From the ground up
Establishing a firm base through the feet and legs and up into the pelvis allows our spine to be light, relaxed and free. When the feet and legs are weak, unstable or poorly integrated then our spine become tense and overworked – it supports rather than being supported. Standing poses should be practised daily and form the core of a beginner’s practice. These poses take the body gently through almost all of the possible ranges of movements – forward, backward, side bending, twisting. When practiced correctly standing poses help to release tightness and constriction in the feet often bought about by the constant wearing of footwear.
Standing poses teach us to stand firmly on our own two feet. They invigorate, heat and strengthen the body helping to increase stamina and circulation. These poses help build strength and develop integrity in the ligaments, tendons and musculature of the feet, ankles and legs. In addition, standing poses help strengthen and improve flexibility the hips (hip openers) which is why they often make up a significant proportion of a Hatha yoga class especially in the Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga traditions. They are always taught before seated poses, back bends or inversions.
The structure of the foot
Let’s look at the structure of the feet as our feet provide a blueprint for the whole body.
There are thirty joints in the foot and a multitude of muscles that make micro adjustments to help you stand and walk. The sole of the foot is made up a 1.5cm pad and this means that support comes not only from the long guy wires tendons from the shin but also from the pad of muscles and tendons on the sole of the foot. There is a fan shaped group of muscles/fascia on the sole of the foot (see image below) and these actively work with the Achilles tendon like a robust sling creating arches and bridges to keep the body upright and stable. In a healthy foot there is span, height and spring in these arches and bridges.
Unfortunately, due to our lifestyle it is all too common for these supports or beams to sag and collapse. This is often bought about poor fitting or inappropriate shoes, lack of foot activity that is too much sitting down and not enough time spent walking barefoot. The legs mirror everything your feet do. for example, in yoga rigidity in the Achilles tendon/plantar fascia sling prevents a person from reaching their heels to the floor in down dog or a low squat. In daily life, a collapsed foot has reduced resilience and spring causing compaction and compression not just in the foot but the ankles and knees. Laxity in feet can result in a person collapsing into the inside (fallen arch) or outside of their foot. People also stand with their weight on their heels or their weight predominantly in the toes. None of these are healthy or natural ways of standing. All of these actions not only create imbalance in yoga poses but also in daily life having implications for misalignment and distortion further up the body – knee, hips, lower back and so on.
It is through yoga poses like samastithi, thunderbolt and the standing poses we can develop an idea of our patterns/habits and take the time to practice and address these areas in our practice. In standing poses it is important to press down through the four corners of the feet – the ball of the big toe, the ball of the little toe, the inside and the outside of the heel (essentially centreing the heel which is why you hear some yoga teachers refer to a tripod – big toe, little toe, centre of the heel for grounding the foot down). The question to ask yourself is which part of the heel anchors the foot to the earth – inner, outer or centre and then work to ensure that they all work equally to ensure the energy line up through the body is tracking correctly. This way we can ascertain when we are collapsing or overworking and adjust the pressing down rebound action in the foot.
The often forgotten toes also play a role in assisting with building a solid foundation. Ideally the toes should be spread so you can press down through all ten toes evenly without gripping or clenching.
One way of looking at the foot is that you are trying to lengthen it – like your toes are turtle heads stretching out from their shells. And that you are trying to make your foot wider through really grounding those four points of contact so you can ‘pump’ up your arches. The pressing down action through the toes and heel gives a rebound effect creating buoyancy and activates muscles up through the entire leg into the pelvis. Activating the multiple ligaments, tendons, bones and muscles in the entire foot with the help of the lower legs muscles is crucial in all poses – standing, forward bends, back bends and seated poses. And we can also see how the regular practice of yoga can retrain our feet to provide us with support from the ground up for daily life.
When we free up our feet, we tap into a reservoir of potential earth energy. Freedom in the feet unlock wellsprings of life force that we have been standing on for years and blocking through inappropriate footwear, lack of use, and inhibition. We may need to do a fair amount of work to break through the calcification that can form in impacted connective tissues in our feet, but this work will pay off eventually by uncovering sources of energy to keep us vital and fluid through the years to come.
All four corners of the feet on the mat earth people.