If you're like most people who grew up in the West, you were taught at a young age to ignore your feet—to just stuff them into shoes and forget about them. As a child, you learned to run, jump, and play with your feet encased in rubber and leather. You probably paid little attention to them unless they hurt—after all, beyond the toddler years, it's definitely not OK to play with your feet in public. So it can be quite a surprise in your first yoga classes when you're asked to take off your shoes and socks and start paying serious attention to your feet. You may discover it's not so easy to do the seemingly simple actions your teacher suggests, like balancing your weight evenly on the inner and outer edges of your foot or lifting your arches. And how in the world do you get your toes to spread?
In those first yoga classes, you probably began your work with the feet while you were standing on them. In Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and other standing poses, like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II), you learned that the feet form the foundation of the pose. And as you progressed in those postures, the muscles of your feet and lower legs may have begun to regain the strength and control they'd lost during all those years of shoe wearing. There's a good chance, however, that as you expanded your repertoire beyond the standing poses, you fell into a habit I often observe in many of my students: forgetting about the feet again.
Find Your Footing
When I look at a group of students doing an inversion, with their legs reaching into the sky instead of down into the earth, I frequently see feet that look tired, as though the energy of the pose isn't quite reaching them. When students sit on the floor in forward bends, they tend to let their legs roll out and the soles of their feet turn a bit toward each other. And when a student comes into a one-legged balance like Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) or Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III), too often the foot hangs at the end of the lifted leg like a wilted lettuce leaf.
To learn how to properly activate the feet in these poses (and many others), it helps to understand the four basic foot and ankle movements that are most important in yoga, whether the feet are bearing weight or not. You can experience these movements while either sitting or standing, and you may want to practice each one a few times in both positions so you learn to associate the name with the movement. To explain the last two movements simply, I'll use vernacular terms that refer to a combination of actions performed by the foot and ankle.
Plantar Flexion of the ankle occurs when you stand on your tiptoes. If you're sitting with your legs out in front of you, plantar flexion of the ankle happens when you point your toes.
Dorsiflexion occurs when you stand on your heels with the balls of the feet lifted off the floor. If you're sitting, dorsiflexion happens when you push your heels away from you and pull your toes toward you.
Supination occurs when you stand with your weight rolled onto the outer edges of your feet, lifting the arches and the base of the big toe. Non-weight-bearing supination happens when you sit with your legs out in front of you and turn the soles of the feet so they start to face each other.
Pronation occurs when you lift the outer edges of your feet as you stand, collapsing your arches. In sitting postures, pronation occurs when you press out through your inner heels and the bases of your big toes.
Shift Into Neutral
To begin developing awareness in your feet, sit on the floor with both legs out in front of you. Let the muscles of both legs and hips completely relax. If you're like most people, your legs will probably roll out and your feet will rest in some degree of plantar flexion and supination. This natural alignment helps give spring to your step and absorbs impact when you walk: The foot is in supination as it hits the ground, moves into pronation as it takes your full weight, and returns to supination as the foot leaves the ground.
While the natural alignment of the feet and ankles is great for walking, in most non-weight-bearing positions it shortens the calf muscles and can lead to overstretching the lateral ankle ligaments, setting the stage for sprained ankles. So when you're not on your feet in yoga, it's usually best to train the foot and lower leg muscles to hold an anatomically neutral position—so you're neither plantar flexing nor dorsiflexing, and neither supinating nor pronating—rather than defaulting to the easier (and lazier) rest position.
To deepen your understanding of the neutral position, try this experiment: Sitting on the floor, strongly point your toes. You will feel a stretch in the tops of your feet and ankles and compression at the backs of your ankles, just above the heels. Then strongly press your heels away from you and draw your toes toward you. You'll feel a stretch in your calf muscles and Achilles tendons, while the front of your ankles will feel tight and short. In the ideal neutral position—without dorsiflexion or plantar flexion—you should feel neither compression nor a major stretch at the front or backs of the ankles.
Next, let's balance supination and pronation. If you naturally supinate at rest—most people do, unless they have flat feet—you can balance that tendency by pressing out through both the inner heel and the base of the big toe. To find neutral, imagine that the balls of your feet are touching a wall and that you want your big toes to touch it with the same amount of pressure as the little toes.
The muscles you use to control the foot's tendency to supinate are the peroneus longus and peroneus brevis. They originate on the fibula, the outer and smaller of the two lower leg bones. These muscles travel down the outer calf, and their tendons go behind the outer anklebone. The larger and stronger of the two muscles is the peroneus longus, and its tendon crosses under the arch of the foot to attach to the underside of the arch on the medial (inner) side. When the peroneus longus contracts, it pronates the foot; if you're standing, it presses the base of the big toe into the ground. If the muscle is well developed, contracting it will create a visible groove on the outer calf from just below the knee to the outer ankle.
Reach for the Sky
Now that you've seen and felt the neutral position, let's practice it in the foot and leg alignment needed for inversions. Lie down on your back. Note that if you let your legs externally rotate (roll outward), your feet will naturally tend to supinate. To counter this, press your legs together and draw your inner thighs toward the floor until the knees point straight up, then lengthen from your inner upper thighs to your inner heels and the bases of your big toes. Then press out through the four corners of each foot: the base of the big toe, the base of the little toe, the inner heel, and the outer heel. If you're like most practitioners, you'll need to emphasize the push on the medial (big-toe) sides to balance pronation and supination. Also, make sure that the front and back of each ankle feel evenly open, with no compression or stretching on either the front or the back.
After practicing these actions lying on the floor, apply them in your Sirsasana (Headstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). Imagine that you are drawing energy from your foundation in the earth and sending it up through the pose to your legs, all the way to the four corners of each foot. Let your legs and feet express the vitality of your pose.
Standing poses like Virabhadrasana III and Ardha Chandrasana need similar actions in the lifted leg to avoid the wilted look. Don't just point the toes or press out with the heel; instead, press out with all four corners of the foot. Again, to avoid supination, you may need to press out more strongly with the inner heel and the base of the big toe. As an added benefit of sending your energy down the leg and out the sole, your spine will naturally lengthen away from your lifted foot, helping open up the center of your pose.
Take It Forward
Your seated forward bends also benefit when you extend out through the legs and the soles of the feet, emphasizing the action of the peroneus longus to press through the inner heel and the base of the big toe. Remember: If your legs roll out, your feet will supinate, so be sure to press the inner thighs down until your kneecaps point straight up; then lengthen from your inner groins through the inner portions of your feet. However, the foot position in forward bends should differ from that in inversions in one important respect: The foot should dorsiflex so you stretch the entire back of the leg.
To work on this action, bring your attention to the back of your heel. Check that you are on the center of your heel, rolling the leg neither in nor out. Then—again emphasizing the inner heel to keep the foot balanced between pronation and supination—press your heel firmly forward so the Achilles tendon lengthens and there is less daylight between the tendon and the floor. This action will help ensure that your forward bends stretch the major muscles of your calves, the gastrocnemius and the soleus, as well as your hamstrings.
Spread the Joy
Finally, a word about your toes: It's never too late to learn to spread them. You have muscles in your feet that are designed to spread your toes just as the muscles in your hands spread your fingers. If your toes stay glued together no matter how much you try to spread them, the muscles are probably atrophied from lack of use, and the toes themselves may have lost flexibility.
If you've managed to read this far with your shoes on, take them off. Sitting in any way you find comfortable, put the palm of your right hand onto the sole of your left foot. Insert your fingers between the toes. (The ends of the fingers are narrower and will give a gentler stretch than the bases of the fingers.) Bending your fingers onto the tops of your feet, gently squeeze your foot as if it were a sponge, then squeeze your fingers with your toes in the same way. Repeat for a minute or two, then remove your fingers and try spreading your toes again.
Have patience, even if you don't notice a big difference immediately. Over time, this exercise will begin to wake up your toes. In fact, if you regularly practice all the pointers provided in this article, your toes will loosen up; your muscle control over plantar flexion, dorsiflexion, supination, and pronation will improve; and your feet will become part of the healthy whole that is a yoga pose.