My feet get the credit for my consistent yoga practice. Once upon a time, I was a part-time yogi, full-time runner and frequent weight lifter. I thought yoga was for stretching after a more aggressive workout. Oh, how wrong I was.
When I discovered vinyasa yoga, I’d already been practicing for nearly ten years. However, I’d never truly developed a deep love for yoga, or my feet—yet.
I abused my feet regularly with my runs and work as a waitress. I was basically constantly on my feet—which lead to severe plantar fasciitis. Luckily, I had a wonderful podiatrist who put me in splints (talk about uncomfortable sleep); custom-made arch supports; and also assigned me to physical therapy. He even wrote me a note to give my restaurant manager stating that I needed at least two days off in a row. (I never handed it in.) Needless to say, I didn’t stop overtraining or working too much—and my feet kept getting worse.
This enlightened doctor kept pressuring me to up my yoga practice and tone down, or eliminate, everything else. I didn’t listen, though, until he threatened me with the direction that I was headed in—surgery. So, I did what I should have done a long time beforehand—develop a strong, enriching yoga practice.
So what’s the point of this mini bio, you ask? My point is simple: we do not give our feet enough—or any—love until they turn on us. Only then do we realize how much their health means to our entire body and state of mind. Our feet are our foundations. So in honor of feet, here are five things that you should be doing with them every time you step on your mat.
1. Proper alignment. You’ll hear most yoga instructors tell you at various points during class (such as chair pose or mountain pose) to stand with your big toes touching and your heels spaced slightly apart—but why? The reason is that proper alignment in your feet means proper, neutral alignment in your hip joints. Take a look at your toes when you stand. Your second and third toes should be parallel (think of your middle fingers in proper downward dog alignment). For most bodies, this means that your heels become spaced ever-so-slightly apart.
2. Activate your arches. Since your feet are the foundation for the rest of your standing posture, it makes sense that your feet are where your leg muscles also begin to engage. What I’m going to describe is a very subtle mind-body movement, so rather than getting frustrated if you don’t feel it just keep doing what you do best—practicing. Standing with your feet in their proper alignment, trace an imaginary line around your feet, including around your toes. Then press down into this outline of your feet as you draw up through your arches. You should feel your quadriceps begin to engage; feeling this sensation strongly around your knees. Now practice this activation during other standing postures for deeper sensation throughout your entire leg.
3. Relax. You’ll notice in my blogs that I frequently mention letting go of unnecessary gripping, or clenching, in the body, and the feet are a huge sign of gripping not only there but in other areas as well. For example, if you’re taking rest on your stomach in between prone asanas, then make sure you’re also letting your big toes turn in and your heels fall out. If you grip your heels and don’t let them fully relax, then you’re likely gripping your jaw or lower abdominals as well. So let go and relax your feet when the posture allows. (This can also include unnecessary gripping of your toes on your mat in poses like your warriors or pyramid.)
4. Flexibility. I always encourage students not to reach for their feet in a forward fold when it means overly rounding your spine or pulling from your shoulders. Still, if you don’t comfortably reach your feet in poses like this, you can use a strap around the ball of your foot to show your feet some stretching love. When you stretch the back of your leg, remember to always stretch through your feet too. Try pulling your heels actively away from the balls of your feet in your downward dogs, for example, and you’ll really be helping out that plantar fascia that I mentioned earlier.
5. Use your feet to turn on your hamstrings. In postures like warrior I and chair pose, your heels can be your biggest asset to strengthen your hamstrings. Most people have stronger quads than hamstrings, and they continue to turn on the quad in standing postures that could, and should, be also strengthening the back of your leg. Try digging into your heels in chair pose or creating the action of pulling back the heel of your front lunging leg in your warrior I (without actually moving your foot on the mat).
There are so many ways to further your yoga practice by simply paying attention to your feet. I can’t even come close to listing all of them in one blog. So, before you just go through the motions on your yoga mat, really try coming into the sensations of your body—starting from the firm, grounding foundation of your feet. It’s when we begin to come alive to these micro-movements on the mat that we begin to experience true presence—and yoga—off the mat as well.