Taking care of the foundations
Yoga and Health magazine October 2007
The feet are the foundation of our yoga practice. Their connection with the earth creates stability and transfers energy. An awareness of the importance of these roots, and how balance is initiated through the feet, will help to develop a sensitivity
of the connections between the body and the elements. We are all aware of the benefits to the mind when the body is in balance. The sense of stillness, awareness and peace...The mind and body work in harmony to develop the skills of balance and control. Now science has caught up with what we have been feeling during our practice – the benefits of an occasional wobble!
Walking on horizontal paths and society’s increasing determination to eliminate any bumps and steps is having a detrimental affect on our bodies.The increase in back problems, varicose veins and numerous other physical problems both minor and life threatening, are the result of lack of use of our bodies. Take away the challenges and the body ceases to respond leading to the inability to respond and ultimately disability.
Of course yoga is the perfect way to restore strength, vitality and balance to the body. Other inventions are now being introduced to replace the cobbles and pathways that have been removed as councils and other authorities try to smooth the way.
The body is uniquely designed to cope with the earth’s challenging terrain. The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints and muscles, tendons and ligaments all designed to move and adjust depending on the terrain. Take away the bumps and gradients and
forces are concentrated in just a few areas compromising muscle strength in other areas of the body and compromising blood circulation.
High blood pressure, deep vein thrombosis and other structural problems have been related to a lack of challenge to our balance.
Add to this the sad fact that a lack of movement to these complicated joints will lead to the joints losing their ability to adapt to different terrains and you can see how environment impacts on our bodies ability to function.
Recent innovations such as boards that wobble, cobbled walkways and ‘barefoot parks’which aim to stimulate reflexes and improve health, are doing a good trade in cities which have been smoothed and flattened. Masai Barefoot Technology is responsible for producing a shoe that ‘wobbles’ aiming at stimulating reflexes and causing a rocking motion when the foot is still. This causes slight movement in the ankles and wearers report improved posture and stability throughout the system.
Research on the over 60s has shown that a 16 week programme walking on a mat designed to replica an uneven surface, produced reports of increased mobility and balance and even a reduction in blood pressure.
Of course, reflexology has advocated the benefits of stimulating points on the foot and the corresponding reactions within the body for generations, so it is rewarding to see that science is now proving that this ancient wisdom is relevant in this day and age.
Yoga will help restore strength and mobility to these areas. Any pose that requires an element of balance will require the ankle to make fine adjustments to maintain the position. Poses such as tadasana (mountain pose) require an awareness of all parts of the foot and their relationship with the rest of the body. The feeling of calm that these poses develop also influences the mind – it is almost impossible for the mind to wander whilst retaining a balance.
The belief that the feet are the foundation of any pose creates an awareness of the connections within the body. By developing an awareness and creating sensitivity within the feet and ankles we are able to develop structural integrity and an awareness of the influence and connectedness within the body.By including balances in our regular practice we gradually create connections between the mind and the body. These connections are often lost as we age and can lead to falls and stumbles in later years.
The following asanas will help strengthen the feet and ankles and develop sensitivity within the body.
Pashimattanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Sitting with the back and chest lifted and the abdomen engaged, place the hands on the floor to help maintain the lift.
Engage the sitting bones and lengthen through the legs ensuring that the knees are facing the ceiling and stretching along the inner leg towards the heels. Spend a few moments observing the feet and creating an awareness of the relationship between the
inside and outside of the foot. Draw the arch of the foot upwards and then stretch into the heels whilst
attempting to keep the toes lengthened and energised.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Observe the position of the feet and make any adjustments so that the feet are aligned. Feel the connection between the floor and the inside and outside of each foot. Lift the toes and attempt to broaden the foot, lengthen and separate the toes. Ensure that the knees are facing forward and ‘plant’ the foot into the floor, whilst lifting the hips and lengthening the legs. Be aware of the weight of the body evenly balanced between the front and the back of the foot and the left and the right leg. Emphasise this feeling of balance by slightly swaying to side to sideuntil the body rests in the centre. Then slowly come forward onto the toes, then slowly back onto the heels to experience the balance between the front and back of the foot and strengthen the ankles.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior)
To increase an awareness of balance and develop confidence in this pose, work into the full pose slowly, concentrating on feeling the connection within the feet. Start by placing the feet approximately one metre apart with the hips and chest in line. Raise the arms so that there is a diagonal line between the feet and the uplifted arms. Transfer the weight onto the front foot and lift the back foot. Concentrate on the feeling of connection throughout the body and the connection between the floor and the foot. Be aware of the adjustments within the body as it retains balance. Repeat on the other leg. Gradually work towards the full position as the legs gain in strength.
Prasaritta Padottanasana (Extended leg fold)
The balance and relationship within and between each foot may change when the legs are apart. Starting from tadasana, step the feet apart and in this open standing position look at the position of the feet and legs. Use the mat to check that the feet are parallel and then check that the weight of the body is evenly balanced between both feet. Plant the feet into the mat and lengthen the outside of the legs ensuring that the knees are facing forward. Before moving into the full position take a few moments to be aware of the connection within the feet. Be aware of the transfer of the body’s weight as the body moves forward. Maintain balance by keeping the connection with the heels and feel the stability in the legs and lower body. Place the hands on the hips
as you reach forward before placing hands on blocks or reaching towards the ankles.
Some Common Problems
The majority of foot problems are the result of deformity from ill fitting shoes or accident. This may affect the ability to balance and sufferers may find benefit from using a support or standing next to a wall.
Most people have experienced the pain and discomfort of cramping. Cramping may be experienced during practise and some people are particularly prone to bouts of cramp during sleep.There are a number of theories about what causes cramp but no
definitive answer. Some students have found that by creating better connections within the foot and stimulating circulation they experience some improvement. If cramp occurs during practice, massaging the affected area or gentle movement often helps recovery. Asana such salabhasana (locust) can cause cramping if the toes are tightly pointed. This can be avoided by taking some time to warm up the feet and concentrating on lengthening the inner leg into the heel.
This is a painful condition where the delicate tissue that covers the underside of the foot and connects to the bottom is disconnected causing pain in the foot and the heel. Any bending or twisting can cause pain and sufferers report pain during
the night caused by involuntary movements during sleep. Conventional treatment includes the use of night splint to
stabilise the foot and advise to keep the foot as still as possible. Suffferers are advised to keep the calf muscle stretched but try to avoid excessive movement in the foot.The condition usually clears within a few months but can persist
in some cases.Yoga postures need to be adjusted so that the sufferer can keep
the foot as still as possible. Most seated positions when practised sensitively can be accomplished, and the use of props may help in positions such as Downward Dog. Sufferers should be encouraged to concentrate on lengthening the hamstrings and strengthening the ankles whilst restricting rotation and movement in the foot until the condition improves.