Our feet are extremely valuable, priceless even and yet often they go on with their daily tasks unnoticed, neglected and forgotten. For many of us they work hard all day long, carrying us to and fro without much thought, care or compensation. They are our foundation, our transportation; one of the primary ways we connect to the earth energetically; and one of the best tools we have for getting centered and grounded after spending too much time in the realm of thought.
This is one of the very first things we notice in yoga practice… it is done with bare feet. For many of us in the Northern hemisphere the feet go for many, many months in the warmth and safety of socks and shoes unless we are in the shower or in the comfort of our own bed. Most activity is done with some form of footwear. Yet in yoga the shoes come off, the socks come off and one of the first things that happen is our feet connect with the floor and with the mat.
The feet are very sensitive instruments in part because we do spend so much time protecting them. Most people do not go walking around barefoot outside in order to toughen up the soles. So we take our socks and shoes off and feel the temperature of the air, the texture of the floor and the mat and it begins to wake up our senses because of their sensitivity and because of the change in status quo (status quo being socks and shoes). It immediately, if even for a moment, takes us out of our head, out of thought and into sensation, into the present moment experience.
Much like the experience of going on vacation at the beach after a long winter… you put on your flip flops, feel the warm air and the fabric between your toes and it wakes them up after their long hibernation. You head down to the beach and take a walk, now barefoot in the sand… temperature, texture, sensation… it all wakes you up, takes you out of your routine. It brings a sense of aliveness to the feet to be able to walk on the fluid, flexible, changing surface… the heels dig in, the toes spread; it’s not hard, flat or uniform. It’s a shifting, changing environment and the feet love it!
The Plum Line
One of the earliest lessons in the practice of yoga standing postures, is how to build to pose from the ground up, from the foundation. All of the standing poses begin with the feet. There two ways I think about grounding through the feet as I go through my practice. The first is the plum line. If you were to put a weight on the end of a string and hold it at the other end, the weight would drop, straight down toward the ground… this is the plum line. In the body, the plum line runs down through the legs and feet and you can feel it rooting down just in front of the heels; where the arch and the heel meet. I often find it helpful to imagine the energy of the lower body rooting down through the legs and through this point just in front of the heels. This is one of the easiest and first ways I get grounded.
The Four Corners Of The Feet
The second way is more specific. The ball of the foot is the mound, just below the toes. The four corners of the feet are: 1).the inner ball of the foot, just below the big toe; 2).the inner heel; 3).the outer heel; 4).the outer ball of the foot, just below the pinkie toe. In all of the standing postures you want to get grounded through the four corners of the feet and distribute the weight evenly across the four corners. This gives you a very strong, stable foundation to work from, as most of the standing postures require some degree of balance and coordination.
In order to feel and work with the four corners of the feet, try this… Start sitting; take your shoes and socks off; look at your feet and massage your feet a little; identify the four corners. Then… Stand in Mountain Pose, the basic standing pose; stand with the feet sit bone distance apart (the sit bones are the center of the hips); feet are parallel (there is an imaginary line between the second toe and the center of the heels, these two imaginary lines are parallel to one another, you will feel a little pigeon toed); lift your toes and spread your toes, feel the arches lift; 1).press down through the inner ball of the foot, just below the big toe; 2).lengthen back through the inner edge of the foot and press down through the inner heel; 3).press down through the outer heel; 4).press down through the outer ball of the foot as you spread your pinkie toes (you can help to spread your toes by spreading the fingers : ) At some point, lower the toes; gently press the pads of the toes, just below the nails, down into the floor as you keep the toes spread. The arches will still be lifting. This is the action of the feet in all the standing poses. Notice the quality of your attention as well as how grounded, centered and present you feel just from working with the feet in this way.
If you have flat feet/arches keep the toes lifted and spread in all of your standing postures. This will lift the arches; it will start to strengthen the feet and rebuild the arches. It may take years yet I have seen and experienced how yoga can change the structure of the bones over time. Work actively with the four corners of the feet, this will re-educate the feet as to the correct alignment.
When you are in other yoga positions where your feet are not firmly planted on the floor you can still work with the four corners of the feet. For example in postures where you are laying down on your back, you can still engage the four corners even if your feet are up in the air by pressing out through the four corners equally and spreading the toes. It feels wonderful.. liberating and energizing!
Caring for the Feet the Rest of the Week
My routine is quite simple and requires very little time. As I mentioned above the feet give us so much and often we give very little back in return. Many of us hardly think of them at all. Its really just a four step process and it has been working well for me for a long time: 1).Once a week in the shower use a pumice stone and scrub them to get all the dead skin off and keep any calluses at bay; 2).Keep the nails trimmed; 3).On the pumice scrub day and just before bed give them a good rub down with a high quality oil or lotion; 4).And this is one is the most important of all… comfortable, supportive shoes. Quality shoes are a must. Not too tight, not too lose, plenty of room for the toes, arch support etc.
I understand why many women wear high heels and yet, I am not a fan. They mess up your posture and natural alignment. Over time, if worn daily, they can cause tightness and a shortening in the muscles of the back of the legs so that it becomes uncomfortable to not wear them. Not to mention the possibility of bunions! If you must wear dress shoes for work try to find some that give you a nice enough look that are also supportive (Dansko might be a good option). Go for quality over quantity.
Legs Up the Wall
If you stand and work on your feet all day long it is very helpful to do Legs Up the Wall on a regular basis. This is a restorative posture that works wonders. Sit on the floor with your outer left hip touching the wall; lean back onto your right forearm/elbow and then your left; lay down on your back with your feet up the wall; if the legs are tight scoot back until it feels like you are the right distance away from the wall; if you are more flexible take your hands to the floor over your shoulders (elbows are bent and point up toward the ceiling) and wiggle your way down until your hips are right up next to the wall (you will be in an “L” shape).
You can receive a little more of the benefits of being inverted if you lift the hips… while you are in the pose bend the legs and place the feet flat on the wall; press the feet into the wall and lift the hips; slide a firm pillow, a bolster or a folded blanket under the hips/back of the waist; then drop the weight of the hips down onto the prop and extend the legs back up the wall. Rest there from five to thirty minutes.
If you really get into it and have some yoga props another nice version is to 1). use a yoga belt/strap and tie up your legs on the thighs, just above the knees (then you don’t have to use any muscular energy to hold the legs up) and 2).take a 10 lb. sand bag and place it across the top of the feet. This feels fantastic! It is very restorative and grounding.
Legs Up the Wall works wonders for tired, achey legs and feet. Great for reversing the blood flow and bringing a fresh supply of blood and oxygen to the brain. It works better than a nap as you will feel more energize and restored (many people feel more tired and groggy after a nap and these can also mess up your sleep cycles). It is good for swollen ankles, water retention in the ankles; when traveling; it is good for the immune system and the endocrine system i.e. it is good when you feel grumpy, sad, a little run down or under the weather.
If you are feeling unstable and going through a period of intense or rapid change, look at your feet often. Use your feet to help you stay grounded during a period of transition. If you are changing a relationship, a job, a home or if you have recently lost someone close to you, look at your feet as often as you think of it. Take a picture of your feet (preferably in a happy place, like in the grass on a sunny day or at the beach) and put it up where you will see it. The simple act of remembering your feet and looking at your feet can help you feel more grounded and connected. Walk on the earth. Get off of the concrete and take a walk on the Earth or just stand in the grass.
For many people there is a disconnect between the head and the heart; so much time spent thinking and processing information can leave one feeling disconnected. We are meant to be embodied, we have bodies for a reason, we can live life more satisfactorily if we experience life from this place; it is a fuller experience. Yoga awakens the intelligence of the body, as it awakens, we live life from a more present, embodied place. Our feet are our tap root to the energy source of the Earth, we can connect to the Earth from our feet and receive energy from the Earth up through our feet. You may choose to think of it a different way. You may not think of it at all other than practicing the postures and realizing that in doing so you feel better. Being grounded is being embodied, connected; whether you focus on connecting to the Earth or not it doesn’t matter; we can do it right where we are, right on our mats with our intention and our feet.