As humans our feet are hugely important to our ability to work, rest and play but as a yogi they are essential tools that deserve loving care and attention. Here’s how to find out how to keep them in tip top condition.
These Feet Were Made For Walking
A human foot is made up of 26 bones (28 if you include the sesamoid bones under the big toe), 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles and tendons. That is an awful lot of architecture and upholstery at the end of our legs. Not only is there a lot packed into a relatively small space but the way the foot works is pretty awesome too.
As we walk or run, our feet alternate between being a rigid lever and a flexible, adaptable platform that conforms to the ground. It does this by rotating from pronation into supination and back again with each step. Supination locks the foot into a rigid lever so we can propel ourselves forwards and pronation unlocks it to allow it to mould to the surface underneath your sole when you are standing on it.
This pronation/supination cycle is happening with every step we take throughout our lives and with around 2000 steps to every mile we walk that is an awful lot of movement. It is not surprising that sometimes things go wrong and we get foot pain. With all this going on, I’m amazed at how little foot (and ankle!) pain most of us get.
Blisters, Bunions And Flat Feet
As a physiotherapist, the most common foot problem I come across is dropped arches (also called pronated or flat feet). This is where the big toe side of the foot is really close to the ground rather than having a nice arch between the heel and base of the big toe. Some people’s feet are like this naturally, but if they’re not in pain it’s best to leave it alone. If they are getting problems, we may look at offering some supportive insoles or strengthening the muscles that lift the arch — more on that later!
Another really common problem is bunions. This is when a lump develops at the side of the big toe where it joins the foot. A bunion is caused by uneven pull of the flexor hallucis tendon under the big toe which draws the tip of the big toe over towards the outside of the foot. As the tip of the toe goes out, the base slides inwards and makes the lump. A bunion can get sore and painful as it tends to rub on the inside of shoes. There are exercises that can be done to try and reverse a small bunion and insoles sometimes slows down a developing bunion, but many bunions require surgery to get rid of the pain and deformity.
You can also get dropped metatarsal heads — this is where one of the bones in the ball of the foot sits a bit lower than the others. We don’t really know why it happens, but it feels like you are walking on a pebble under the ball of the foot. Again, in the early stages, exercises to strengthen the muscles in the sole of your foot might help but in later stages a supportive pad or an insole to hold up the affected metatarsal is wonderfully effective.
And of course there are the lesser niggles of infected nails, blisters, callouses, corns and hard skin to contend with — but more on that another time.
Four Favourite Foot Workouts
A yogi’s feet are a huge part of āsana practice. We ground through them in standing poses and downward dog. We root through them in balances and take hold of them to deepen our forward folds. Feet are integral to the full expressions of so many poses. They deserve to be loved!
As with so many things, it is easier to stop a problem developing than it is to get rid of it. With that in mind I’m going to let you in on four of my footcare secrets so that you can have lovely, strong and pain-free feet.
1. Strengthen those arches
In any standing pose, concentrate on grounding down from the outside edge of the heel to the little toe (the lateral side of the foot) and lift the inside of the arch. Make sure it’s just the arch that lifts and the big toe and heel stay on the floor. It takes a bit of practice to engage the right muscles and make it happen (tibialis anterior and tibialis posterior) but the resulting strong arches and inner leg strength will launch you forward in your practice.
2. Strong muscles and mobile toes
There are two little muscles in the sole of each foot that get lazy when we wear shoes all the time. You can wake them up and get your toes moving at the same time by sitting with your bare foot on a towel on the floor. Keeping your heel on the floor, wriggle your toes to draw the towel under your foot a little at a time. Thinking of your toes like fingers while you do this exercise helps to get the right action. Try practising this for about five minutes, three times a week to start seeing the benefits.
3. Spread your toes
Thread your fingers between the toes of one foot — left hand to right foot and vice versa. You should have one finger between each pair of toes, and one finger spare! Use your hand to roll your foot round in circles to mobilise the foot, ankle and toes all at the same time. This fits nicely into a warm up routine. Some people call this the yogi handshake.
4. Work those calves
Standing on your toes during your practice or as an exercise is great way to strengthen your calves and toes. It is also works wonders to tone and sculpt your calves. Try inhaling your arms above your head as you rise on to your toes. Exhale and slowly lower yourself into a crouch — keeping your heels off the floor. Inhale and come back to tip toes with arms above head and finish with an exhale back to standing. Repeat two or three times. This is harder than it sounds and well worth adding to your home practice regularly for strong, trim calves and better balance.
Practising With Foot Pain
If already have foot problems it’s never too late to work on the exercises above. They won’t do any harm, and there is a real chance that prevent things getting worse and possibly slow down the injury. Remember to never push through pain in the exercises or in your practice.
You can try modifying some of the standing and balancing poses to avoid full weight bearing on your feet. Try low lunges with your back knee down instead of Warrior 1, and Beam Pose with your knee down is a great side stretch that is easier on your feet. Using a shorter or wider stance may change the distribution of weight on your feet enough to avoid pain and consider doing Tree Pose or Eagle Arms while standing on two feet rather than one. A softer or thicker mat may also help to reduce pain on grounding.
Sore feet do not mean the end of your yoga practice. You can work on sitting and lying poses as well as meditation and prānāyāma. You will still be a real yogi and gain the benefits that yoga brings to us all. So feel free to roll your mat out and don’t let your feet cramp your style.