'Keep your feet on the ground, but let your heart soar as high as it will. Refuse to be average or to surrender to the chill of your spiritual environment.' - Arthur Helps
Feet are the principal foundation for all standing poses and active in all inversions and arm balances, most backbends and forward bends, many twists and hip openers. They allow us to stand, walk, run, jump and generally have mobility in life. They are our wheels, yet we probably give more care and attention to the tyres on our cars.
A stark foot neglect memory springs to mind. I was standing on a busy train coming back from London when a glamorous, immaculately preened woman walked on with perfectly painted toes pointed out of her very beautiful, very high shoes. I remember thinking, I wish I had the motivation to look that glamorous! A thought that quickly subsided as she proceeded to take her shoes off. She carefully laid a leaflet out on the floor, took off her shoes and proceeded to stand on the leaflet for the remainder of the journey. Her feet absolutely shocked me. They were contorted, misshapen, cut and blistered. She was clearly in pain and yet that was a choice she had made that day and very likely would continue to make until she is forced not to. This isn’t Chinese foot binding but it is still crazy and interestingly both practices stem from a desire to be more appealing to the opposite sex.
Our attitude to feet in the West is a strange one. We hide our feet away as much as possible in shoes, socks and slippers and being barefoot anywhere but the beach is generally frowned upon. In Indian culture feet are revered. It is the done thing to kiss the feet of respected gurus as a sign of respect, walking barefoot is fairly common and shoes are always taken off before entering the house. In my previous life as a touring PA I was on tour with an Indian classical musician and whilst sitting at breakfast with the band and crew the main act, a renowned tabla player, walked into the room. All of the Indian musicians got up from their tables, walked over to him and got onto their knees to kiss his feet. A beautiful image but not something I can imagine becoming part of our Western culture.
It can be so easy to completely forget the role that feet play in our yoga practice, let alone
our daily lives! I had been practicing for years before I realised that I wasn’t working with my feet at all. The moment I had this realisation was when my teacher asked the class to kneel with toes tucked, a simple enough sounding cue but I was in absolute agony almost instantly. Despite this initial realisation, it wasn’t until I attended a workshop with ex-parkour runner Austin Norris of Primal Motion that the importance of strong and flexible feet for full body health really sunk in. He took us through a whole series of foot and ankle exercises, almost none of which I could do. As with many of us, my feet just weren’t being sent enough complex movement signals from my brain, exacerbated by my shoes and even, unvaried floors. How often do you hear the cue in a yoga class to ‘place one toe down at a time’ or ‘spread your toes’ and just stare at your unresponsive, immobile toes as your teacher stands in front of you using their toes as fingers. This isn’t because they were born this way (although it would seem that some people are!) but more likely they have spent time reawakening those rusty neural pathways.
Our feet have become unresponsive from walking on unvaried, hard surfaces and contorting our feet into constricting, damaging or often over or under supportive shoes. Once we would have walked barefoot on uneven surfaces, which would require our feet to be responsive, agile and articulate. Walking on uneven terrain requires that the foot makes constant micro-adjustments to keep us stable, which in turn promotes movement in the pelvis and spine, keeping the whole body flexible and agile. Stiff, weak feet contribute to our lack of flexibility and mobility. A healthy, aligned and balanced body begins at your feet.
Activation of the feet begins in the legs. The line of energy running from the top of the femur bone down through our feet creates a rebounding effect. When you intentionally root down from the tops of your thighbones down into your feet, the muscles in your calves and thighs engage. This creates an upward pull on the arches with the tibialis posterior (inner calf) and peroneus longus (outer calf) creating a stirrup-like effect. This lift creates expansion through the joints, a feeling of being firmly grounded yet light, resilient and agile not just in the feet and legs but throughout the whole body.
This past week I have been focusing on feet in my home practice and classes and the effect has been incredible! Balances, standing poses and even paschimottanasana feel drastically different and so much more steady, stable and enjoyable.
Here are some exercises that can help you to feel more grounded and stable in your yoga practice:
Weave the fingers between the toes (the tops of the fingers might be easier if you have tight toes!). Use the fingers to grip and squeeze the toes, flexing and pointing the toes to encourage opening up more space between them.
Lift up all of your toes and then lower them down starting with the little toe and working through to the big toe. Don’t be surprised if they come down as one clump for a few days/weeks.
Roll onto the outer edge of your foot and then the inner to loosen and strengthen the ankles.
Grip the mat with your toes, drawing the toes towards the heels but trying not to curl the toes. This helps when trying to lift the arches in pada bandha and standing poses.
Stand at the front of your mat and try to scrunch the mat towards you, as if you were trying to bunch it up under your feet.
From Tadasana (mountain pose) lift up onto the toes as high as you can then staying on tip toes, squat down as low as the knees will comfortable allow. You can also have the arms out in front of you palms facing up as you lift up and then palms facing down as you come down, inhaling as you rise, exhaling as you descend. As your balance improves this practice can be incredibly calming. The mind is so focused on balancing, it tends to be fairly still.
Finally Pada Bandha, the way we can teach our feet to ground down whilst staying active, lifted and engaged in all standing poses.
Spread toes wide
Keeping toes lifted feel the inner edge of the ball of the foot, press down firmly there
Lift and lower toes keeping inner edge of ball of the foot rooting down
Notice how with toes lifted the inner ankles and ankles automatically lift
Keep this sensation and allow the toes to come slowly back down to the mat
Notice the rebounding effect, strong activation of leg muscles, awakening of inner thighs and mula bandha. Lengthening through the whole body
Benefits of foot exercises:
Stronger lower leg muscles
A reduction in ankle injuries
Relieves the symptoms of bunions
Foot strength directly influences stability of the ankles, hips and spine