January 22, 2015

What’s Holding us Back in our Practice & 3 Ways to Fix It.

Alex Holzknecht/Flickr

It’s a new year—2015 has arrived and with it comes a needed time of repose, reflection and restoration.

In yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, this time of year marks the prevalence of vata—a universal tendency to gravitate toward an airy/ethereal constitution. While that means that creativity, change and movement are abound, so is nervousness, racing mind and intestinal upset if not balanced.

For this reason, a physical practice that offers opportunities to connect to our roots as well as drop our head and heart down offer a needed return back to earth.

I can think of no better time to address an often-overlooked aspect of our practice, especially this time of year—the feet.


With summer in our rear view and the holidays confirming that sandal season is officially over, most of us cram our (now unsightly) dogs into our closed-toe shoes to hibernate until spring.

However, as the vata season demands more warriors, hip openers and forward folds, what we actually need are feet that are awake and ready for the task ahead.

Believe it or not, the success of almost every single posture begins at the feet—forward folds especially. This is because a complex and interwoven tissue of the fascia, called the “posterior chain,” begins in the soles of our feet and runs all the way up to our scalps.

And, it’s not just standing folds where the feet come into play—for many of us, the feet can hinder our practice even when seated.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a test:

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Sit down on the floor and fold forward into pachimottanasana. Dorsiflex the feet (toes to the sky) and keep the soles evenly pressing forward—notice the stretch.

Now, this time, point the toes forward toward the wall in front (like a ballerina) and fold again. If the second variation of the pose resulted in a deeper fold, then tightness in the soles is holding the fold back.

Opening the Feet

Here’s my practice for opening the feet:

1) Mobilize the Toes:

The first way to open the feet can happen right before practice or as a supplemental exercise outside of the practice (I often do this while I’m on the computer or watching TV).

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Grab a foot and interlace the opposite hand’s fingers between the toes, trying to get up to the thickest part of the fingers. It is always uncomfortable at first, so I take a minute and focus on allowing the toes to relax around the fingers.

Once the initial discomfort has worn off, fan the fingers out wide, stretching the toes further, and then relax the fan about ten times.

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Next, use the fingers to bend the toes back toward the shin and then forward toward the sole ten times.

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Finally, twist the toes and foot from one side to another ten times before doing the whole sequence on the other foot.

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2) Roll it out

Next, grab a small, hard ball (tennis ball or lacrosse ball works) and place it between the sole of the foot and the floor. Shift enough weight into the ball to feel something, but not a super painful something, and begin to make circles with the ball along the sole of the foot, avoiding the heel bone. If there are any points that feel extra congested, hold the ball at that spot, add more pressure and take five to 10 deep breaths.

3) Take it to the mat

While the supplemental practice helps open up the soles of the feet, it is also important to encourage more opening during the actual asana practice. Some things to focus on, specifically, are:

1) Keeping the toes spread whenever possible.

2) Balancing the pressure between the inner and outer edges of the feet in every pose and spreading the boundaries of the feet out in all directions.

3) Reinforcing neutral foot position wherever neutral position is appropriate as “duck footing” shortens the sole and calf tissue.

Moving Forward

In a season that pushes most of us up into the clouds, focusing on our feet can bring us back to earth.

Strong, open feet represent an ability to trust in ourselves as well as the world around us and beneath us.  It’s no coincidence that the ability to let go of tension in this area would allow us to surrender toward the ground with more grace and ease.

So, flip off those heels and give those tootsies some love—and, a pedicure couldn’t hurt.



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Author: Kelly Stine

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Alex Holzknecht/Flickr; Author’s Own 

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