In the yoga tradition, the lowly foot paradoxically has an almost transcendent status. Students touch or kiss the feet of beloved teachers as an act of reverence. Similarly, the first phrase of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga invocation, vande gurunam charanaravinde (“I honor the lotus-flower feet of all the gurus”), acknowledges that yoga teachings have stepped down through time on the feet of the learned ones.
This veneration of the foot reflects its importance as the foundation of the temple of the body. Just as the foundation of a temple must be level to support all the structures above, so the feet must be balanced and sturdy to support the legs, spine, arms, and head. If our base is tilted or collapsed, it will be reflected up through the body as distortion or misalignment. As Ida Rolf, the renowned bodyworker and founder of Structural Integration (aka Rolfing), pointed out, “A man’s tracks tell quite a true story. They inform quietly about ankles and knees, but they shout the news about hips and pelvis. If one foot is consistently everted [tilted onto its inner edge], the ankle, the knee, or, perhaps more likely, the entire pelvic basin is rotated.”
Look at the soles of your shoes. Does the inside or the outside of your heel wear down? If there is excessive wear on one side, the foot is shifted off its central axis, likely putting strain on the knee, hip, or lower back. When students consult with me about knee or sacroiliac pain, I often look to their feet for the origins of the distortion.
The balanced wheel as a metaphor for proper posture and pleasant experience dates back to ancient Sanskrit. In the Yoga Sutra, one of the two qualities Patanjali directs practitioners to develop in asana is sukha. Usually translated as “ease,” the word literally means “good space” and once referred to the hub of a chariot wheel that was perfectly tuned and rolled smoothly. Duhkha(“bad space” and, by extension, “suffering”) is when the wheel hub is lopsided and the wheel has a hitch each time it turns. In hatha yoga, when the body is light and spacious, there is sukha; when the body is distorted and hurting, there is duhkha. I often encourage students to “pump up” the arches of their feet, creating inner arches that have “good space” between the bones and the floor.
In hatha yoga, standing poses are the primary tools for building this “good space” and stability in the feet, thereby energizing the legs to support proper posture. So it’s no surprise that the best known approaches to hatha yoga—including Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and Bikram Yoga—use standing poses as their starting place. Standing with equilibrium is the first posture in all these systems. Whether it’s referred to as Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or Samastithi (Equal Standing), this pose is the foundation for all the postures because the neutral standing position teaches us to be fully upright, connected to the ground yet reaching out and up toward the sky.
The ease of our upright posture is determined mainly by alignment of the feet and, more specifically, by “equal standing” through the inner and outer side of each ankle joint. In people who have fallen arches or, as they are commonly called, flat feet, the lack of arch support causes the inner ankle bone (the base of the tibia) to collapse in and down. Once the inner ankle drops, the inner groin at the top of the inner leg often also collapses. In turn, the weakness of the inner thighs leaves the lower back vulnerable to compression.
Commonly, the back body holds much of the charge of our personal history; literally, we store past stress and anxiety behind us. Falsely assuming that what is out of sight is out of mind, we end up with a back body full of tension: tight, unresponsive lower calves, hamstrings, lower back, shoulder blade area, and neck.
A forward bend like Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Standing Forward Bend) elongates and gradually breaks apart the accumulated tension in the back body, making available an abundance of previously “shorted-out” energy. If the sole of the foot is elastic and open in forward bends like this one, it can initiate a free flow of energy up the back of the legs, down the spine,
In fact, though we may seldom think of them in this way, the soles of the feet are the beginning of the back of the body.
For students familiar with Mula Bandha (Root Lock), I suggest they think of the lift of the arch as a “Pada Bandha” (pada means “foot” in Sanskrit). Although bandha is usually translated as “lock,” it also implies a “binding” or “harness” that can be used to draw energy upward.
In general, once you cultivate mobility and support in your foot—that is, once Pada Bandha is active—you engage the foot this way throughout almost all postures. In forward bends, twists, and backbends—even in inversions when the feet are both extending into space—you sustain the same lifting action to pull life force in through the feet. Without Pada Bandha, the thighs, hips, and low back lose the intelligence they need to stay active.
As Pada Bandha supports elevation in the ankles, knees, and inner groins, it also supports the lift of the pelvic floor known as Mula Bandha. Although the first chakra of the torso, located at the perineum in the pelvic floor, is traditionally called Muladhara (Root) Chakra, our feet provide even deeper stabilizing root support for the upward moving trunks of our legs. In a sense, we have two root supports, one located in the center of each foot, like a healthy tree in which the root system bifurcates as it descends.
I often teach that the soles of the feet and the pelvic floor mirror each other. Elasticity and postural tone in the feet help determine tone in the pelvic floor. Especially as we age and the weight of the internal organs draws them down inside the abdominal compartment, building good tone and lift in the feet helps tone the perineal muscles and prevent gravity from getting the best of us.
Spread the Joy
Finally, a word about your toes: It’s never too late to learn to spread them. You have muscles in your feet that are designed to spread your toes just as the muscles in your hands spread your fingers. If your toes stay glued together no matter how much you try to spread them, the muscles are probably atrophied from lack of use, and the toes themselves may have lost flexibility.
If you’ve managed to read this far with your shoes on, take them off. Sitting in any way you find comfortable, put the palm of your right hand onto the sole of your left foot. Insert your fingers between the toes. (The ends of the fingers are narrower and will give a gentler stretch than the bases of the fingers.) Bending your fingers onto the tops of your feet, gently squeeze your foot as if it were a sponge, then squeeze your fingers with your toes in the same way. Repeat for a minute or two, then remove your fingers and try spreading your toes again.
Have patience, even if you don’t notice a big difference immediately. Over time, this exercise will begin to wake up your toes.