…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.
I’m confused as to what type of yoga you’re talking about. In Iyengar we give lots of instructions about the feet. One of them may be making the base of the foot wider, one of them may be lifting the toes. Never do we collapse the arches and on the contrary the point of lifting the toes is to activate the arches and stabilize the ankle.
Hi there! Thank you so much for commenting. I (Mel) also have a background in Iyengar and am familiar with such cues. What we’re saying is that the school of yoga in question is irrelevant. Bio-mechanically/anatomically speaking, lifting the toes does not, in fact, help to “activate the arches.” You are correct that the intention is to do so, but when we lift the toes and “spread the bottoms of our feet” we decrease the natural arches that exist. If you can’t see that in the feet look at the palm of your hand. Open the fingers wide and imagine spreading the flesh of your hand outwards. The action parallels that we are discussing in the feet. Did you see how the natural arches in your palm are decreased as well?
And as for lifting the toes to stabilize the ankle…given that joints do indeed relate to one another in terms of stability and mobility we could very easily argue that lifting the toes and keeping them like that (a.k.a. decreasing mobility in the bones of the foot) could adversely affect the way the ankles and knees relate one another resulting in imbalance in the joints and difficulty achieving a sense of balance overall.
What a wonderful article full of anatomical common sense so needed in the yoga asana world.
I am a bodyworker/yogi and creator of a style of yoga called YogAlign which has a focus on aligned posture and core muscles working as stabilizers. In YogAlign, all poses simulate how the body moves in real life function and we avoid static positions that enlist the extremities to control the infrastructure. I have noticed that many yogis have flat feet and I wonder if all of the pushing the heels flat to the floor in down dog and warrior or trying to ground the foot and spread the toes has undermined the necessary ligament/fascial tension in the arches of the feet. I have also noticed how many people who do yoga have weak core muscles and very loose ligaments that in some cases are leading to serious joint pathologies in the hip. See this article in the NYT about the liability of flexibility in yoga. I was interviewed for this article and there are links to my writings.
I have a website called http://www.yogainjuries.com where I am conducting a survey on how and why yoga injuries are happening.
.YogAlign incorporates self massage and focuses on kinesthetic awareness and somatic reeducation of the body in a global way. We do not do any poses that require one to straighten the knees and touch the toes or to twist and bind the body. Since humans generally age by going forward and losing the internal space that supports the organs and spinal column, all YogAlign poses are directed towards natural upright alignment. Check out my website for amazing photos of people before and after YogAlign showing huge shifts in alignment. The amazing part is that anyone can do it and requires not complex positions that can compromise joint function and natural anatomical function. http://www.yogalign.com
I am in NYC and will be teaching on May 10th a workshop called Change Your Posture and Change Your Life.
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