Our ancestors did not walk on smooth pavement—they traversed rough terrain, clambered over boulders, and climbed steep slopes. To do those things, their feet had to flex, bend, and rotate through a wide variety of positions and provide stability in all of them. Evolution gradually shaped their feet to meet those demands, refined the design from generation to generation, and ultimately, passed it along to you. Your feet are much more capable than you may realize.
Yoga standing poses put your feet through their paces by systematically orienting them to challenging angles and requiring them to support your body's weight in every position. Each pose demands that you consciously place and hold the feet in a unique way, so each requires its own specific pattern of muscle contraction and stretch. This makes standing practice a great all-around foot-conditioning system: It simultaneously optimizes flexibility, strength, and mindful control throughout the foot's range of motion. Simply put, standing poses make your feet better at what they were built to do.
The bones of your feet, when positioned correctly, form arches to support your body weight efficiently. One imperative in standing poses is to keep your arches intact; this strengthens them and creates a solid, well-aligned foundation for the rest of the pose. The key to maintaining your arches is to adjust each foot so that it bears weight on three points: the center of the heel (calcaneus), the ball of the foot on the big-toe side (distal end of the first metatarsal), and the ball of the foot on the little-toe side (distal end of the fifth metatarsal). In most poses, about half the weight should fall on the heel and the other half should be divided equally between the ball of the big toe and the ball of the little toe.
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) is among the most challenging poses for the feet—or, more precisely, for the back foot. When you turn the foot inward as far as the pose requires (typically about 45 to 60 degrees of the way in from the back of your mat), it's extremely difficult to distribute your weight properly among the three crucial load-bearing points. Almost all the weight tends to shift to the ball of the big toe, while the ball of the little toe becomes less grounded, the arch flattens, and the heel often lifts off the floor. Practicing the pose this way provides little healthy conditioning of the foot and makes the entire posture unstable, weak, and lifeless.
To keep the heel down, many people turn the back foot inward less than one-third of the way, but this can throw off the rest of your alignment in Warrior I: If you don't turn your back foot in far enough, you can't swing your back hip forward far enough (because it twists your knee), so you can't turn your chest forward. But if you manage to rotate your back foot in 45 to 60 degrees while keeping your outer foot and heel pressing strongly down on terra firma, your entire pose will come alive. Your back leg will become stable and long; your pelvis will turn much more freely; your chest will square to the front; and you will feel lightness, openness, and a lift of the body springing from your strong foundation.
Meanwhile, back at the foot, the powerful, focused muscular actions you use to press your heel and the little-toe side of your foot down will strengthen your shin, stretch your calf, lift your arch, and hone your awareness.
Work Your Angle
To help you understand how to work with your back foot in Warrior I, it can be useful to have some anatomy under your belt. In order to distribute your weight properly among the three crucial load-bearing points, your back foot needs to both dorsiflex (the front of the ankle bends so the top of the foot moves up toward the front of the shin) and supinate (the foot bends sideways so its inner edge moves up toward the inner shin). Dorsiflexion presses your heel down, while supination lifts your arch and presses the outer edge of your foot down.
The farther inward you turn your back foot, the more it has to dorsiflex to keep the heel down as you bend your front knee. The most common factor limiting dorsiflexion is tightness of the back calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Stretching them even a little can vastly improve your command of the pose. You stretch your soleus whenever you strongly dorsiflex the ankle in any position, but to stretch the gastrocnemius, you have to dorsiflex the ankle and straighten your knee at the same time.
Warrior I creates both actions in the back leg, so it's a particularly good pose for lengthening the gastrocnemius. The most direct way to target this muscle in the posture is to turn your back foot inward 60 degrees while your legs are still straight. Then, keeping the heel down, bend the front knee only as far as it can go without disturbing the back foot. For some people, the bones of the front of the ankle joint jam together, stopping dorsiflexion. If your ankle does this, you may be able to avoid the problem by turning your foot outward a bit more so you don't have to dorsiflex as much. But remember, too much outward rotation will destroy the alignment of the rest of the pose. Another option (whether your dorsiflexion is limited by jammed ankle bones or by tight calf muscles) is to keep your foot turned in while supporting your heel on an inclined surface, such as a wooden or foam wedge, so your ankle doesn't have to flex so far.
Once you've found the optimal angle for your back foot, you can home in on the tibialis anterior, a muscle in your shin. Although several muscles combine forces to lower the heel, lift the arch, and press the outer foot down in Warrior I, the tibialis anterior is far more important than the others because it performs all of those actions at the same time, and it does so more powerfully. Warrior I seems almost custom designed to strengthen this muscle, but many people don't know how to access it effectively. The top end of the tibialis anterior attaches to the outer front of the tibia and to nearby connective tissue. The bottom end forms a tendon that crosses over the front of the ankle and goes to the inner edge of the foot, where it attaches in front of the highest point of the arch. To find it, place your fingertips on the front of your shinbone (tibia) about a third of the way down from knee to ankle, then slide them an inch or so toward the outside, press into the flesh there, and flex your foot upward toward the shin. You will feel the muscle contracting under your fingertips.
Double Your Fun
To feel this in action, practice Warrior I twice on each side. The first time, strictly maintain a "perfect" foot alignment and go only as deep as you can without compromising it. This will strengthen the tibialis anterior and stretch the gastrocnemius. The second time, start out the same way, and then go deeper into the posture, making some allowable compromises while continuously working as if to restore the perfect foot alignment. This will work your shin, calf, and foot in slightly different but still healthy ways, while placing more emphasis on getting other benefits from the posture, such as strengthening the thigh of the front leg.
Stand sideways on a sticky mat and separate your feet about 4 to 4 and a half feet apart. Place your hands on your hips. Lift your left heel and move it out so the foot turns about a third of the way in. Turn your right foot out 90 degrees by lifting the heel, then the ball of the foot. Now lift your left heel again and turn the foot inward another third of the way (it is now turned two-thirds of the way in, or 60 degrees). Keep both legs straight. If you cannot keep your left heel on the floor, bring your feet closer together or raise your back heel on a wedge. Look down at your feet and draw an imaginary line down the midline of your right foot and all the way back to your left foot. Position your feet so the line passes through the highest point of the arch of the left foot. If this throws you off balance, move your back foot to the left a few inches.
Press your left heel down until you feel equal weight on the heel and the ball of the foot. Then balance your inner and outer foot by keeping equal weight on the ball of the big toe and the ball of the little-toe side. Finally, center the weight on your heel, so the flesh of the inner and outer heel presses equally into the floor.
Now, without disturbing the balance of your back foot, slowly begin to turn the left side of your pelvis toward your right foot. As you turn, you will have to gradually press your left heel and outer foot down more firmly and lift your arch. To do this, deliberately activate your tibialis anterior muscle by pulling the middle of the inner arch toward your upper outer shin. When your hips have turned to their limit, straighten your left knee and slowly bend your right knee. Again, strictly maintain the balance of weight on your left foot. You may notice your weight wants to shift toward your inner heel. Don't allow this to happen. Press the outer heel down while maintaining equal weight on the front of your foot. Your weight will also want to shift toward the ball of your big toe.
Counteract this by pressing the ball of the left little toe down.
Continue bringing the left side of your pelvis toward the front as you bend your right knee. Unless you have very flexible calves, you won't bend very far. That's OK; the point is to keep the back foot as close to perfect alignment as possible. Square your chest forward as best you can and lift it high. Notice how the front of your left shin (tibialis anterior) spontaneously contracts more and more, and your calf (gastrocnemius) stretches. When you reach the point where you cannot bend further without disturbing your back foot, stop and hold for several breaths. Repeat the same practice on the other side.
Stand Your Ground
Now return to the first side and do the same exercise, with this difference: When you reach the point where you cannot bend further without disturbing the back foot, try to equalize the weight, but bend deeper into the pose even though the weight shifts. Go as deep you can while keeping your back heel and the ball of your little toe on the floor. If your back foot spontaneously turns out, allow this to happen as gradually as possible, but don't let it turn out beyond 45 degrees. When you reach your limit, reestablish the forward movement of your back hip, and straighten your back knee more firmly. Press down through your back heel to turn and lift your chest more. Raise your arms high overhead to complete your new, better-grounded Warrior I.
Roger Cole, PhD, is an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher and sleep-research scientist in Del Mar, California. For more information, visit http://www.rogercoleyoga.com.