Question: What do you have when one or both feet are off the ground? Answer: A balance pose. And what happens to the foot (or feet) when relieved of the primary duty of bearing weight? No longer needed to form the foundation, the nonweight-bearing foot is, sadly, often forgotten as the practitioner focuses on balancing. A forgotten foot loses its vitality, becoming a limp appendage instead of forming the icing on the cake of a beautiful, strong pose.
Yoga, of course, presents us with a wide variety of balance poses, whether they are arm or standing balances, which help keep our centering and balancing reflexes sharp. (Note: If both arms are on the floor, it's an inversion or arm balance. If one foot is on the floor, it's a standing balance. If one foot and one hand are on the floor, it could be either. For example, Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) is an arm balance, while Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) is a standing balance.) In any case, the more challenging the pose, the more likely the student's attention will be totally focused on balancing, with no attention to spare for the details of alignment. Therefore, teachers are wise to start early balance pose work with the easier poses, such as Ardha Chandrasana, rather than the very challenging arm balances. Then bring awareness of the NWB (nonweight-bearing) foot into the pose as soon as the student can balance for more than a few seconds.
Get the Feel
There are several tools teachers can use to train students to bring vitality into their feet. Since you know that students can't see their feet in most balances (Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), and the feet-forward arm balances are among the few exceptions), it's helpful to have them practice good, balanced foot alignment in a position that allows them to see their feet. This will link the kinesthetic knowledge (learning by feel) with the visual (what the proper alignment looks like).
One good way to do this is to start by sitting, either in a chair or on the floor, with one or both feet stretched out in front. Point the toes strongly, and notice that the calf and Achilles tendon (which joins the big calf muscles to the heelbone) are short and compressed, while the front of the ankle is stretched. Now reverse the action, pushing out on the heel and pulling the toes back, and note that the Achilles and calf are lengthened and stretched, while the muscles and tendons on the front of the ankle and shin are shortened and contracted. In a well-balanced foot, neither the front nor the back of the ankle should feel compressed or stretched. Rather than going to one extreme or the other, the middle position is optimal. Imagine that you're pressing out evenly into all four corners of the foot, which are the bases of the big and little toes (anatomically the first and fifth metatarsal heads) and the inner and outer heel.
This exercise is wonderful for teaching balance between the heel and ball of the foot, and it should be practiced more than once to cement the kinesthetic knowledge. However, the pronation/supination balance may need a little more attention, as it's the harder piece for most students to learn.
While standing, your foot supinates when the medial (inner) foot, including the arch, lifts up, and the lateral (outer) foot is heavy. Pronation is just the opposite, with the arch dropping and the lateral foot lifting. A normal NWB foot tends to supinate when relaxed, so students need to learn to actively pronate their feet in balance poses. While they are sitting, looking at their feet, ask them to press out the base of the big toe and inner heel so the big and little toes are the same distance away from the hip. The main muscle that counters the natural supination of the NWB foot is the peroneus longus, which originates on the fibula (next to the tibia, or shinbone, on the outer calf) and sends a long tendon across the outer ankle and under the sole of the foot to attach to the medial arch. One of its attachments there is on the first metatarsal base (opposite the metatarsal head), so it has the power to press the metatarsal head down into the floor while standing. Trying this while sitting will give students a feel for what their bones and muscles can accomplish in standing poses. After spending most of their time wearing shoes, many students need reminders and frequent practice to learn how to engage the peroneus longus.
Integrate Your Awareness
After devoting undivided attention to the balance and alignment of the feet, it's time to integrate that awareness into balance poses. Try this yourself: When you're balanced and stable in your pose, visualize and feel that you're sending energy out through your leg to the four corners of each foot, and then out beyond each corner. Your leg strength will help you balance as you press out, and you may notice an increased lift out of the pull of gravity. That's energy that brings vitality to every cell, wakes up your feet, and helps you engage just the right muscles to balance the front and back ankles and inner and outer foot. At that point, your pose becomes fully alive and whole, with your awareness touching every cell.
Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.