Yoga for Your Feet

“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:

  1. Take off your shoes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Go back and forth between lifting just the big toes, and just the little toes. Keep practicing every day and notice the difference!
  6. Advanced Toe Exercise – try pressing the big toes down and the little toe, and lifting all the toes in between!
  7. 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

  1. Bringing movement into our Mountain Pose, we rise up onto our tip toes, and rock back onto our heels.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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 can be practiced using the support of a chair!

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”

Image from Wheels of Life

“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.”

More Tips:

  • 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

Resources:

4 Yoga Poses to Fine Tune Foot Stability and Prevent Injury, Yoga Journal

You Walk Wrong, NY Magazine

Shod versus unshod: The emergence of forefoot pathology in modern humans?, Science Direct

Foot Anatomy, MedicineNet

Wheels of Life, Anodea Judith, PhD

The New Yoga for People Over 50, Suza Francina

Anatomy 101: Strengthen Your Big Toes to Build Stability, Yoga Journal

Yoga Poses for Bunions, Ask the Experts, Robert Kornfield, DPM – Yoga Journal October 2015

Yoga for Stronger Bones

Yoga practiced on a regular basis could help strengthen your bones! Certain poses including Warrior II, Triangle, and Tree are considered weight-bearing exercise, often recommended along with a healthy diet for optimal bone health.

“Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does. By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.”

-Dr. Loren Fishman, author of study “Twelve-Minute Daily Yoga Regimen Reverses Osteoporotic Bone Loss

Recently, I’ve had several students approach me after yoga class to talk about their bones. “I just got the results from my most recent DEXA scan, and there’s been an improvement in my bone mineral density score in my spine!” says one 73-year old student who started practicing yoga consistently about two years ago in my classes. Another student, who just turned 70, reported a similar result on her latest scan. Both were kind enough to share their results with me, pictured below.

The DEXA or DXA scan is today’s established standard for measuring bone mineral density, and helps to estimate the density of your bones and your chance of breaking a bone. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, “a bone density test is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs.” If you’ve got osteopenia or osteoporosis, it’s reflected in the numbers.

In fact, more than 200 million people suffer from osteoporosis. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 and 1 in 5 men will experience osteoporotic fractures in their lifetime.

We reach peak bone density by our late twenties, and then it’s maintained by a continuous process called remodeling, in which old bone is removed and new bone is created. The renewal of bone is responsible for bone strength throughout life. Certain factors like age, genetics, lack of exercise and poor diet can slow down bone renewal, and then our bones might thin to such a degree that we develop osteopenia or osteoporosis. Happily, there are lifestyle changes you can make to maintain and build bone density.

Bridge Pose (Setu bandhasana) stretches the spine

Of course we’d love to attribute the slight improvement in our yoga students’ bone mineral density scores to the practice of yoga. The only real change they’ve made has been adding a regular yoga practice, and neither of them are on medication. So just how effective is a regular yoga practice for building stronger bones?

According to one study, “there is qualitative evidence suggesting improved bone quality as a result of the practice of yoga.”

The study is pretty much the only one of its kind, and its revelations are being touted in Harvard Health and The New York Times. Researchers prescribed 12 yoga postures held for 30 seconds each, practiced on a daily basis by 221 participants. They measured bone density at the beginning and end of the study, and concluded that yoga “actually builds bone significantly in the spine and the femur, the two most frequent sites of fracture.” You can find out more on Dr. Fishman’s site, Sciatica.org.

The 12 yoga poses included in the study:

Image from Dr. Fishman’s Study
  1. Tree (Vrksasana)
  2. Triangle (Uttitha Trikonasana)
  3. Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II
  4. Extended Side Angle (Parsvakonasana)
  5. Reverse Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
  6. Locust (Salabhasana)
  7. Bridge (Setu Bandhasana)
  8. Supine hand-to-foot I (Supta Padangusthasana I)
  9. Supine hand-to-foot II (Supta Padangusthasana II)
  10. Straight-legged twist (Marichyasana II)
  11. Bent-knee twist (Matsyendrasana)
  12. Corpse (Savasana)

We do most of these poses in our classes on a very regular basis, as they were covered extensively in our 250-hour teacher training certification. It’s been eye-opening to learn that not all yoga poses are good for someone with bone loss issues, and could actually increase risk for a vertebral fracture – as in poses with extreme spinal flexion (as in, forward folds.) Yoga should be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher who provides safe alternatives to classic poses, with an emphasis on proper alignment.

A gentle modification of Extended Side Angle (Parsvakonasana)

I’m so excited for my students who have committed to a regular practice and seen some heartening benefits show up in the very fabric of their bones! They continue to do the work, and it’s wonderful to witness firsthand what could be part of a relatively low cost and low risk answer to maintaining strong healthy bones and avoiding broken ones. Yoga also comes with some pretty great “side effects,” such as better balance, improved posture and strength, and reduced levels of anxiety. Hope to see you and your beautiful bones on the mat soon!

For best bone health, Harvard Health recommends:

  • eating foods rich in calcium, such as low fat dairy products, sardines, salmon, green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified foods and beverages.
  • getting more vitamin D from the sun or a supplement
  • doing weight-bearing exercise every day
  • not smoking
  • not drinking too much alcohol

Note: if you are under 30, building bone so that your peak bone density score is as good as it can be could help you tremendously later in life! All of the above recommendations apply to those who are still building bone density.

Resources:

Balance

Our sense of balance is something most of us take for granted. Behind the scenes, three complex systems work together to keep us upright.

  1. Visual:  The eyes supply information to the brain about the objects surrounding the body in the physical environment. To better understand the role of this system, try balancing on one leg with the eyes open and then again with the eyes closed.
  2. Auditory:  Our inner ears contain a series of canals filled with fluid and fine, hair-like sensors. These monitor the position of the head in relation to gravity (in an elevator or airplane) and linear space (in an automobile).
  3. Proprioceptive:  Sensory nerves in the muscles, tendons and joints provide awareness of the body’s posture and position in space. For instance, the ankles, knees and hips help us to recover after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.

 

It is important to note that these three systems rely upon the core muscles as well as the joints, particularly the hip, knee, and ankle, to perform the physical adjustments required to maintain balance.

Hospital corridor and doctor as a blurred defocused background

The consequences of suffering a fall can last a lifetime and affect not only individuals, but families, workplaces and communities. A fracture can bring pain, financial strain, loss of mobility, and many challenges that come with adapting to new daily routines.

FALL PREVENTION

  • Build strength and flexibility through regular exercise (see below.) This is particularly important for those with injuries in their past who avoid exercise due to their fear of falling. This decreased mobility further weakens muscles and bones.
  • Be aware of tripping hazards such as pets, area rugs, electrical cords, wet surfaces and objects on stairways.
  • Address unsafe conditions in the home or workplace such as inadequate lighting, open drawers, cabinet doors and furniture obstructing walking pathways.
  • Correct any vision/hearing issues, which can impact reaction time.
  • Use caution with medications that can interact, causing loss of balance.

EXERCISES TO IMPROVE BALANCE

Just like any other physical activity, balance can be improved through building strength, flexibility, mental focus and overall body awareness. Simple exercises like these can be safely practiced daily at home or the office.

First, start with the Seated Abdominal Crunch.

  1. Sit with a straight back and ankles below the knees.
  2. Inhale and lift arms up and out to the side like a goal post or the arms of a cactus.
  3. Lift the left foot 12” off floor.
  4. Exhale and bring right elbow down toward left knee, maintaining a straight back.
  5. Switch sides

Next, take a break and stand up. We love practicing the Calf Raise to improve balance,  stretch the calves, and strengthen the arches of the feet. It’s also an effective foot massage! Over time, try this exercise without the chair, or for an added challenge, with the eyes closed.

 

Now you’re ready to try Tree Pose.

tree_chair_together

  1. Use a wall or chair if need be.
  2. Put all your weight on the right foot.
  3. Lift your left leg with a bent knee, opening your knee out to the right.
  4. Place the sole of your foot inside the right leg above or below knee.
  5. Bring first one palm up at heart center, and then if you feel steady, try pressing both hands together. Find a place to gaze that is not moving.
  6. Switch Sides.

We love practicing Tree Pose outside, grounding down through the standing foot in order to actively rise through the chest and uplifted arms, while pulling the belly up and in.  Check out our Tree Pose video– shot at the Philadelphia Navy Yard!

BALANCE AND EVERYDAY ACTIVITIES

Active attention to improving our balance can be easily integrated into daily routines and activities. Remember that both the posture and breath are closely tied to our sense of balance. Many exercises focused on improving posture and breath will also improve balance. Refer to the Posture and Breath pages for more details.

  • Keep Moving! Find opportunities to integrate several short walks into the day. Even basic movement is key to maintaining balance, as it keeps the muscles and bones strong while also relieving stress and anxiety.
  • Strengthen the Core While Sitting: Squeeze a yoga block or folded pillow between the thighs while working at your desk,  watching TV or speaking on the phone. The inner thigh and hip muscles are critical for stability when standing, walking or running.

CORE MUSCLES

The muscles of our core provide the stable foundation for all our daily activities, from brushing our teeth to lifting weights at the gym. “It doesn’t matter how strong your arms and legs are if the muscles they’re attached to aren’t equally as strong.” (Steven Ehasz, MES, CSCS). Pictured here are the stabilizing hip and abdominal muscles: Psoas, left, and Rectus Abdominus, right.

Ease of movement and injury prevention are two critical factors in maximizing our quality of life. It’s never too late to begin improving your balance!