During one of my very first yoga classes, I noticed something interesting about my teacher. Her toes spread apart like a spider monkey, and her feet seemed like powerful weapons (peaceful ones of course). She probably could have picked up a yoga bolster, and threw it across the room using only her toes. I was enthralled. Not knowing much about yoga, I wondered if she was born part spider monkey or if her yoga practice was the source of her foot-y power.
Looking at my own feet, I was unimpressed. I couldn’t really spread my toes that far apart. Years of stuffing them in high heels had literally squished them together; essentially mis-aligning the bones in my feet, and causing key muscles to weaken and/or tighten. They were still cute on the outside, but on the inside they weren’t in the best shape. Not only was I setting myself up for issues such as hammer toes, plantar fasciitis, and bunions, but I was also creating the perfect conditions for future injuries in my knees, hips, low back, and beyond. Why? Because our feet serve as the foundation for our entire body. When they are in bad shape, the rest of your body is at risk.
One clear indication of my whacked-out feet was when I gave myself a pedicure. You know those foam toe separators? I couldn’t handle them for very long. My toes ached from being spread apart after only a few minutes of wearing them. Of course at the time, I had no idea this was a bad sign.
As I threw myself into a regular yoga practice, my body and mind began to change in many ways. I gained flexibility, strength, and I was able to sit still longer than I ever could before. Needless to say, I was pleased and proud. One day, I decided to give myself a pedicure. I grabbed my foam toe separators and went to town. A half hour later, I realized I had forgotten that the foam separators were between my little piggies. In fact, not only had I completely forgotten they were there, but they actually felt GOOD. What the heck happened to my feet?! Then, I finally figured it out. A regular yoga practice had essentially realigned the bones in my feet and strengthened key foot-supporting muscles. They were flexible and strong. The change was gradual and subtle, but when I finally noticed, it hit me like a ton of yoga bricks.
As time went on, I began to add self-massage to my foot-care (and body care) routine. I found even more foot-bliss than I ever thought possible. The soft tissues of my feet became more pliable, which allowed for safer and more effective stretching and strengthening. Basically, the combination of the three (stretching, strengthening, and softening) got my feet into the best shape ever. And you know what? That set me up for success in the rest of my body.
So what are some of the things that I do on my mat that keep my feet in tip top shape? Here are some of my secrets…
The first step in my foot care routine is almost always self-massage. Why? Because it not only feels amazing, but it’s also super beneficial for the feet. It makes the soft tissues of the foot more pliable, leaving them relaxed and renewed. It also readies your foot for deep stretching and strengthening. Have you ever suffered from plantar fasciitis? If so, self-massaging your feet can play a huge part in not only resolving this issue, but preventing it from ever happening again. Do you wake up with foot cramps in the middle of the night? Well, take a few moments to self-massage before bed and dramatically lessen the chances of your sleep being disrupted.
HOW TO: I’m using a Yoga Tune Up™ Therapy Ball in the picture above, which is my preferred method of self-massage. However, you can also use a tennis ball to get the job done. Carefully massage every nook and cranny of your foot with the ball. Spread your toes over it, press the inner and outer arches of your foot into it, and smash your heel into it. If you are currently suffering from plantar fasciitis, please massage lightly and roll the ball from the front of the foot to the back. And of course, if you haven’t seen a healthcare professional yet, do so!
I love incorporating deep foot stretches into my yoga classes. Very often, my students have a tough time with them. Perhaps it’s because we get so consumed with stretching the other parts of our body that our feet get the shaft.
Pictured below is a variation of a yoga pose called vajrasana. This is a deep foot stretch that stretches the muscles that are responsible for plantar flexing (pointing) the foot. It also stretches the plantar fascia, which is the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes, and supports the arch of your foot.
HOW TO: Kneel down on the floor and pad your knees with a blanket or towel. Lean forward and tuck your toes underneath you. If you already feel a deep stretch, remain leaning forward with your hands on the floor. If you’d like to take the stretch deeper, begin to lean back; putting weight on your heels (pictured above). Wherever you are, work on hugging your ankles towards one another (they will want to splay apart). Stay here for 5-10 breathes. Once you are done, carefully release your toes.
Another beneficial foot stretch is pictured below. This one stretches the muscles that dorsi flex (opposite of pointing) your foot, and extend your toes (picture your toes lifting off of the ground).
HOW TO: Stand up straight with your feet parallel. If you have difficulty balancing on one foot, find a wall or chair to use for support. Carefully point one foot, and bring it slightly behind the other. Begin to press your toenails into the floor as you press the top of your ankle forward. If you foot begins to cramp, release the stretch, do some more self-massage, and try again. The previous stretch (vajrasana) will also help to relieve the cramp. As you do this foot routine more regularly, the foot cramping will likely cease.
Now that you’ve softened and stretched your foot, it’s time for some targeted strengthening. There are many ways to strengthen the feet. You can point and flex your feet, and roll your feet at the ankles in a repetitive motion. The technique pictured below is one that you might be less aware of. Basically, you are inverting and everting the foot. This helps to strengthen the muscles that create these actions. Ever sprained or strained your ankle? If so, this might help you prevent that injury from occurring again, which is very common.
HOW TO: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, propping your hips up on a blanket if your low back is rounded. You can also do this sitting on a chair. Lift the inner edges of your feet towards your knees to invert them. Then, do the opposite action by lifting the outer edges of your feet towards your knees. Keep inverting and everting your feet for 15-20 times.
The next technique is great way to create more space between your beautiful toes. If you have a lot of restrictions in your feet, or a foot injury, please proceed with caution or skip altogether.
HOW TO: Find a comfortable seat on the floor or a chair. Spread your toes apart, and then begin to insert the fingers of your opposite hand in between your toes. Start at the tip of the finger and see how far your toes can travel down your fingers. From there, slowly pull your fingers out by raking them towards the tips of the toes. Remember, go easy and slowly. If you can’t get your fingers all the way between your toes, just start with the tips of the fingers. This might be difficult at first, but over time it will get easier and you will make more room between you toes!
Remember, when you take care of your feet, you are taking care of your whole body. Thanks for reading and good luck with your amazing feet!