kneecap, the patella, protects the joint and slides up and down. Opening the knee to it’s fullest is extension, while closing the knee drawing the foot behind toward the buttocks is flexion. A dialogue between the foot and the top of the thigh translates into a kinetic chain that is at once stable and spring-loaded. The knee opens and closes, like a door hinge. Unless there is a therapeutic or medical reason to isolate the knee joint, it will always move in conjunction with the lower and upper leg.

For knee injury prevention, use your glute muscles, check that your feet are in the correct position, and push with your heels (as suggested by Yoana Terán Snideman, a physical therapist, and Russian Kettle Bell trainer of Revolution Fitness in La Jolla, CA). What about recovering from a knee injury? Snideman suggests using a “reset” technique such as rolling, or stage one, Embryonic, from Nia Five Stages.

What I now understand is that the knee is a messenger between the lower leg and the upper leg, and as the popular saying goes, “Don’t kill the messenger.” This is the mantra I recite in order to keep my knees alive.

Leora's tips:

  • Stand with feet slightly apart and lift your kneecaps, drawing them upwards without locking the knees. Actively engage your feet by feeling for three points: one under the heel, one under the big toe, and one under the little toe.
  • Play the game "Knees around the world." Begin with your feet parallel, with your knees touching, and engage your glute muscles by drawing them toward your feet, creating flexion. With your hands on your thighs, move your knees together in a circle to the left ten times, then reverse.
  • Sit in a chair with your feet hip-distance apart. Touch the bone just below your kneecap, the tibial tuberosity, and rotate your hips inward, making your feet “pigeon toed.” Then move the feet, knees and hips in the opposite direction, as if relaxing. Finally bring the feet parallel. These positions will improve mobility in your ankles, knees, and hip joints.
  • Standing with feet apart, stand on the right leg and move left leg in, out, and parallel. Begin slowly; proceed to a quicker pace (perhaps to music) as you feel more comfortable, for thirty seconds to a minute, before switching sides.
  • Practice Squish Walk. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, rise up on to the balls of your feet, engaging the points under the big and little toes as well as entire leg and glute muscles. Draw one heel down from an imaginary center point while keeping the opposite heel high. Exchange feet without shifting weight side to side. Practice this at a variety of speeds, without locking the knees.
  • Practice Riding (Sumo) Stance. Stand in place with your feet parallel, apart and slightly beyond the line of your hipbones. Imagine sitting on a short donkey so that your feet are firmly on the ground. Your knees will be in slight flexion. Engage the feett and the glutes. Lower your glutes, as if sitting back in a chair, five times.
  • Begin in Sumo Stance, but with your feet, knees and hips turned out. Engage the feet, the top of the legs, and the glutes, and lower your tail three inches. As you feel more comfortable and flexible, lower five to twelve inches. Repeat this five times.

Adelle Brewer, Nia trainer, says:

When I first wake up in the morning, I do a body scan, begin stretching and ask my knees how they are feeling.

At the young age of 18, I was dancing in a performance and leapt in the air, coming down at the wrong angle and throwing my patella (the kneecap) to one side. At that time in medical history, doctors performed knee surgery that left a huge, long scar, so I chose to forgo surgery. More than 30 years later, through my daily Nia practice, I continue to bring awareness to my healing, consciously activating sensations of strength, flexibility and stability to keep my knee healthy.

The anatomy of the knee involves a fascinating combination of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue that all weave together to support the overall structure. The knee is made up of four bones. The femur, which is the large bone in the thigh, attaches via ligaments to the tibia. Just below and parallel to the tibia is the fibula. The patella rides on the knee joint as the knee bends. The knee muscles, which go across the knee joint, are the quadriceps and the hamstrings. The quadricep muscles are located on the front of the knee, and the hamstrings are found on the back of the knee.

There are four ligaments that are equally important in the knee, because they hold the joint together. Most often, injury occurs in the ligaments when they are pushed beyond their range of motion. Tendons and connective tissue also support the overall structure of this complex joint.

Our knees are amazing, pliable joints that transfer energy from one set of bones to another. They may look like simple joints, yet they are some of the most complex, and are more likely to be injured than any other joint in the body. We tend to ignore our knees until something happens to them, yet daily care can keep our knees strong and agile. By listening to our knees, honoring their design and keeping them healthy and strong, they will support us in our daily dance for a lifetime.

If you find yourself needing knee surgery or a knee replacement, know that many in our community of movers have experienced the same issues, and with the help of Nia, they have returned to class strong, agile and joyful!

Adelle's tips:

  • Start your day with the Nia 5 Stages. Roll around on the floor in Embryonic, reaching out and in, using your arms and legs to activate your joints. Creep like a lizard, and sense the action of your knees. Gently push up to all fours and crawl like a bear, imagining your knees are feet. Walk your hands back to one side as your spine becomes vertical, and feel the stability of your knees as you shift your body weight from one foot to the other. Then push down into the earth to rise, and walk on the balls of your feet for a few steps as you reach high, sensing both the strength and flexibility of your beautiful knee joints. As your heels descend, let them lead you into walking and bring an awareness to your knees--magnificent hinge joints that carry you through your day!
  • Spend one minute per day getting up and down from the floor. This simple action activates all 13 main joints and will help keep your knees stay flexible, strong and stable.
  • Walk on the beach, sensing the warm movement of the sand under your feet and the gentle waves shifting the earth as your knees adjust to the movement.
  • As you dance in class, visualize your knees as sponges and imagine gently squeezing water out of them as you move.
  • Read about your knees in books and online. More self-knowledge will bring greater appreciation and awareness to their impressive and intricate design.