“The ability to stretch our toes like fingers and to create a wide, healthy, open space between each and every toe is not some vestigial ability available only to a chosen few.”-Mary Dunn, quoted in Yoga for People Over 50
Toe Exercises – Start Your Practice
Students often laugh in disbelief when I ask them to do these Toe Exercises, since many of us have really lost a lot of coordination in our toes. By creating space, strength, and flexibility in our toes, we are both widening our base for increased stability and using the whole of our foot for better agility. Try it by watching the video above, or following these guidelines:
- Take off your shoes.
- Pick all your toes up off the ground and spread them as widely as you can. Is there space between each toe? You can practice creating space between the toes in any yoga pose. While you’re off the mat, you can intertwine your fingers between your toes and manually create space.
- Now, try pressing just your big toe into the earth, and lift up all the little toes. If the big toes want lift up too, manually override that by using your fingers to keep the toes down.
- Now try pressing all the little toes into the earth, and lift up the big toes. Again, if your toes are not cooperative, use a manual assist with your fingers.
- Go back and forth between lifting just the big toes, and just the little toes. Keep practicing every day and notice the difference!
- Advanced Toe Exercise – try pressing the big toes down and the little toe, and lifting all the toes in between!
- Finish up by bringing as much space between your toes as you can.
Got Foot Problems?
By age 40, about 80 percent of the population has some muscular-skeletal foot or ankle problem. By age 50 to 55, that number can go up to 90 or 95 percent. Walking and yoga may help reverse foot problems. According to Suza Francina, author of The New Yoga for People over 50, “the combination of walking and yoga is the supreme way to rehabilitate your feet.” She recommends walking barefoot as often as possible, as well as doing various toe stretches like the ones in our video above that encourage opening space up between the toes where we have lost dexterity due to the confinement of wearing shoes. In addition, many poses done in a regular yoga practice stretch and strengthen the feet and legs too, and experts say they can provide benefit beyond treating common foot problems like plantar fasciatis, fallen arches, bunions, and many more.
“I recommend that all my patients start yoga immediately. When you treat foot problems with yoga, you end up treating back pain, hip pain, all kinds of structural problems. Not only does it stretch out the muscles and lead to a greater range of motion, but it helps heal the root issue of inflammation as well.”Robert Kornfeld, holistic podiatrist
The anatomy of your foot is a marvel, a miracle. Da Vinci called the human foot a “masterpiece of engineering and work of art.” With 200,000 nerve endings, 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 muscles, and 107 ligaments in each foot, we mere mortals are able to execute highly precise movements.
“The sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings in it, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in the body. Our feet are designed to act as earthward antennae, helping us balance and transmitting information to us about the ground we’re walking on.”-Adam Sternberg, New York Magazine article “You Walk Wrong”
Mountain Pose – The Foundation
The feet are our foundations, our basic connection to the ground upon which we stand. When we “root down” during various yoga postures such as Mountain Pose, it is an invitation to bring awareness to your feet first, and then legs. Walking upright, we need to feel the ground in order to feel balanced. With every step we take, healthy feet allow us to move with confidence throughout the diverse terrain of our daily lives.
You can do this pose anywhere. I prefer to practice it on a yoga mat with bare feet, but try Mountain Pose while standing in line at the grocery store or talking to a friend. Stable, alert, and upright, this foundational pose begins with a sharp awareness of our feet. Start with your feet and work your way up the body.
Enhance Your Balance – Calf Raises Exercise
- Bringing movement into our Mountain Pose, we rise up onto our tip toes, and rock back onto our heels.
- Whether you incorporate simple arm movement, or hold onto a chair for this simple exercise, you may start to feel the structure of the foot more acutely.
- Notice where you place most of your weight as you rise up – is it on the inside edges of the feet, where there is more structural support, or on the outside edges? Can you rise up and hold for a beat?
- Try connecting your breath – inhale as you lift, exhale as you ground down – and relax into any micro-movements that show up in order to find the edge of your balance.
- Doing this easy exercise every day, I have developed strength in both my feet and lower limbs, and brought a newfound awareness to my feet that has greatly enhanced my balance.
Try Tree Pose
Tree Pose (Vrkasana) is one of our favorites poses, so we were thrilled to learn that Tree Pose may help slow advancement of a common foot problem – bunions. According to Robert Kornfeld, “Yoga can’t reverse bunions that have already formed—only surgery can—but practicing certain poses can slow their advancement.” He recommends practicing balancing poses like Tree pose in which the foot with the bunion is grounded and the other foot is lifted (of course we have to do both sides if we’re practicing any standing pose!) He says this will engage and strengthen the peroneal muscle of the standing leg that runs all along the outside of the lower leg, and tucks under the sole of the foot. That “grounding force” can help override instabilities that make the bunion worse. And Tree Pose can have many other benefits too, such as improving overall balance and focus. Check out our video:
Going Barefoot – for Optimal “Grounding”
“The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections.”– Walt Whitman
One study concluded that prior to the invention of shoes, people may have had healthier feet. I like to joke that one of the reasons I became a yoga teacher was so that I could go barefoot. In truth, I do need all the grounding I can get, and feeling my naked feet touch the earth provides me just that. According to one of my favorite books on the Chakras, much like a lightning rod protects a building by sending excess voltages into the earth, grounding protects our bodies from becoming overloaded by the tensions of everyday life. So, take off your shoes, root down, and practice as much Yoga for Your Feet as you desire. I’ll leave you with this poem I penned on the feet:
Ode to My Feet
Hello feet! I haven’t paid you much heed
And yet there you are, my two trusty steeds
Bearing my weight day in and day out
In today’s class, I’d like to give you a shout out.
Each foot contains 26 bones,
And has not one but three arches! I learned through my Iphone.
The 107 ligaments spread throughout its base
Allow us to balance, to spring and to pace.
Such precision required to move through our days
Is often ignored until there is pain
Whether bunions, arthritis, or gout, we may know
That an injury in the metatarsals is likely to grow.
Without proper care, the offset is dire
And can travel to knees, backs, and hips like wild-fire.
If your arches have fallen, walk barefoot they say
And try grabbing things with your toes – start today!
Build strength in your feet and your ankles with cues
To distribute weight evenly - stability rules!
The foot is a marvel with its myriad bones
Each doing its job to carry us home.
So appreciate yours, take good care and be smart,
Like Da Vinci who pronounced them “a work of art.”
- Try picking things up with your toes
- Distribute your weight evenly as you walk or in any yoga pose
- Go to the doctor if you notice new pain in your ankles or feet
Foot Anatomy, MedicineNet
Wheels of Life, Anodea Judith, PhD
The New Yoga for People Over 50, Suza Francina
Yoga Poses for Bunions, Ask the Experts, Robert Kornfield, DPM – Yoga Journal October 2015