Of all the new experiences beginning students encounter when they start yoga, moving their toes is arguably the most challenging. After a lifetime of being stuffed into shoes and ignored, their toes feel as inert and dull as the calluses on their heels and elbows. Spreading their toes seems just about as accessible as crossing their ankles behind their heads, and clumsy toes are right up there with tight hamstrings and weak shoulders as a source of frustration for beginners—and for those long past the beginning stage.
Why Toes Matter
As a teacher, you can help motivate your mystified, frustrated students to work with their toes by educating them about their importance. After all, they've gotten along just fine with stiff toes for all these years, thank you very much, so why start working on them now? Of immediate importance, in class, is that toes are part of the human balance mechanism. Have you ever taught "toe warm-ups" before Vrksasana (Tree Pose), for example? If the toes can spread wide, that one foot that's on the ground creates a broader foundation for the balance pose. In addition, if the foot and its toes are sensitive and "awakened" by the toe warm-up, as opposed to dull, they'll transmit subtle information about body-weight shifts to the brain, which will use it to correct and fine-tune its balance responses in the pose.
Off the mat, toes are an important part of the push-off action humans use while walking, running, and climbing stairs. If toes are stiff, the smoothness and efficiency of gait will be affected, and other joints and muscles will have to compensate for the disturbance in the chain of actions. As these compensations become recurrent and repetitive, they may contribute to inflammatory conditions, such as tendinitis in the Achilles tendon or at the knee. Gait compensations and tight shoes can also contribute to the formation of a bunion, at the joint where the big toe joins the sole of the foot. Bunions are painful inflammatory conditions caused by displacement of the big toe—basically, the big toe is pushed toward, into, or even under the next toe by tight, pointed shoes—that can deform the joint and require surgery.
Help Your Toes Move
Ideally, you won't have to resort to scare tactics to motivate your students to work with their toes. Like most parts of the body, it's much easier to keep feet healthy and flexible than to resort to patch-up treatments after the damage has been done. Yoga, of course, is a great way to move, stretch, and awaken the feet and toes. Your students can begin working right away to improve their toes' flexibility, starting with their next Downward Dog. While on hands and knees before going up in the pose, have them turn their toes forward (this is toe extension, which is what we need for a good push-off while walking), so they're pointing toward their knees. Then gradually shift the torso back toward the heels, keeping the knees on the floor, stopping to breathe and relax the toe muscles when the stretch becomes intense. As the toes gradually stretch out, students can sit on the heels with toes still pointing toward the knees and knees on the floor. Depending on initial flexibility, the progression to sitting upright may happen immediately or may take several months, and your students should never force the toes painfully to speed up the process.
Another set of normal toe motions is called abduction and adduction. Have you ever seen a bare foot with the toes pushed together, still in the shape of a pointed-toe shoe? The toes are "stuck" in this abnormal position, which is a common cause of bunions, and have lost the normal ability to spread wide. Draw a line down the center of the sole of the foot, from heel to the center toe: when you spread the toes, you're abducting them away from this midline; while narrow, tight, or pointed-toe shoes push the toes into the opposite, or adducted, position. Stretch the toes gently into abduction by inserting the fingers of one hand between the toes of the opposite foot. This is best accomplished while sitting with the left ankle crossed over the right knee and the right palm resting on the left sole, for example. Use the narrowest part of the fingers if toes are stiff; a bit of gentle squeezing and massaging can help loosen things up.
Cultivate Toe Independence
Once your students are restoring the toes' flexibility in abduction by avoiding ill-fitting shoes and gently stretching a few times a week, it's time to try abducting with the toes' own muscles. The toe abductors are some of the smallest, most obscure, and least known of all the muscles in the body. They include the dorsal interossei, which lie between the metatarsals (the longish, thin bones you can feel along the top of your arch, pointing toward and ending at your toes). The big toe and little toe each have their own abductors. Sadly, the toe abductors are commonly completely atrophied, or wasted away, due to lack of use. They may be slow to wake up, but with practice it can be done. Try actively spreading the toes after you've stretched and massaged them. Actively abducting the fingers at the same time as the toes may help them get the idea.
Maybe our students would be more motivated if we suggested they "play" with their toes instead of "work" with them. After all, don't you have to crack a smile when you're trying to move your little toe using a muscle called abductor digiti minimi?
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.