From the Secret Lives of Yoga Poses Archive 2008 – 2009
For All the Poses in Your Life
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It’s amazing how understanding how to work your feet can help you move comfortably in your entire body. Your feet are literally your foundation, and just like with a building, if the foundation is weak or unsteady, the whole structure will be compromised and even collapse. I know it sounds extreme, but it’s true. The way we walk on our feet can relate to the health and functioning of our knees, our hips, even our back and neck.
Our feet were designed to grab and feel the earth, and make constant subtle muscular adjustments to ensure our balance and to take us where we want to go. The muscles in the feet inter-relate with muscles in the legs, hips, back, all the way up to the neck and shoulders. One fourth of the body’s bones are in the feet, and there are roughly 70 muscles that move them around. And yet, largely due to our habit of wearing hard-soled shoes throughout our waking hours, our awareness of these muscles and our ability to move them is very poor.
Whether you are doing yoga poses, trying to relieve pain from fallen arches, or build ankle strength, read the foot help often. I mean it. You can come back to this page and read the instructions for foot help every day. How many years have you been building the walking and stepping and standing habits you already have? It’s going to take at least a few perusals of this page, and then regular practice and the guidance of a good teacher to build your new, healthier ones.
Mapping The Corners of your Feet
If you’ve been to many yoga classes, you’ve probably heard the instruction to “root into all four corners of your feet.” I remember hearing that, too, and gazing suspiciously at my own shallow arched, paddle shaped ones. I certainly didn’t see anything resembling a corner. Later I came to understand the four corners of the feet as follows:
The big toe mound, or the ball of the big toe, the inner edge of the heel, the little toe mound (ball of the foot, little toe side) and the outer heel. In that order.
*Anatomically speaking, the feet have only three points of contact with the earth, with a slight lift between each two points when properly rooted. Those would be the big toe mound, the little toe mound, and the heel bone. I have played with these two maps in my own body and practice, and find that rooting the two lateral edges of the heel separately offers a broader and more nuanced awareness of the muscles of my leg. That said, there’s a time for nuance, and a time for brevity, and the three corner approach creates a summary stability that can be very helpful in practice. If I were you, I would get to know both.
Make sense? Good.
1) Stand up and place your feet hip distance apart, pointing straight ahead. You can follow the instructions for mountain pose, or simply feel the weight on your feet for a moment. Really feel them, notice if you have more weight on the inner edges or the outer, the front of the feet or the heels. This is an opportunity for developing self awareness. Make your legs strong, but don’t lock your knees.
2) Lift the toes and spread them as much as you can. Can’t spread your toes? Neither could I, once. It’s absolutely learnable. Your toes have forgotten how to move because you never ask them to. Give them a chance. If you learn to spread your toes, you might just learn to lift your arches, make your ankles strong, or your knees, maybe even your back!
3) With your toes lifted, press down into the the big toe mound, the inner heel, the little toe mound, and the outer heel, in that order. When you do the third corner, the little toe mound, reach across and spread your toes again. If you are working three corners, do big toe mound, heel, little toe mound. Make the foot wide. Keep pressing down into all corners of the feet at the same time. and then release the toes again. It’s good to root the toes, but if rooting the toes lifts any of the corners, let the toes be light for now, until your foot and ankle strength are more balanced (the toes can be clenchers).
You may feel your arches lifting. That’s good. Sometimes, even fallen arches can be corrected over time through proper foot work.
For a yoga pose to be harmonious, we have to cultivate inteligent action of our feet. That’s obvious enough for the standing poses, but believe it or not, the same is true whether you’re on your back, as in eye of the needle, on your belly, as in cobra pose, or even standing on your hands, or on your head! Fortunately, there is not much to remember. Once you learn how to map the corners of your feet while standing up, you have learned how to work the foot in many of the other poses in your practice.
Sound confusing? Try this. Sit in a chair and place your right ankle on top of your left knee, open-cross-leg style. Make sure there is some inward curve in your lower back. If not, draw the top of your sacrum in and up toward your spine. Now imagine there was a floor attached to the bottom of your right foot, the one that is across your knee, and root into it just the way you would when standing. Take care that you could stand on that foot, if you had to – that the sole of the foot is basically perpendicular to the shin. Like if you unscrewed your lower leg at the knee and removed it, you could place it on the floor and it would not topple over.
This orientation of the foot is called Tadasana Foot, and understanding it is key to safe knees in your yoga practice, especially while practicing any poses that open the outer hips.
When worked properly with good alignment, tadasana foot heps to ensure that the knee is in good alignment, stretching and engaging evenly on both sides, even when it is not in contact with the floor. This is especially important as the rest of your parts begin bending and twisting every which way in the yoga poses. That’s when foot help becomes knee help, and ankle help, and hip and back help, and so on. The knees are especially vulnerable to over stretching – so work your feet with great care and steadiness.
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This information is meant to inspire you, and to encourage you to begin your own life-affirming practice of yoga. A safe and rewarding yoga practice can only be ensured by the guidance of a well trained, real live teacher.
To schedule a session with me online, contact me here.