Google “knee problems”, and you get over half a million results; google “knee pain”, you get 13 million. Many of those pages are clearly duplicates, and many are probably hardly worth reading at all. Still, the sheer amount of information available out there is a sign that knee trouble is a cause for concern for many people.
Faced with such a deluge of data, I began to doubt that I had anything to contribute to the discussion. Just when I was about to give up writing about this topic, it occurred to me that of course I did have something new to say: I simply had to write from my own experience!
Most people know that the knee is the biggest and most complex joint in the human body. As such, it’s also the one that is most prone to problems, affecting for example the tendons, ligaments, muscles, cartilage, menisci, etc.
Anyone regardless of age or gender is likely to experience knee pain in their lifetime; and probably those who engage in any sport or recreational activity even more so.
I personally have had knee problems for several years. On a particular spring day four years ago, I spent several hours in my garden … on all fours – gathering dead leaves from underneath our hedge, which no one could do properly standing up. It was all going well until I had to stand up again. I screamed with pain then, and only just about managed to limp back on my own to a chair on our terrace. It took me almost three weeks and several cortisone shots to be able to walk normally again.
Since then, things have never been the same again.
On my subsequent trip to China, another crisis arose. Four hours of intensive tai chi practice every day turned out to be a bit too much for my mortal frame, even though I wasn’t even sixty years old then.
My teacher had some very wise words. “Listen to your body,” he said. “The mind always wants more, more, more, but the body can’t follow. Listen to your body.”
To be true to the spirit of tai chi, we need to find “the middle way”: not enough of anything is no good; too much of anything is no good either. If we take anything to its extreme, eventually it will lead to its opposite. If we practise too much, exhaustion will force us to rest; if we rest too much, if we don’t train enough, we will grow weak and become unable to develop.
Incidentally, you might be interested to know that Shakespeare too (in As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 1) had one of his characters wonder if one could have “too much of a good thing”.
Now then, in concrete terms, what do I do to take care of my knees in everyday life?
The doctors who gave me cortisone injections were sceptical, but I was determined to give some slightly more natural remedies the benefit of the doubt to find out if they could improve my condition. So, since the incident mentioned above, I’ve been taking dietary supplements six months a year. More specifically, for three months I take Geladrink Forte, which is widely available locally; then, after a break, I take P.C. 28 Complex (Cosval / also available locally) for another three months.
Of course I cannot tell you how I’d feel if I didn’t take those supplements, but at least I can say that my condition has not deteriorated, and I even have the impression that it has improved. It all costs money, but much less than cortisone shots.
Apart from that, you won’t have me do any kind of work that involves kneeling for more than two minutes unless I can wear kneepads (available from Centrometal, Okov, etc).
In cold weather, if I go for long walks, or practise tai chi outdoors, I want to keep my knees nice and warm, so I wear knee bandages.
Such bandages obviously have other functions as well, like supporting the joint and reducing stress.
There’s another thing I’ve discovered for myself, since I spend at least four hours every day sitting at my desk. When you sit, it is important to keep your soles flat on the ground. It is often tempting to cross your legs at the ankles and then pull your feet under your seat. This can be lethal. When you sit, make sure your soles are fully in contact with the ground, and make sure that the angle between your upper and lower leg is at least 90 degrees – 135 is better.
Tai chi practice
Walking puts strain on your knees. Cycling too, and playing football, skiing, doing yoga, practising tai chi, going up or down stairs, etc. So, when we practise tai chi, what can we do to reduce the strain on our knees? Here are a few tips, also based on my own personal experience.
1) Make sure the knee never goes beyond the base of the toes (e.g. in Brush Knee, Partition of Wild Horse’s Mane, etc).
2) Visualise the centre line of your feet. The knee should ‘travel’ along that line, i.e. the knee should not collapse outward or inward – just stay on the centre line of the foot.
3) Yang-style tai chi can be practised using a high, middle, or low stance. In our classes, we adopt a high-middle stance, i.e. closer to middle than to high. It is up to you to adopt a slightly higher stance if that’s what your body seems to feel more comfortable with.
4) In the Yang style that we practice, we keep the weight on the leg that is doing the pivoting (e.g. when we move from the last part of Grasp Bird’s Tail to Single Whip, or from one Brush Knee to the next, etc). If you feel that this technique is putting too much strain on your knees, try shifting the weight onto the back leg before turning – this is the technique used in the Beijing 24 form, among others.
5) Be in tune with your body alignments at all times. It helped me a great deal when I began to understand that the knee is not supposed to be primarily a weight-bearing joint, but rather a weight-transmitting joint. When our body alignment is correct, the knees transmit our body weight downwards into the middle of our soles.
To conclude, then: practise regularly to develop strong legs, but don’t overdo it; keep in mind the key principles of good tai chi practice; be aware of your body in everyday activities and take all preventative measures you can to take care of your knees.
Above all, listen to your body!