Lately, I’ve been a bit obsessed with feet.
No, not in a strange, sexual fetish way, but more like a normal fetish way, defined as, “an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency.”
It’s a yoga thing. The more curious I become about these things I’m standing on all day, every day, the more I uncover how important our feet are on a very profound level.
In yoga class, this is the part of the body I most hear people make comments about. People have very strong opinions about their feet.
“My feet are so ugly…I need a pedicure…I just don’t like my feet.” Yet, how much time do we spend in class working on our feet or paying attention to them? In most classes, you might hear a teacher make a comment here and there, or spend a few seconds on our posture.
The teachers I’ve respected the most over the years seem to spend a good amount of time talking about feet.
B.K.S. Iyengar said, “You want to stand on your head and you don’t even know how to stand on your feet.” Jasmine Lieb, one of the world’s greatest therapeutic teachers, sometimes teaches a 90 minute class all about the foot. Not a workshop, mind you, but a regular class about the foot. Period.
And, Erich Shiffmann has developed a special way to spread the toes and snuggle the feet into the earth before beginning standing poses.
Did you know that in our big toe, you find the nerve endings from our brain? That the arch of the foot corresponds to spine and our heart is in the pad under the big toe? The sole (think soul) of the foot is a very sensitive, often ticklish, and sometimes erotic area because about 200,000 nerves come to an end here.
Before we wore shoes, when people walked the earth barefoot, our feet would receive information from our environment and help us to balance and move in a healthful way.
Today, we stuff our feet in shoes, cut off from transmitting any information at all about the way we are standing on the planet. Yoga is one of the few practices where we take off our shoes and actually reconnect with the earth, where we stand in the place where we are and actually allow ourselves to be there.
I personally spent my teens and twenties cramming my feet into point shoes (very tight ballet slippers with a wooden box around the toes), taping up the bloody parts, and then balancing on the tips of my toes. So, my relationship with my feet maybe didn’t get off to a very —how shall I say—nurturing start.
And it continued that way.
I was the girl who rocked the heels, who had the boots that made me 3 inches taller and were so outlandish that my sister made fun of them. I actually felt like something was wrong if I wasn’t in heals that were a bit uncomfortable and a little too tall.
Then, after wearing some heels (yes, okay, they were hot) to a wedding and waking up the next day not being able to feel my pinky toe, I decided that maybe this wasn’t worth it. Did I really sever the nerves in my toe from wearing a pair of black stilettos? Did I not think that blood flow to my feet was important?
I did regain feeling in my foot after a couple of days, but that was the last time I would go to that length for a fashion statement.
It was around that time that I read a study that reported how senior citizens that took care of their feet lived longer and were healthier than those who did not.
Okay, it was time to really pay attention to my feet.
So, did caring for my feet mean that I should no longer wear heals? That I should stay flexible enough to actually reach my feet and be able to wash and clean them? That I should get a good pedicure? Well, actually, yes, maybe all of that and more.
Here’s how you break it down: From an anatomic view, your feet are the beginning of the story. They are the once upon a time. Everything else comes from there. If there is some kind of misalignment in the foot, you can pretty much track any injury or imbalance throughout the entire body from that starting place.
When I am teaching a class and we’re in a standing pose, this is the first thing I survey, the first thing I discuss. Just like a skyscraper, if our body is not built on solid foundation, it will fall, break, or incur small shiftings over time that will create injury.
When I did one of my first teacher trainings, we spent the first three solid hours standing in Tadasana and unwinding all of the bad habits of our posture that often come from our feet.
Your foot checklist can include:
Are you spreading your toes? Is there a bit of space between the toes (just like your fingers when you are in down dog) with your weight evenly distributed?
Some people find themselves part way through their life and they have great difficulty getting their toes to spread and the muscles of their feet to respond because of an injury, an unhealthy habit, or a structural issue. This can create, among a list of injuries, balance issues, which entail great frustration in life and in yoga practices.
When you stretch the feet and make space by creating a wider base, you help to wake up the muscles in the foot and then they become more readily available to engage.
Are you spreading your weight through the four corners of your feet (two in the heal of the foot and two in the ball, under the big toe and little toe)? This makes a triangular shape to root down through.
When we stand more on the ball of the foot and rock our weight forward, the arches will start to stiffen and carry tension. When we rock to the back, the entire front of our body contracts to help hold us up. If our weight is not evenly distributed through the foot, some part of our body will be working over-time and stress and tension is the guaranteed result.
When we can ground evenly through our feet and actually stand firmly on the earth, then and only then can we lift our head to the clouds.
Are you lifting the inner and outer arches of the feet?
If your arches are fallen or you have flat feet, that will translate through the entire body. When the inner arches collapse (there is pronation—a.k.a. an over rolling to the inside), the inner ankle weakens and the outer ankle starts to compensate.
The bones in your lower leg begin to shift (the bottom of the tibia bone moves down and in) and that is felt all the way up the leg and through the body. Inner thigh muscles have trouble engaging and oftentimes people will have lower back pain and injury.
When we over roll to the outside of our foot (supination), the outer ankle and leg starts to take a beating. Often people can develop shin splints and plantar fasciitis.
The lift in our arches, translates to a lift in our whole body, mind, and spirit. It is that powerful. If you don’t believe me, try it.
But, if you are starting out with some issues, please be patient in the trying. It takes some time to retrain our feet (which retrains our whole posture). The messages from our brain travel a long way to get to the bottom of our body. The more you can stretch your feet, make space, and warm them up, the easier it will be to make changes.
Obviously, yoga can help with this, and so can a good foot massage. Sometimes in my class we combine the two (oh, yeah!). In Baddha Konasana, Pascimotonasana, and with Gomukhasana legs, we have an opportunity to add a bit of acupressure to our feet to increase the benefits of the pose.
In Chinese medicine, acupressure is used on the foot to relieve pain and prevent and treat illness. Because each inch of the foot relates to a different part of our body, when we press on these areas, we free up space and blockages and release endorphins to help ease pain.
Want to relieve some stress? Try giving yourself a little foot massage. Rubbing the tips of the toes can help improve sinus problems, pressing under the second toe can help to release toxins, and pressing the center of the heal can help with sexual and reproductive issues.
If you ever want to give your self a wonderful gift, check out a foot reflexology chart or visit a professional that practices this ancient healing art.
Within your yoga practice, to test out how open and healthy your feet are, try the “Intense Foot Stretch” pose:
1) Start on your hands and knees (put blanket under knees, if they are sensitive).
2) Tuck your toes under, flexing your feet at the ankle. (If your little toes are not spreading, take your hands and manually uncurl them to help them stretch.)
3) Slowly, walk your hands into your body and sit back on top of your feet.
4) Oh, and breathe.
This can be super intense for some people. To lessen the intensity, try not putting all of your weight on your feet or sit on a block. After breathing for a minute or more, come back to hands and knees and circle your ankles around. Shake the stress out of your feet.
If you want a deeper stretch, come into balancing on the balls of your feet, knees lifted, fingers on the floor, blocks, or draw hands to your heart.
Want more? Let the tops of your feet relax forward towards the floor in front of you and imagine breathing into the space where your toes and the ball of the foot meet.
5) To stretch the tops of the feet, you can also try Virasana (Hero Pose) and it’s variations, or Thunderbolt and lean back onto your hands to float the knees up a bit.
I’ve learned to enjoy tending to the needs of my feet. I know that might sound a little strange. But, I make it a mindful ritual. I wash them before bed, loofah away the dead skin to encourage the regeneration of new cells, put them in healthy shoes, and go barefoot as much as possible.
Embracing a lesser known limb of yoga, like Saucha (cleanliness), is yet another way to help release stress in your feet.
Most of all, I take my feet to yoga. Let them be naked and breathe. Spread them, stretch them. I put them in poses so they can release tension and receive healing. I let that openness and grounding spread from the soul up; lifting the goodness in the earth up through the roots into my body so that my head can have moments in the clouds, dreaming.
There is something to be said for really, truly being grounded and standing where we are. Not worrying about going somewhere or doing something, but just being.
Breathing in the miracle of being able to stand, breathing in our aliveness, and becoming fully awake to the dream of life.
And, it starts with our feet. And ends in the happily ever after.
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Ed: Dana Gornall