A house built on a solid, well planned foundation, will create a great base for the rest of the structure, and the same goes for our bodies. If you have sacral joint pain, stiffness in the lower back and, or, upper back, those ailments can be due to stiff muscles and tension, but did you ever think to look down to see if your problem starts beyond the site of the pain?
The problem might start with your feet.
A large number of people may not have pain in their feet, but that could be the source of their problems further up the anatomical chain. Many studies over the years, including those in the Orthopedic Physical Assessment, state that 80 percent of people have foot dysfunctions, whether they feel any effects or not from it, and 80 percent also experience lower back pain at some point in their life.
Many chiropractors and experts believe those identical stats are not a coincidence. Proper foot alignment can cause an array of problems including back pain, sciatica, sacral joint pain, sway back, hip joint pain, posture problems, tightness in the legs and back, disc bulges, knee pain, osteoarthritis, pelvic imbalance, piriformis syndrome and even headaches. And that is not including problems that can occur with the actual feet themselves.
Why does this happen?
In yoga, our feet are very important. They're the base for many poses, specifically standing poses. Our feet connect us to the earth. The feet have 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. They're also divided into three parts: the hind foot, which includes the ankle bone and heel bone; the mid foot, a group of 5 irregular bones in the arch of the foot; and the forefoot, the metatarsals and toes. Our feet also move in many ways:
- Plantar flexion of the ankle occurs when you stand on your tiptoes. If you're sitting with your legs out in front of you, plantar flexion of the ankle happens when you point your toes.
- Dorsiflexion occurs when you stand on your heels with the balls of the feet lifted off the floor. If you're sitting, dorsiflexion happens when you push your heels away from you and pull your toes toward you, in a seated forward bend pose for example.
- Supination takes place when you stand with your weight rolled onto the outer edges of your feet, lifting the arches and the base of the big toe. Non-weight-bearing supination happens when you sit with your legs out in front of you and turn the soles of the feet so they start to face each other, like in wide-angle pose.
- Pronation, which occurs when you lift the outer edges of your feet as you stand, collapsing your arches. In sitting postures, pronation occurs when you press out through your inner heels and the bases of your big toes.
How do our feet affect posture?
Correct distribution of weight in our feet can not only give your body optimal postural alignment, but it's also a great foundation in your yoga practice. Proper weight-bearing of our feet translates to great standing postures and other poses where your feet have to be engaged.
But let’s take a moment to look at what can happen with uneven distribution as you walk: According to a 2009 study done by the American Podiatric Medical Association, the average person walks 8,000 to 10,000 steps in one day. That’s a lot of movement of the many bones, muscles and joints of our feet anke ankles. All of this walking can be especially hard on your body and spine if there are altered mechanics of your feet, legs and pelvis.
If your feet start to over pronate—meaning your arches collapse and ankles roll in—they might not properly support your body1. Like a house on a bad foundation, your whole body is impacted. Your knees can rotate inward, your back can over arch, your shoulders can roll forward—practically the dictionary definition of bad posture. With bad posture, over time you can even cause physical damage to your muscles, ligaments, and joints.
So what can you do?
- Be aware: Take a while to study how you stand, or have a doctor look at your alignment on your next visit. A yoga therapist, chiropractor, physical therapist, or yoga teacher with an extensive background in anatomy and physiology can do this for you as well.
- Experiment with your own adjustments: Your body may simply need a change in how you walk. For example, if you notice you walk more toward your instep, you might want to adjust how you walk on your own. Find that correct distribution of weight and movement in your feet, and see how that feels later on.
- Build muscle strength and relaxation where needed: If you have fallen arches, those muscles might be weak. You can work on them with yoga poses specifically targeting those muscles in the lower legs. In turn, some muscles may be too strong, pulling your leg and or pelvis in a certain direction. Working on relaxing those in addition to building strength in weaker sections can be beneficial for some people.
- Use traction exercises: Traction, when done manually with a strap or belt, can be a great way to gently work your problem areas back to their most favorable alignment, strength or position. Just be sure to consult a physical therapist or doctor before attempting.
- Walk barefoot: Many might argue that our feet were made to walk just as they are. Wearing heels or sneakers can bring the foot into an unnatural shape2, no matter how much they are advertised for walking, running, or any other activity.
- Be kind to your feet: Treat your feet with kindness. They take you everywhere you need to go and also get you flowing through most of your asana practice. You can massage your feet to release tension—using a hard rubber ball under the soles and moving the foot back and forth works wonders for those tired dogs.