Monthly Archives: July 2014

Yoga for the Core: Bandhas (Energy Locks) 101

The BandhasThis week I’m focusing on the core in my yoga classes. Say the word “core” to a yoga teacher (especially a power vinyasa yoga instructor) and it’s likely that that word “bandhas” will come out of his or her mouth. The bandhas translate to “the locks” in yoga’s mother tongue, Sanskrit. When we engage these three points in the body, we can control the flow of energy. Yoga texts say that true mastery of yoga, inside and out, requires the engagement of the bandhas. They not only help your physical practice, but keeping them engaged will also improve your mental practice. Engaging the bhandas also keeps you safe on the mat.

Overall, the core is the body’s great stabilizer. A strong, engaged core with Ujayii breath can make your poses stronger and safer. Turning on the bandhas during class will make you steady, strong, and purposeful during classes. I have noticed that I can flow much more fluidly if these centers are turned on.

Here are the three main bandhas:

1. Mula bandha, literally the root lock. Engaging mula bandha during practice keeps energy (prana) inside, letting it circulate and increase within you. To activate it, pull up on your pelvic floor. Men may be better able to locate it by thinking of contracting the area between the anus and the testes. Both sexes can find it by emulating what you do when you really have to urinate but have to hold it in.

2. Uddiyana Bandha. Uddiyana means to rise up or to fly up. This makes sense if you think of the belly flying up and in. In class, I often say to button your belly button to your spine to engage udiyana bandha.  This will tone your abs, increase stability, and improve digestion. To find full uddiyana bandha, read Lauren Imparato’s MindBodyGreen article on the bandhas. I will point out that the full version of the pose makes it impossible to take breath in smoothly, which we definitely want to do throughout practice. So a light engagement of the core pulling back toward the spine is more what you’re looking for in vinyasa yoga, not a full uddiyana bandha. Read Mark Stephen’s post on the bandhas for a more detailed anatomical discussion of this lock.

3. Jalandhara Bandha. Different schools of yoga have different ideas about this lock. My power vinyasa teachers explained it as a tightening of the muscles at the base of the throat. When teaching this in class, I name these as the same muscles you use to whisper. I also lead students in pretending to fog up a mirror–that’s the sort of textured, heated breath that is created when you activate jalandhara banda. In my training, breathing through the slightly constricted throat of jalandhara banda was used to create Ujayii, or triumphant breath. This is the resonant breath that you hear more advanced students practicing in flowing vinyasa classes.

With all that said, my Kundalini yoga teachers define this lock as a lifting of the heart, while pulling the chin back and up. That does wonders to bring your thoracic and cervical spine into alignment, and in Kundalini they say this improves energy flow as well.

Finally, other schools of yoga teach jalandhara bandha as a double-chin-ish move, where you pull the chin back into the throat. (See Yoga Journal on this verion of Jalandhara Bandha.)

In my vinyasa classes, I teach students to engage mula bandha, create a light uddiyana bandha, and do the first version of jalandhara bandha. All together, these energy locks create a sort of “air bag” on the inside of the body, keeping you steady and protected. I recommend Yoga Anatomy for more detailed scientific information on how the bandhas interact with respiration to create this air bag effect.

I look forward to practicing the bandhas with you this week as we practice jump-switches and balancing postures in my yoga classes!

<photo: via>


Yoga Poses for the Core

It’s the beginning of a new week & a new theme! This week I’m focusing on the core in my classes. This is the fourth week in my Yoga from Head to Toe series this summer. Each week I’m zooming in on one section of the body, and exploring how it works in yoga, how we can strengthen it and stretch it, and how it works anatomically. In this post I’m going over a few yoga postures that use the core.

Hint: It’s almost all of them. From standing postures to balancing poses to belly-down spine strengtheners, the band of muscles wrapping around your midsection are used in almost every yoga pose. That makes sense since these muscles help us stabilize. Their position in between the legs and the torso makes them perfectly suited to coordinate what the top and bottom halves of the body are doing. Some core muscles help us twist; others lift the hip bones for an anterior tilt in the pelvis; still others help lift the tailbone for an anterior tilt.

Now obviously you’re not using your core much in a restorative-style class, when the point is to relax every muscle. But even then there are core muscles engaged in breathing. Here are a few more functions the core muscles serve for us:

  • Postural support (BTW a strong core is a good way to avoid sitting pain & injuries)
  • Protection for the internal organs
  • To facilitate coughing, waste release, singing, vomiting, and childbirth, as well as breathing.

How are these muscles situated in the body? Well, we’ll get more into the anatomy in an upcoming post, but for now I will say that the muscles are strong in the same way that plywood is strong. In plywood, the fibers of wood are situated facing multiple directions. This makes the whole structure stronger. Similarly, our core muscles run different directions for added strength. The external obliques run down and forward along the front of the body; the internal obliques are situated upward and forward; and the transverse abs run side-to-side. This gives us strength and grace no matter which direction we move.

I would also emphasize that the core muscles are not just on the front of the body. Think of them as a band of muscles running all the way around your middle, like a corset.

Here are a few yoga postures that can help build a strong core:

Boat pose
Plank / Side Plank / Reverse Plank
Arm Balances – crow, hurdler’s pose, etc.
Inversions – headstand, handstand, etc.
Reverse tabletop

Yoga breathing exercises such as Ujjayi breath can also improve abdominal strength and finesse. In my classes this week I will also be focusing on activating the bandhas (energetic locks) for protection & increased core strength.

Yoga student in plank posture

Bright Yoga student John M. showing off his plank pose

<Top photo: Beth Phillips
Second photo: John Mermin>

Yoga Alignment Tips for the Hips

"Hip Experiment" by Jes on FlickrIt’s Hip Week in my Portland-area yoga classes. Whether I’m teaching prenatal, power vinyasa, restorative, or hatha fusion, my focus is on the hips. The hips are ball and socket joints. A ball-shaped bone at the end of femur (the “thigh bone”) fits perfectly into a corresponding scoop in each hip. A quarter-inch-thick layer of cartilage in-between provides cushioning and facilitates smooth sliding action.

This design allows wide mobility in the hips. And along with that mobility comes the possibility for misalignment–one hip higher than the other, or one hip farther forward than the other, depending on the individual’s unique anatomy, habits, and long-held positions.

By teaching us how to even out the hips (and other joints), yoga helps balance our physical habits. As an example, I have had physical therapists tell me that I have an imbalance in one hip, partially because I unconsciously drop one hip lower than the other in chatarunga. Moreover, I often cross my legs, or stand with all my weight in one hip. Now yoga hasn’t entirely cured me of all these off-kilter habits (yet) but it has made me much more aware of how I’m holding myself as I go about my daily business. (Read my post on yoga power poses for the chemistry behind how body language shapes our emotional experiences.)

Here are a few hip alignment tips for practicing yoga:

Tips for Aligning the Hips in Yoga

1. Square to the Front, the Side, and/or the Earth. Depending on the posture, balanced alignment involves aiming for evenness between the two hips. As a favorite teacher of mine at CorePower Yoga explains it, the hips are like rival siblings who always want to be the same. You can always ask your teacher about the hip alignment in a certain pose, but here are a few examples of how to square the hips in basic postures:
Warrior 1 – Square to the earth & the front.
Warrior 2 – Square approximately to the side. As the back leg is in internal rotation, the hips will never be perfectly squared to the side.
Horse – Square to the side.
Plank – Square to the earth.
When I say that something is squared in a certain direction, I mean that the hip points, those bony protrusions on the front of the hips, are the same distance from the front wall, the side wall, or the earth.

2. Notice & Adjust the Tilt of the Pelvis. Imagine the pelvis as a bowl–because really, that is its shape, a bowl that holds your guts. If you lift up the hip points, tucking the tailbone,  the bowl will spill backwards–anatomically speaking, a posterior tilt. On the other end of hip range of motion, if you lift the tailbone and let the hip points drop, the bowl would spill forward and we would say you’re in an anterior tilt. In many yoga postures, we are aiming for neutrality in the pelvis– so the bowl is neither spilling forward nor backward, but is balanced in the middle.

In general, women tend toward an anterior tilt (tailbone lifted) while men tend to have a posterior tilt (tailbone tucked.) However, as many people sit in a rounded, slumped shape at their workstations, it is highly common among both genders to maintain this posture outside of the office.

3. Strengthen the Core.The core muscles and the leg muscles control the hips. A stronger core brings extra stability to the hips, which are prone to injury partially because of their wide range of motion. The hips are very strong–they absorb much of the force from hitting the ground when walking or running–but if we use them in an imbalanced way they can also be unstable. A strong core gives you the ability to smoothly, fluidly move the hips.

The hips are the center of our movement through this world. They support us step by step along our paths. Show your hips some love and gratitude with yoga poses for the hips, and come take my remaining Portland yoga classes this week for hip-happy yoga flows:
Thursday : 9:45am Mama Flow, Zenana Spa
1:05pm Yoga for the People, West Side Athletic Club
7:30pm C2, CorePower Yoga – Focus on humble warrior & hurdlers!

Friday : 12:00pm Hatha Fusion, East West Yoga – Restorative hip bliss for going into the weekend!
5:45pm Restorative Pre/Post Natal, Zenana Spa – Open the hips and feel grounded.

Next week I will be teaching kids yoga at The International School’s summer camp, so my daytime classes will have subs. My evening classes are still on, though.


Kids at Yoga Rocks the Park Yoga Kids Camp doing Tree Pose

“Tree pose, everyone!!”

Today I’m sharing a few photos from Yoga Rocks the Park, an incredible outdoor yoga festival in its second year here in Portland. On seven Saturdays this summer, Portland yogis will come together for live music, great flows, and sunshine! So far there have been two YRP dates, on 7/5 and 7/12. This past Saturday, the 12th, I was thrilled to lead the Kids Camp at Yoga Rocks the Park Portland. Move Yoga teacher Allyson Copacino (pictured in grey above) helped me create a super fun Kids Camp experience.

As a teacher, I love the format of teaching at Yoga Rocks the Park. There are some classroom management challenges here, as my fellow elementary teachers could attest. First, the age range. We had twelve kids varying in age from three to eleven. Before the event, we weren’t sure exactly how many kids would show up, so I had to be prepared with plenty of yoga activities to keep the little yogis engaged in kids yoga while their parents participated in the adult yoga flow. (There were over 200 people in attendance this last Saturday!) Here are a few of the activities we did at YRP:
–“Hari Om” song to get to know each others’ names
–Animal walking with rhythmic drumming
–Yoga with the Animals, in which we used different yoga poses to represent animals
–A nature walk, where we met some ducks, followed dragonflies, and discovered slugs.
–Savasana with homemade eyepillows. This little guy was just adorable as he relaxed in savasana. When I invited the kids to take an eye pillow and relax, he took one for his giraffe friend as well:

Kid in Savasana with eye pillow for him & his stuffed animal

An eye pillow for me, and an eye pillow for you

My favorite moment of the day came at the end of class. The timing just couldn’t be more perfect–the adults finished class just before us. There was a round of applause from the adults after they said, “Namaste.” Moments later, we concluded the kids class by saying, “Kind Hearts, Kind Words, Kind Thoughts! The best in me honors the  best in you. Namaste!” The adults burst into applause again as they heard the littlest yogis saying “Namaste.” I will remember that fondly.

Colleen with Jenn Johnson, YRP organizerI want to finish up with a big thanks to Jennifer Johnson, the organizational wiz behind Yoga Rocks the Park Portland. Thank you for the opportunity to teach kids yoga in this incredible venue! If you’d like to participate in Yoga Rocks the Park, there are still five more dates:

July 26th
August 9th – I am leading Kids Camp
August 16th
August 23rd – I am leading Kids Camp
September 6th – I will be participating in the adult flow!

Come connect with fellow yogis and enjoy an incredible practice with live music–join us at Yoga Rocks the Park Portland this summer.

Yoga Poses for the Hips

Wheel Pose opens the hip flexors

Wheel Pose opens the hip flexors

Happy Monday, yogis! It’s week three in my Yoga from Head to Toe Series, and I’m focusing on the hips and upper legs. This is a perennially popular request among my students. Nine times out of ten, if I ask for requests at the top of class, someone will pipe up with “HIPS!”

Given how we position our bodies at work, this isn’t surprising. Most of us work in a sitting position, with the arms reaching forward to reach a keyboard. And when we’re not typing, we are likely driving–a similar foward-reaching seated position.

What does this shape do to the hips? It reduces circulation to the front of the hips, the area of the hip flexors, for one thing. When we sit, the tissue here at the top of the legs is starved of fresh oxygen and nutrients. And because circulation is also responsible for removing waste, toxins tend to build up there as well. This normally juicy tissue becomes brittle as less and less blood reaches it. And plenty of office workers will tell you that soreness and pain are another common result.

Just standing up and stretching every half hour or forty-five minutes can be a big help. And a longer yoga practice (say at one of my noon-1pm East West Yoga classes) is an excellent way to offset the pain of sitting.

Here are some of the happy-hips postures we’ll practice this week in my classes. You’ll notice that we’re aiming to open the whole structure of the hips, front, back, and on the sides.

Crescent Moon
High lunge
Runner’s Lunge
Half Pigeon – or Double Pigeon for more intensity, or reclined half pigeon for less intensity
Skandasana/ Side lunges
Dancer’s Pose
Floor Bow
Happy baby
Supa Badha Konasana / Reclined bound angle pose
Prone Frog
Hero’s pose, on or off block.

Come practice with me this week- your hips will thank you!


The Body Language of Success: Using your Body to Trick your Brain into Confidence

Maybe you’ve heard of Amy Cuddy. Her social science work on body language is renowned on The Interwebs. In her fascinating TED Talk, Cuddy discusses how, by choosing the body language corresponding to various emotions, we can attract those feelings into our lives. In other words, by shifting how we hold ourselves, we can influence which hormones–and therefore, which feelings–are distributed into the body. I find that notion simply astounding. We really can choose our emotions, just by positioning our bodies the right way.

Cuddy’s TED Talk slideshow features celebrities in powerful postures–arms extended, and always with a broad chest. (As I would say in a yoga class, they have open hearts.) In one montage we see various winners in power poses–Oprah leaning back with her hands behind her head, a winning Olympic runner with arms extended toward the heavens. Another power pose would be the  Superman and Superwoman posture–rock-solid footing with hands on hips. Power postures are open in front, while powerless poses are closed, with a rounded back and often folded arms. Powerless postures are protective, retreating, diminuitive, while power postures are open-hearted, embracing, expansive.

A classic power posture: Triumphant!

Cuddy’s research shows that holding power poses for two minutes can actually change one’s brain and body chemistry. Power poses trigger the brain to increase testosterone and decrease cortisol, bringing feelings of confidence and enthusiasm. Low cortisol and high testosterone is the hormonal profile of strong leaders–the biochemistry for “calm under pressure.” As Cuddy points out, holding a power posture for two minutes before that big meeting can actually improve your performance during negotiations.

The flip side is also true–participants in Cuddy’s experiment who were directed to hold a powerless posture for two minutes performed poorly. Makes you think about how often you sit hunched, doesn’t it?

Chakras & Power Poses

As a yoga teacher, I can’t help see connections between Cuddy’s research and the chakra system in yoga. The chakras are the energetic centers of the body. (See my post on Staying Grounded for more info on how the chakras work.) Each chakra influences its own area of life, from pleasure (second chakra) to communication (second and fifth chakras) to love and connection with others (fourth chakra). And by choosing activities that balance a certain chakra, you can improve the flow of energy throughout your body and bring corresponding balance into your life.

Intro to the Seven Chakras

When I first heard of the chakra system, the idea that certain emotions could be triggered by activating different body parts struck me as absurd. Just by twisting and building a strong core, my teachers said, you could facilitate energy flow at your third chakra. And because this area is associated with ego, self-confidence, strength, and personal imagination, by strengthening the third chakra area of the body, you could increase these qualities in yourself. As a person who had always obsessed with the intellectual side of life, I couldn’t swallow the yoga kool-aid on this concept.

At least initially.

After a chakra pop-quiz during teacher training, my results were lopsidedly obvious: I needed to work on my third chakra. I had low self-confidence. Why not put the yoga philosophy to the test and work on my core? First, I signed up for a boot camp which required me to arrive at 6am daily for high-intensity, high-pace exercises. This taught me the joy of early morning workouts. Next, I trained for a sprint triathlon, relearning how to side breathe for the quarter-mile swim section. Later that year, I did a second picturesque bootcamp, this time outdoors along the Willamette River. And this year, two years into my third chakra focus, I am about to complete my first Olympic-length triathlon.

As the hamster in my own chakra correspondence experiment, I must report that you can indeed strengthen a chakra to form the life you choose. If you had asked me ten years ago if I saw myself a decade in the future completing a triathlon–swimming a mile, biking twenty-five miles, and running six miles, all in a row, and moreover having FUN doing it, I would have laughed in your face. At that time I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, drinking heavily, and thinking extremely negatively about  myself. Today, ten years into my yoga journey, I am more fit, less stressed, and more self-accepting than I have ever been.

Ultimately, the body and the mind are one. Our Western philosophic heritage teaches that the brain is the master, while the body is nothing more than a tool for the intellect. Yoga’s ancient wisdom teaches what scientist like Cuddy are just now appreciating–that we can harness our autonomic nervous systems by integrating the whole self–body, mind and spirit.  A very East meets West moment to be living, this is. I feel blessed to be witnessing it.

What’s the takeaway here? To pay attention to how you’re positioning your body. Just ask yourself throughout the day, What am I doing with my body? What might that communicate to my nervous system and to others? And is this the physical message I want to be sending into the world and into my own brain?

If you find your body tends to slump into a powerless pose (and most of us do after hours in front of a screen), here are some expansive, powerful yoga postures you can use to shift toward a more positive, powerful body chemistry:

Power Postures in Yoga

  • Warrior Poses – Virabhadrasana 1, 2, & 3
  • Half Moon – Chandrasana
  • Wide-Legged Forward Fold – Prasarita Padotanasana
  • High Lunge – Alanasana
  • Triangle Pose – Trikonasana
  • Horse Pose – Vatayanasana

I would also add that Kundalini Yoga advocates practicing postures in which the arms are held overhead to build prana and improve nervous system functioning. More than any other practice I’ve found, Kundalini anticipates and harnesses the science of mind/body union. I practice Kundalini at Mandala Yoga (, in case you’re looking for a local class.


What Keeps You Grounded? The First Chakra, the Lower Body, and Feeling Steady

By Chung Ho Leung on FlickrStand your ground. Stand on your own two feet. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. As I teach yoga for the knees and calves this week, sayings about the lower body have been traipsing through my thoughts. Such idioms reveal thought patterns in our culture–we use them as shorthand for commonly accepted wisdom. And they also align with with yoga has to teach about the energetic map of the body.

Here’s where I dive into that concept that so many Americans associate with the stereotypical hippie-dippie yogi: Chakras. The chakras are energy centers in the body. Prana (energy) tends to either rush too fast through a chakra, or it might get stuck at a chakra. There are seven chakras in most yoga systems. (Some see only 6 chakras, while Kundalini Yoga teaches 10 light bodies/chakras, I believe.) You can envision the chakras as highway interchanges, where traffic jams tend to occur (a deficient/blocked chakra) or where people tend to speed through too fast (an excessive chakra). Each chakra has its own color, mantra, foods, and developmental theme.

The first chakra, also called the root chakra, is associated with the feet, legs, and elimination organs, particularly the colon). Its color is red, its seed mantra is LAM, and I believe its food is protein. One psychological dilemna this chakra poses is scarcity vs. abundance. Do we trust that the universe will provide what we need to reach our highest potential, or do we constantly worry about having enough?

An additional consideration in this chakra is stability–what helps us feel rooted, stable, and at home in the world? As a sensitive person who has battled depression, I have spent the last decade or so (ah ha, about the amount of time I’ve practiced yoga) practicing letting go of habits that make me feel unstable (smoking, heavy drinking, self-criticism) and inviting in people and actions that bring me self-confidence and strength (training for athletic events, smoothies, positive affirmations). These are the ingredients I need to stay centered, and to have the energy to pursue my dreams.

And so as I teach toward the legs, the roots of the body, I ask you to consider what acts as a strong foundation in your life. Here are my personal practices for feeling grounded:
1) Cardio. Swimming, running, biking, etc. Right now I am training for a triathlon, so I am definitely getting my daily cardio quotient.
2) Sadhana. Sadhana is a personal spiritual practice. For me it often includes yoga, meditation, self-massage, and affirmations.
3) Food. This seems like a big “duh!”–obviously every human needs food. But you can ask my family & friends, I get really hangry without consistent food. I am like a hummingbird (or a cow)–I need to munch almost constantly to feel good.
4) Writing time. This is the newest item on the list, and the most exciting for me. I am committing to a daily creative writing practice.

What do you need to feel steady in this world? Let the answers come to you this week, as you’re washing dishes, driving, or taking a shower–times when your mind is relaxed and uncritical. Then find ways to include these foundational first chakra boosters in your week, and do them every day if you can. It’s not always possible to hit all four of my foundational practices every day. But I do aim toward that goal, knowing that when I give myself what I need for stability, I have more peace and joy to give to others.

<photo: Chung Ho Leung>



Knee Self-Massage techniques, and Why I Practice Self-Massage

As I promised my lunchtime West Side Athletic Class, here’s the video on how to do self-massage for the knees. If the video is too slow, it may work better to watch it directly on YouTube. I’ve been practicing yoga for about eight years now, and the longer that I do it, the more I find myself adding self-massage to my self-care routine. I am also an athlete (right now I’m training for a triathlon!) and I find that massage is an excellent add-on to my yoga practice. I especially like incorporating self-massage into my evening practice of meditation and yoga. As someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety, and periods of self-loathing, I appreciate how massage can help me feel more aware of, connected to, and kind toward my body.

Knee Alignment: Tips for Yoga (& for Life!)

Anatomy of the kneeIt’s week two of my Yoga from Head to Toe series, and I’ve realized I’m actually working from toe to head. I’m sticking with the title. But that automatic ordering does say something about how our culture thinks about the body.

Language corrals thought in many different ways. Consider that some languages (such as Vietnamese) don’t have a subjunctive. Speakers of both Vietnamese and English say this affects how people think, with Vietnamese speakers spending far less time worrying about the future.

Well, our language has many idioms for the body. Consider “Putting your best foot forward” and “Get your foot in the door.” And we do use that phrase “From head to toe,” to express totality. Why not from toe to head? Maybe it’s because we tend to identify far more with the head–we see the brain as our real identity, and the rest of the body as a vehicle for toting the brain around.

Anyway, that’s a digression for a different post. Today I’m setting up this week’s classes with a few thoughts on knee alignment. Following these tips can keep your knees safe in a yoga class, and in other physical activities.

Portland Yoga Teacher’s Knee Alignment Tips

1. Activate the Muscles Around the Knee. By lifting the arch of the foot (as I suggested last week) you can turn on the muscles of the leg. Activating the muscles around a joint keeps that joint safer. Muscular engagement is like a safety belt for the joint.

2. Align the Knee with Surrounding Joints. Knee injuries often occur when the feet or hips are doing something completely different than the knees. The knee joints bend in one direction–forward and back. They are not designed to withstand lateral pressure. Lining your knee up with the surrounding joints–the foot and the hip–can help provide protection in postures.

The classic example is in horse pose. This is an excellent posture for building strength in the legs. It’s a wide squat. A crucial cue in this pose is to direct students to check that their toes are pointing the same direction as their knees. I like to tell my students to make “karate chop” hands and place the pinkie’s edge along the middle of the lower thigh/knee. This is a good visual trick for checking that the knees are pointing the same way as the toes.

Most people are able to turn their toes out wider than their knees, and in horse pose they may assume that it’s better to do so. If you’re a ballet dancer, that’s true. Many ballet postures require the dancer to turn the toes way out to the side, out of alignment with the knee. But think about the average career of a ballet dancer– they tend to retire in their early thirties, as their joints just can’t take more intense professional dancing. If you want your knees to last, it’s best to align the knees with your toes.

3. Include Knee Compression in your Practice. Compression is healthy because it keeps connective tissue pliable, and because it flushes out toxins.  When you hold a knee compressing pose such as hero’s pose, fluids build up at the point of compression. Then, when you release the posture, fresh fluids flood into the area, and toxins are whisked away. Eagle pose has the same result.

I will be teaching these points in my classes this week, I hope you can join me!

<top photo: National Library of Medicine>


Yoga Poses For Feet & Ankles

This week I’m focusing on the foundation of the body, the feet and toes. In my Portland area yoga classes I’m zooming in on the postures and techniques that work this part of the body. In today’s post I’m listing postures that use the feet and ankles.

Standing Yoga Postures.
This is a no-brainer. Whenever we stand we must use our feet and ankles for support. This became true about four million years ago, when our ancestors evolved to an upright position. Earlier, the foot had been used mainly for grasping–consider the crazy antics of monkeys swinging from limb to limb. They needed feet that could support their weight in a dangling position. Four million years ago, hominids transitioned to an upright shape, and foot/ankle anatomy adjusted to support the weight of the body. Additionally, the toes became shorter (no need to grasp anymore), the big toe went in line with the rest of the toes (no need for an opposable hallux anymore) and flat feet evolved to have an arch.

Because of these evolutionary changes in anatomy, we are uniquely well positioned for balancing on the bottom of our feet. In standing yoga postures, we can lift the arches to activate muscles in the legs, adding stability. We can also focus on pressing into the corners of the feet. Here’s a smattering of standing postures that require strong, balanced feet:
Warrior 2
Warrior 1
High Lunge
Humble Warrior
Reverse Warrior
Extended Side Angle
…basically any time we’re standing up in yoga, your feet are key to overall alignment and strength in the pose.

Balancing Yoga Postures.
When we balance on one foot, we fluctuate between the different corners of the feet. To see what I mean, try this: Stand up and put your big toes together with a slice of space between your heels. Close your eyes and get as long in the spine as possible. You can have your hands at the heart or the hips. With eyes still closed, lean forward, keeping the spine long. Lean back. Lean side to side. Try making circles with the entire straight body, like a push pin spiraling at the head. See how your feet can support you in all those different balancing variations? During a balancing yoga pose, your feet are doing the same thing–riding the wave between the front of the foot and the back of the foot, as well as the inner and outer edges of the feet.

When we hold a balancing pose, our feet have the chance to strengthen by responding to this continuous shift in weight distribution. Again, lifting the arches of the feet will help the yogi stay grounded in balancing postures. All feet-down balancing poses will strengthen the feet and ankles.  Here’s a handful of example balancing postures:
Tree pose
Half Moon
Toppling tree
Bikram’s chair series (with the heels lifted)
Toe Stand (especially strengthening for ankles; also stretches the bottom of the feet)

As you can see, the feet are star players in almost every yoga pose. And their health is key for our continuing mobility and grace as well. With strong, flexible feet, it’s much easier to withstand the concrete jungles we now trod.

Yoga Pose to Relax Feet and Ankles.
The arches in our feet make it possible for us to walk around upright all day. They absorb the shock of pounding our feet into the ground over and over again. All that pressure requires plenty of time for healing as well. Fortunately, yoga offers an excellent shape for revitalizing the feet and ankles: legs up the wall pose, which involves lying down on your back at a wall, with the legs extending up the face of the wall.

During the day, as we walk and sit for hours, gravity pulls fluids down into the feet. You may notice some swelling in the lower extremities, especially on hot days like we’ve been having recently. Legs up the wall pose counterbalances this tendency by turning everything upside down. In this shape, the legs are the highest point on the body. This gives the veins in the legs a mini-vacation, as they get to fight gravity in the opposite direction. Excess fluids drain down the legs, and plenty of extra blood reaches the brain and heart, which is very calming for the overall system. If there’s one yoga pose I wish I could teach the whole world, this would be it. It’s one of the most calming, stress-busting poses there is. I imagine a world where you might walk in on your CEO in this pose, where office workers are encouraged to take a 2-min legs up the wall breaks every hour or so.

Given how much your feet and ankles do for us, it makes sense to treat them with loving kindness, with legs up the wall pose, plenty of foot massages, and lots of chances to roll out the ankles and stretch the toes.