When Portland, Oregon-based yoga teacher Diane Wilson began rock climbing at age 43, she immediately began with intermediate to advanced climbs, levels many people never reach. Nine years later, she's still at it, and says that having practiced yoga for more than 30 years has given her many advantages over her younger fellow climbers, most noticeably strength and flexibility in her feet and ankles. "If you pull from your arms, you get really wasted, so you always push from your feet," she says. Wilson also finds friction climbs, where the rock has no obvious hand- or footholds, easier than most people, because she can stretch her toes up and press her heels down.
Strong and supple feet and ankles are important not only for climbers; they help all athletes take on greater challenges—vertical jumps wouldn't be as high, nor would sharp cuts and quick stops be possible without them. But although strong ankles are vital in sports, many athletes ignore that area, making ankle sprains the most common athletic injury. Many competitors rely on the wide variety of high-tech footgear available these days for support, and health clubs typically offer few, if any, machines designed to stretch and strengthen the feet and ankles.
Yoga can help fill these gaps. Certain asanas can prevent sprains, because they develop strength and flexibility equally around the ankles. Yoga also increases one's sense of joint position. The better one's proprioception, the easier it is for the body to make minor adjustments in balance to keep upright. And the more flexible the joint is, the better it can make the necessary adjustments.
One of the biggest problems with ankles is that they tend to be tight in the front. Bicyclists, runners, and basketball players, for example, overwork their shins, which causes the muscles in the front of the ankle and the top of the foot to tighten. Paula Kout, director of White Iris Yoga in Evanston, Illinois, discovered this when she taught yoga to the Chicago Bulls for the 1997-1998 season. Not only were the players' ankles tight in front from constantly leaning forward, but the players often taped their ankles and tightly laced their shoes, which disconnected their feet from the rest of their body.
"The ankle is not a big joint, but it's so pivotal," Kout says. "I think injury occurs where the body is not able to freely respond to whatever it is called upon to do at any time. [The players] have to make a lot of sudden moves. Are they ready? On those kinds of tight ankles, they're not.
Although she tried teaching the Bulls poses that would give them more flexibility in the fronts of the ankles, such as Virasana (Hero Pose), they found them so difficult that they refused to do them. As usual, the most challenging poses are the ones that target the spots that need the most work. But these asanas don't have to be unbearable.
Although Kout didn't have any props at her disposal, Virasana can be made gentler by placing a block or folded blanket under the sit bones, with the knees and shins remaining on the floor. Bhekasana (Frog Pose) allows the practitioner to focus on one side at a time and control the amount of pressure used to stretch the ankle. Balasana (Child's Pose) is even more comfortable, because it is a resting posture; it can be done with a blanket under the shins and knees, with the ankles and feet on the ground.
Although Virasana didn't score well with the Bulls, Kout says, Tadasana (Mountain Pose) did, because it brought the players' weight into their heels. This meant that they used their whole foot, rather than just the balls of their feet, as a foundation for the ankles.
Training the entire foot to support the ankle is something Cyndi Lee, director of Om Yoga Center in New York, recommends for all athletes. "Warrior III is good, because it's so symmetrical," she says. "It teaches you how to stand evenly on your foot, not to throw your weight too far forward or back or right or left. You work the four corners of the foot." Lee says all balancing poses are good for keeping the weight spread throughout the foot.
"Garudasana (Eagle Pose) is excellent, because both ankles are doing different things," she says. "The standing leg learns to be strong and fluid at the same time in the foot and ankle." Meanwhile, the top leg gets a stretch along the inside of the ankle. Purvottanasana (Inclined Plane Pose) combines stretching and strengthening as well, by lengthening the top of the foot while keeping the whole foot active.
Lee, a former modern dancer, supports the idea that yoga is good for creating strength equally in both ankles, which helps prevent sprains. Dancing can cause frequent sprains, she says, because dancers turn out their feet, causing abnormal pressure on the insides of their ankles. "You don't work symmetrically in dance, and you do a lot of repetitive movement. If you have a weakness, it can get weaker," Lee explains. "I used to twist my ankle all the time in dance, but since I started doing yoga, that didn't happen anymore."
Purvottanasana builds equal strength in the ankles, Lee says. Even better, it promotes flexibility that's not loose but strong, because how far the top of the foot lengthens and the toes stretch forward depends on the strength in the foot. Lee also notes that this is a good pose in which to engage the toes. "You can feel there if the toes get crunched," she explains, recommending that people actively stretch them out. When it comes to feet and ankle strength, Lee points out, people often neglect their toes, especially when they're wearing shoes. "It makes a difference when your feet are articulate," she says. "In yoga, we learn to move every single toe individually." As Lee learned from personal experience, a little bit of yoga goes a long way to building strong feet and ankles. "You could just do one or two poses for your feet and ankles every day, and it takes just two minutes," she says. "You don't have to do a whole giant foot program."