Knees, Take Three

A knee bent too far

A knee bent too far

I look down at my knees and think, whoa!, those enormous knobs were built to last!

But periodic twinges, family history and national knee replacement statistics tell me they weren’t: Ten percent of Americans 80 or over have had at least one knee replaced, as have 4 percent of men and 5 percent of women over 50, according to ABC News.

Weighing too much is a prime reason our knees go south on us—but that’s a different blog.

I’m writing about knees in my qigong blog—indeed, for the third week in a row—because misusing your knees in taiji and qigong, and in a lot of other activities, can damage them, too.



For my taiji teacher Joe Pau and most others I’ve known, warnings about injuring knees from habitually twisting and over-bending them are practically mantras.

Knees are being strained when we bend and they end up farther forward than our toes. You don’t have to bend very deep for this to happen: Even a shallow bend done hips forward will do it, as I discussed in “Bad Bending” two weeks ago. (And by the way, there are now photo illustrations with that post as well as with this week’s.)

Knees are also being strained when we twist them—and we all do that a lot, and not just in taiji or qigong.

Knees are a hinge joint, as in open-shut-open-shut. That’s it. They’re not supposed to swivel and twist like our wrists and our hips do.

So, another experiment:

Stand up with feet shoulder-width apart and turn your shoulders as far as you can to the left. Now look down at your right knee. Has your right knee twisted so that it is now to the left of your right toes?

A friend’s taiji teacher likens this to twisting a chicken drumstick and thigh to pull them apart.

The best remedy for this appears to be relaxation.

For perhaps the first decade that I did taiji, I kept my knees from twisting and caving inwards by clenching my thigh muscles. Unfortunately, clenching my thigh muscles meant my legs were a dead zone when it came to experiencing the flow of qi.

Joe has been trying to get me to relax and open the hip that weight is moving away from so that my knee naturally remains in line with my toes. Turns out this can be done, although sometimes it involves modifying my notion of how much I’m supposed to turn my body.

In taiji—at least in the forms I know—you’re not supposed to let your heels come up off the ground, but you can in qigong moves like the classic exercise where you shift your weight from side to side, turning slightly as you shift and letting your rag-doll arms swing so as to tap your body.

If you relax and open the hip of the leg you’re leaving and let the mostly de-weighted leg and knee hang loose, your heel may lift a bit and your toes may swivel a bit—but it’s OK. And you won’t have twisted your knee.

Say, isn’t that what golfers do when they swing their club across their body and over their shoulders?

Wow! I never thought I’d work golf into a blog on qigong….


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