How we stand, and how we engage our feet with the earth informs and responds to our fundamental interior attitude. Do you step into a room tentatively like a you’re worried about intruding? Or do you step like someone with a right to be there? Doit dans ses bottes (right in your boots) as the French saying goes. Do you walk lazily with a lack of direction or do you walk confidently with purpose? This 5 minute exercise will tell you a lot about how you hold yourself in space.
The practice of yoga increases proprioception (also called kineasthesia)‑‑the awareness of position, movement, force, and effort of the body in space. The greater our proprioception, the more we are able to conduct our bodies in ways that keep us injury-free, balanced and resilient. Proprioception is also key to the conservation of energy which lies at the heart of any yoga practice. It is sometimes called ‘the sixth sense’ the implications of which become increasingly apparent as we deepen our practice.
A great place to begin to increase our powers of proprioception is with the feet, since the placement of our feet affects our entire body, from our knees to the pelvis and spine, all the way up to the neck and head. When we wear closed shoes, or even socks, we block our ability to develop this awareness, so I highly recommend that you practice barefoot. First of all, discover your own habitual foot stance with the following exercise.
Stand tall but not stiff, arms relaxed to the sides, with a lifted straight spine. Don’t bend or lock the knees because this turns off the core and hip muscles. Your feet can be together or slightly apart but make sure that the toes of both feet are in line. Bring your awareness to your feet. Roll them a little inwards onto the inner arches and then outwards onto the outer arches a few times. What feels more natural? What do you notice?
Now bring the weight back into your heels as far as you can while keeping the toes on the floor, and then forward towards the balls of the feet keeping your heels down. Again, check what feels more natural to you and what you notice happening in the legs, hips and back. Place most of your weight on the heels and notice how you lose the natural curve of the lumbar spine and the core muscles become disengaged. This is how most people stand.
Now lean forward onto the balls of the feet and notice how the increased pressure on the lumbar forces it to curve more and the core muscles engage. Standing on the inner feet will internally rotate the hips, which can, over time, lead to ‘knock-knees’. Standing more on your outer feet will strain the outer knees and can lead to bowed legs. Place your fingers gently across the hip bones and roll the feet first to the outside and then to the inside and feel the external and internal rotation of the hips as you do so. Notice how even a small adjustment of the feet affects the position of the hips.
Now take a few moments to divide your weight evenly between the heels and the balls, then between the inner and outer arches. Gently spread and then lengthen the metatarsals by spreading and lengthening the toes. Press your toes firmly down and grip them a little. The toe gripping is a temporary step to help you to connect with the next part of the practice.
Now lift up through the inner arches of your feet keeping the three points of the triangle of each foot (the two ends of the transverse arch across the balls of the feet and the heel) on the floor. Feel a suction lifting sensation right in the centre of the foot. You can imagine your feet like two toilet plungers creating a suction on the ground (excuse the image!) Feel how the lift of inner arches travels all the way into the inner ankles. You might notice a subtle lift of the thighs and the backs of the calves as well.
Now, relax the grip of the toes without lose the lift around the central point of the suction. This takes a bit more concentration and effort, but it will be worth your while. Engage the legs and ankles to maintain this lift in the arches. This is pada bandha or ‘foot lock’ in classical yoga. It enables the yogi to draw prana (vital energy) up through the ground.
Now, walk around the room for a minute or two while trying to retain all the following points:
1. The weight of each foot spread evenly between the upside down triangle made by either side of the transverse arch and the heel connected through the inner medial arch and the outer lateral arch.
2. Maintain a lift of the inner medial arch of both feet
3. Spread the toes apart
4. Feel a suction and lift at the very centre of the foot
With a bit of practice you can develop your “Yoga Foot”, heighten the sensory feedback through your entire nervous system, get that prana flowing more freely and learn how to hold your ground. Literally!
Respect yourself, explore yourself.