They hold us up all day long, they get us everywhere we need to go, and they connect our bodies to the earth. Some yoga teachers even call the feet the "roots" of the body.
Yet for all that our feet do for us, we don't do much for them in return. We cram them into tight shoes, pound along on them all day, and generally ignore them unless they're giving us serious trouble. The result is that at some point in their lives 7 of 10 people will suffer from foot problems, many of which are entirely preventable.
Robert Kornfeld, a holistic podiatrist, says he's seen it all: people hobbling in with knobby, inflamed bunions and hammer toes, the dull throb of tendinitis, the achy soles of plantar fasciitis.
Those aren't just niggling minor ailments; some foot problems can alter the foot's structure and trigger pain elsewhere in the body. "I sing that song to my patients," Kornfeld says: "'The foot bone's connected to the leg bone...'" In fact, experts say one of the most important reasons to treat foot problems early is to prevent them from throwing the knees, hips, back, and shoulders out of whack.
And one of the best ways to take care of your feet is with yoga. "I recommend that all my patients start yoga immediately," Kornfeld says. "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."
In fact, yoga gives feet a healthy workout that they rarely get any other way. "You couldn't ask for a better set of tools to reawaken the feet," says yoga teacher Rodney Yee. Below, some tips from the experts on how best to use yoga to prevent or treat foot pain.
Throw Your Weight Around
The first place to begin building awareness of your feet is in standing poses such as Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Before you start the pose, think about how you naturally stand, suggests Janice Gates, a specialist in therapeutic yoga. Do you tend to put your weight on the inner edge of your foot, which tends to make your legs bow inward, or on the outer edge, which tends to make the knees bow out? (If you can't tell, check the bottoms of your shoes—you can often tell from the way the soles are wearing.)
Notice how your weight falls, and then play with it by rocking forward and back, lifting first your toes, then your heels. If you tend to stand perched a little forward, try shifting your weight back a bit, and vice versa.
Next, try lifting the arch of your foot while pushing down around the edges, creating both a sense of rooting into the earth and lifting energy up from the center, to form the Mula Bandha (Root Lock). "Sometimes I use the image of a jack-in-the-box: collapsing down, then springing up," says Gates. "You're pushing down to lift up." Once you start to do this, you'll find yourself more aware of your feet and distributing your weight better in your everyday life.
Work Those Toes
One great way to limber up stiff, underused feet is to work on the articulation of the toes, which in most of us have lost at least some of their range of motion, says yoga teacher Tias Little. Little considers the feet so important he not only focuses on them in his regular sessions, but has also created a separate class he calls Feet as Foundation. "Think of the way babies spread their toes and crawl by pushing off with them," he says. "We need to regain that." Little guides students through a routine in which they try to move each toe separately from the others and practice picking things up with their toes.
In standing poses, focus on elongating the toes to stretch the sole of your foot. Press down into your heels at the same time you press forward with the base of the big and little toes, grounding forward with the ball of the foot. "Think of it as stretching the sole of the foot like a drum," Little says. This can improve circulation, pumping blood and lymph back toward your heart, and potentially stave off edema and varicose veins.
Paying attention to—and correcting—the way your feet connect with the earth can correct foot and ankle problems that have repercussions throughout your body. For example, pronated feet (which roll inward from the ankle down) tend to cause knee problems and back pain.
One way to think about foot stability is to think of your feet as having four corners: the big and little toes, and the outer and inner heels. Some teachers use the image of a car with four tires; others conjure up an X on the bottom of the foot. Use whichever works for you, because distributing your weight evenly across your feet is central to healthy alignment. And that, in turn, may lead to a surprise: By resolving foot problems, you may discover you've resolved your knee, back, hip, and shoulder problems as well. Yoga instructor Amy Elias Kornfeld suggests looking down to make sure that the second toe, shin, and knee are all aligned as you start a pose.
If you still need proof of the importance of foot positioning, think of what happens when you try to go into Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or Garudasana (Eagle Pose) and your feet aren't positioned right. "You have to use the feet or you fall over," Gates says. "Wherever the instability is, it's going to show up." There's a reason your yoga teacher is always telling you to spread your toes: Creating a stable base is essential when one foot is all you have to stand on.
Stretch for Strength
Any pose that stretches the arch or the sole of the foot improves flexibility and loosens tension. Little suggests a simple exercise to warm up your feet before yoga: Stand on a tennis ball and roll it back and forth under your foot, working the toes, the ball of the foot, the arch, and the heel. Virasana (Hero Pose) stretches the top of the foot and elongates the arch, while kneeling with the toes tucked under is the best way to lengthen the plantar muscles on the sole of the foot, which, when contracted, can become inflamed, leading to plantar fasciitis.
Little also teaches students to go back and forth between Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) and what he calls "broken toe pose." From Vajrasana, lift your hips, curl your toes under and lift your heels, and then lean back so your weight rests on the "necks" (not the pads) of your toes.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) is another way to give the feet a good stretch; Gates teaches her students to lift the arches of the feet as high as possible, then extend the heels toward the floor to work the plantar fascia. "At first it feels impossible when you try to lower your heels, but it just takes practice. And it feels so good when you do," she says.
Make these exercises part of your life, and your foot bones (not to mention your leg bones, hip bones, and maybe even your head bone) will be forever grateful.