The feet are our foundation in life and in yoga. In standing postures, the feet must be properly aligned to encourage balance throughout the body, and to prevent injury. For instance, if we’re in a warrior 2 pose and the front foot is pointing outward, toward the pinkie side of the foot, the knee alignment will be thrown off, and from there the hip alignment will be off as well. If we set up the feet properly, there’s a much better chance that the rest of the pose will be safely aligned. Like I cue my students in class, “Start from the ground up” when building your postures. Establish strong, aligned feet and move up the body from there.
This week I’m teaching classes toward the feet and ankles, as part of my Yoga from Head to Toe series this summer. For 10 weeks, we’re looking at a different section of the body each week, learning alignment tips and yoga postures for each body part. This week, Bright Yoga is all about the Feet and Ankles.
1. Activate the Arch of the Foot. While in a standing position, imagine I’m trying to slip a pencil beneath the arch of one foot. Lift the arch, so that the pencil has more space to slide underneath. You’ll notice this activates your leg muscles and anchors you down into the earth.
Pulling up on the arch of the foot improves balance by recruiting the full musculature of your legs. Moreover, this simple trick prevents ankle supination and overpronation. In supination, the ankles tilt outward. I definitely fall into this camp. Ladies in my family tend to roll their ankles outward while running. Due to years of rolling my ankle in soccer, they were swollen, with excess fluid and scar tissue. Since I’ve been practicing yoga, my ankles and feet have become much stronger, and I’m convinced that it’s the yoga balancing postures and this little trick of lifting the arch that have largely eliminated my tendency to turn out the ankle. I feel much more confident while moving around in the world as a result. This is what yoga tends to do for everyone–it balances us out and ultimately moves “off the mat.”
Activating the arch in the foot impacts the alignment of the legs as well as the pelvis. Overpronation causes internal rotation of the bones in the lower and upper legs, as well as anterior tilt in the pelvis. (What I sometimes call “cheerleader butt” or “duck butt” in my yoga classes.) Suppination does the opposite– it causes external rotation in the legs, and a posterior tilt in the pelvis (“cowboy butt”.) So lifting the arch of your feet can help bring you correct pelvis alignment as well! We will be playing around with this in my classes this week.
2. Push Down into the (3 or 4?) Corners of the Feet. This is a cue you’ll definitely hear in Portland yoga classes–a teacher will often encourage you to “Ground down into the four corners of your feet.” Now, I have a bit of a beef with this phrase. Like many cues, it gets thrown around as a matter of habit. However, the truth is that we really have three corners of our feet, as Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews diagram in their exceptional book Yoga Anatomy.
Imagine the bottom of your feet. There are several arches here which give back strength from the pressure of stepping down onto the earth. (This is one reason why humans are so good at long-distance running; our foot arches and achilles heels are bouncy enough to “give back” some of the pressure from the foot’s strike against the ground. To geek out on this more, check out the Smithsonian’s video The Perfect Runner.) The arches are arranged such that there are actually three places where most of the pressure is deposited; these are the best places for us to imagine grounding down in a yoga pose. There are two points at the top of the foot–one under the big toe knuckle, and the other under the pinkie toe knuckle. Then there’s one main balancing point right under the middle of the heel. (Not one on each side of the heel as some yoga teachers claim.)
But in the end my little tiff about three or four corners doesn’t impact your practice that much. Just imagine grounding down into your feet evenly, with the same amount of pressure on the front vs. the back of the foot, and the same amount of pressure from side to side. This will help balance out your leg muscles and also bring you stability. One similar way to achieve this effect: Lift the toes, which will automatically ground down your feet.
3. Point the Toes where the Knee Goes. As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to completely isolate a certain body part during practice. Whatever we do in our feet radiates up the leg to the hip and beyond. We are unified creatures, in which one small change ripples throughout the whole system. So how we point our feet in postures really matters; it sets up the rest of the body for safe standing yoga postures.
To make sure your feet are properly aligned, make a “Karate chop” hand with the fingers glued together. Place this along your lower thigh, over the middle of the knee. This can show you where your knee is pointing, so that you can adjust your toes to point the same way. Horse posture and warrior stances are excellent for practicing this aspect of foot/knee alignment.
What other tricks have you picked up for safely aligning the feet and ankles in yoga? Do share.
To practice these tips, I invite you to take class with me this week! I will be selecting postures with a focus on strengthening and opening the feet and ankles. Or, if you’re interested in strengthening this aspect of your practice in a more focused way, email me about private or small group lessons, which I am happy to offer in your home in the Portland area.