your feet on the earth
How do we use our feet in yoga? What is the correct alignment of the foot in yoga postures? Do we notice, or care?
Feet are perhaps one of the most overused and under cared for parts of the body. They are the foundation of posture, full of important nerve endings, and our first point of contact diffusing forces when we walk. When we learn to use the feet, it can heal imbalances in the feet. This can transform our relationship to our bodies, as well as help us heal from various body pains. Foot pain itself can affect our whole life, from our ability to get around, work or exercise and just our enjoyment being in our bodies.
In yoga, there are different poses, stretches and movements of the foot which activate and balance out foot position. But equally, if not more important, is the imagery and mental awareness that you use when you stand or do any movements of the foot.
Ways to connect with the feet in yoga
Your feet are not just blocks at the bottom of your legs. There are 26 bones, 33 joints and many tendons, ligaments and fascia connections. The foot is a dynamic and springy structure that absorbs, spreads and transfers forces allowing us to walk. So the first thing to image with the feet is like a rubber ball. When the ball hits the floor, the sphere flattens and spreads, which absorbs force and then retracts to a sphere when it bounces off. So you can imagine, as you go down into the feet, that the widen and flatten and as you come up, they get narrower and lifted.
Try this: stand with your feet in a comfortable position and alignment (about 2 fists between your front foot is a good guide for most people). Bend your knees and imagine your feet squishing into the floor and as you straighten your legs imagine a kind of retraction. You can even say you yourself - squish/rebound or widen/narrow as you bend and stretch your legs.
If that feels ok, you can bend, squish and then after straightening your legs come up on your toes, which is a more narrow and compact organisation of the foot bones. Doing this movement has the benefit of warming up the feet and programming the feet to work as they should when walking.
Embodying the Anatomy of the Foot
There are a number of helpful embodiments to work with when we use the feet.
1. Springy Feet- The squish is described above, you can imagine your feet as springy, or bouncing like a ball. Use this when you feel heavy or tired in your legs.
In yoga: you can literally play with pushing off the feet, like you are going into a jump. My favourite pose to work with this is warrior 1, because when I work with the pose this way, the "alignment" of the upper body and pelvis find themselves and I don't have to confuse myself with lift this, tuck this.
The image of springy feet will give you the feeling of lifting up in your poses. You don't always want that. Sometimes you want to feel more grounded (which is when squishy is possibly better).
2. Twisted Shape- The shape of the foot is not like a rectangle. If you look at your heel, the shape is up and down, whereas the shape of the forefoot is horizontal. To feel or see the twist shape, put a piece of paper along your foot, it will wrap around the shape. This twist is interesting because it gets tighter and looser, depending on how your foot is moving. When you point or plantar flex the foot (or stand on your toes), the foot twists more, and gets tighter (like if you twisted a towel, it would get tighter when you twist it).
The image I have here is that the back of the heel is a church bell. When I go up on my toes, that bell rings towards the inside / midline. When I come down, and even more the more the foot spreads, it rings to the outside.
3. Dome of the Foot - This aspect of the foot has to do with the top of the talus bone, which is rounded. The bone that rolls over the talus is the tibia or shin bone. This is pretty easy to feel. It is best to do with a little weight on your foot, so sit on a few yoga blocks or a low step. Keep your foot on the floor.
Touching the Talus - Touch the 2 big knobby bones on the sides of your ankles . Then go in front of them. You will feel some ropy tendons, and then in the middle is a little gap. Keep the foot flat on the floor and bend the ankle joint more (fold deeper or dorsiflex the foot). You will feel the little gap close, and you might feel the tibia sliding over the dome. If you do this without weight on your foot, the tendons pop out. The tendons tightening pushes your fingers out of the way so you can't feel the bones anymore. This is the front of the talus.
In the back you can feel the talus just under the malleoli (knobby bones on the sides of the ankle). There are 2 smaller bumps, that disappear when you point the foot. If you touch this bone in the front and back, imagine it is the top of your foot, where weight comes down from the leg and then distributes. Can you sense in yourself if your weight is forward or back? Dropping to the inside or to the outside? Balanced and centred or, not so much.
In yoga: What I love about this embodiment, is that it helps me feel centred over the foot and ankle, while feeling light. The image of 4 corners of the feet has never really worked for me. In standing on 2 feet, I imagine my knee, pelvis and head centred over the talus. In movement, I imagine my centre of gravity over the talus, especially in transition movements or big shifts of weight.
4. Toes like Fingers - Can you pick up something with your toes? How about roll over them? First feel the ball of the big toe, and recognise that the toe starts here. Practice flexing at this joint, and then rolling over it, into extension (like rolling over the tips of the toes). Try to feel smooth in this movement, and get comfortable how it can go straight over, without shifting wildly at the ankle joint.
In yoga: Rolling over the toes is a key movement in Surya namaskar. But it is so unusual for our feet to do it, that it takes some practice to get used to it. You can practice standing, or in downward dog. Do one foot and then the other, or try rolling over both feet together without your body weight on them!
Here are some ways you can move, stretch and play with your foot in your practice.
These foot movements and embodiments have guided my classes this month. The truth is though, that movement and awareness is partially for its own sake, and partially for the sake of life. Figuring out, feeling and embodying where we stand is an incredibly powerful process. Standing in your power, on your centre or balanced on your feet have implications both in our posture and movement and in the way we navigate metaphysically through life.
Some questions that arose for me in this investigation:
- Where do I stand?
- How do I stand?
- What do I stand for?
There may be answers in words. But the body also has its own answers that arise through the practice. I encourage you to explore you own sensitivity and relationship to your feet, your ground and how you stand.
I shared a foot massage video in JUMP start January. You can get that video by signing up for the email series. Or you can view it in my Resource Library.
Reference: As always, my primary teacher in the work of anatomical embodiment is Eric Franklin and the Franklin Method. Eric's offering is different than mine, but if you would like to explore how he articulates this work, and the depth of his knowledge and experience, check out www.franklinmethod.com.