…Step to the front of your mat and try to find equal weight in the feet and ankle joints. Now pick up your toes and spread them wide. Keep your toes spread wide as you slowly bring them back down to the floor. Try to keep the toes open, and spread the flesh underneath the feet so as to expand how much of your mat they usually cover. This action will help you to be rooted to the earth and give you a better sense of balance…

The above action is commonplace in a yoga class and sounds nice. But following these cues will not help you achieve a better sense of balance in performing asanas. A few of our previous posts have already highlighted some of the complicated processes that help us maintain balance. The suggestion of spreading your toes and bottoms of your feet may make you feel as if you are creating a more stable base of support, lending a certain sense of security. As the majority of our proprioceptive nerves can be found in our feet, wiggling toes and creating movement in our feet can help to activate those nerves and deliver more feedback than usual (information about how well the internal self is engaging with the external environment). If you tend to wear compromising shoes (i.e. high heels, tight shoes, or always clad in shoes without ever being barefoot), then you could really benefit, in general, from articulating your toes and practice getting movement throughout your feet.

Strong muscles in our feet that are dynamic and able to lengthen and contract are vital to good balance. Bad shoes and lack of movement can habitually weaken three arches that exist in each foot (nope, not just one arch, but three!). These arches exist to create a tripod underneath each foot and help us negotiate the force of gravity as it makes its way (if we are standing) from the top of our heads down through our bodies. This muscular action of making constant micro adjustments when we walk or stand is what helps us feel “more grounded” or “solidly connected to the earth.” Being connected/centered is a process of constant maintenance that usually happens subconsciously. What we take for granted is revealed under increased stress, like standing on one leg. Nimble feet are essential to assisting other joints in your body with the demanding shape-changes called for in typical yoga or exercise classes (and daily life, obviously).

However, trying to keep the toes open, and spreading the underside of the foot when standing or moving throughout a yoga practice require the muscles of our feet to stay at one static length. In the short-term, you may gain a sense of control, but this is NOT an effective long-term plan. Given what we described in the preceding paragraph, this stagnant hold in the feet is counter-productive to the natural engineering of our bodies. Spreading the feet is like saying, “Flatten the arches in your foot and decrease the potential for dynamic muscle control.” Any architect worth their salt knows that a well-built arch is up to the challenge of supporting a surprising amount of weight. What happens when those arches collapse? Kaboom! The structure is severely compromised.

So, yes, please do:
Wiggle your feet and toes and try exercising them in ways you aren’t used to in order to create stronger muscles (stronger arches, hell yeah!) and increase proprioceptive feedback.

No, please don’t:
Try increasing the space under your feet to get better connected to the ground. That connection is achieved only through a constant process of action/reaction, not a one-time action.

*Resources: Yoga Anatomy (2nd edition), by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews.
A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers, by Mel Robin