An old adage goes, "As the foundation is laid, so the walls of the house will rise." In yoga, you build a firm and level foundation by focusing on your feet, and from it a strong, spacious, and elegant pose will rise. To create a firm foundation, use the strength of your legs to send strong roots into the earth; make the foundation level by contacting the floor evenly with your feet. Building awareness in the feet in each and every pose may sound tedious, and, yes, it can take years of practice, but it's well worth the effort. If you subject your feet to incorrect alignment—whether in yoga poses or while dancing, running, walking, or especially while wearing ill-fitting shoes—you'll eventually end up with nagging strains or even serious injuries.
Change Is Possible
The shape and balance of your feet are determined by the shapes of your foot bones, the structure of the ligaments that hold the bones together, and the muscles that move and position the bones. The first two factors are hereditary, but you do have the power to change the strength, flexibility, and coordination of your foot muscles. I've known numerous yoga students who, over the years, have made significant changes to the shape and balance of their feet.
The best way to get to know your feet is to start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Try feeling the extreme positions. Make the inner (medial) sides of your feet light, lifting away from the floor, while the outer (lateral) edges stay heavy. This is excessive supination. Next, let the outer edges lift while the inner arches collapse—this is excessive pronation. Ideally, in all of your standing poses you'll balance pronation and supination by keeping your arches lifted while your inner heels and the bases of your big toes stay grounded.
The two primary muscles that lift the arch in supination are tibialis anterior and tibialis posterior. The tibialis anterior originates on the front of the tibia (shinbone), and the tibialis posterior comes from deep in the calf on the back of the tibia and the fibula (the long bone next to the tibia on the outer calf). Both attach to the small bones that form the arch of the foot on the medial side. Because their long tendons run down the inner ankle on the way to the arch, they have excellent leverage to supinate the foot and lift the arch.
Their antagonists, the muscles that perform the opposite action and pronate the foot, are the peroneals. To keep things simple, we'll focus on the bigger of the two peroneals, the peroneus longus. It originates along the fibula on the outer calf, and its long tendon runs along the outer ankle and under the sole of the foot to insert on the medial side of the arch. The peroneus longus pronates the foot by pulling down on the medial arch and also helps you to press down through the base of the big toe.
To correct excessive pronation, press the outer edge of the foot down to lift the arch. Check to make sure that the center of your kneecap is aligned over the center of your foot. If your knee points toward or even to the inside of the big toe, it causes pronation, which can't be corrected without realigning the whole leg. Now, to correct oversupination, press down through the base of the big toe, and you should feel the peroneus longus contracting along your outer calf, forming a gashlike indentation from your outer knee toward your ankle.
It can be difficult to maintain the medial-lateral balance in standing poses. I've noticed that the back foot in particular is often neglected—perhaps because it's harder to see—in asanas like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), and Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose). When left to its own devices, the back foot in those poses tends to overpronate, leaving the inner arch collapsed while the outer edge of the foot lifts, which explains your teacher's constant cue to "ground the outer edge of the back foot" during class. If you are able to do this, you'll notice that your arch lifts, bringing your foot back into beautiful balance. If not, you'll be practicing with a flattened arch.
In addition to maintaining healthy, lifted arches, learning to supinate the back foot in standing poses can reduce knee strain. When you press the outer edge of the back foot down in standing poses, your femur (thighbone) will lift slightly away from the floor. This action helps to align the femur with the tibia, thereby preventing strain and compression in the knee between them. You can feel this by having someone press a yoga block against your outer back thigh in Warrior I with just enough force that you can firmly push back against it with your femur. Try this action with both legs in Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), too. Try the wrong way first by allowing the femurs to drop toward the floor and each other. This movement puts a subtle side bend in the knee; the inner side spreads open, and the outer side compresses. Imagine how, over time, this could strain the ligaments and tendons of the inner knee, while compressing the cartilage on the outer knee. To correct this, come into Prasarita Padottanasana and broaden the femurs away from each other as you ground the outer edges of your feet. Then have your helper push blocks against the outside of both femurs. Pressing out through the legs and down with the outer edges of the feet will save not only your arches but also your knees.
Once you've worked diligently to keep the outer edge of your foot pressed down and your arch lifted in standing poses, you should tell yourself one more thing: Don't overdo it. Otherwise, you might eventually end up oversupinating. This can result in pain in the outer ankle and even up the outer calf—telltale signs that you've been overstretching your outer ankle ligaments and the peroneals. Since these are the main tissues that stabilize the outer ankle, overstretching them can lead to hypermobility, setting the stage for ankle sprains. So follow this rule as you practice: no outer ankle pain. (Placing your feet too wide apart can also elicit outer ankle strain and pain, so check with your teacher to ensure you're working at the suggested distance for each pose.) If you begin to feel pain, bring your foot back into balance by adding some pronation.
Finding a balance between supination and pronation is also a key action for the front foot, which tends to pronate in poses like Trikonasana and Virabhadrasana II, but may oversupinate in Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch). Grounding the big toe is also a vital part of finding your balance. What happens in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) when you feel your weight shift onto the outer edge of the front foot? You fall over. The same goes for Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Try it at a wall and you'll see what I mean.
Stand with your right side to a wall or table, fingertips barely touching it. Bring your left leg into Tree Pose. Gently oversupinate your standing leg, letting your big toe lift, and notice how you begin to lose your balance. To quickly find your balance again, press the right big toe and inner heel firmly down into the ground, without going so far that you drop your arch. In any standing pose, it's a matter of balancing pronation and supination in your feet, whether you have one or both on the floor. In that ideal connection to the earth, your arches are lifted, your big toes and inner heels are grounded, and your knees, ankles, and feet are happy.
As you increase your awareness and control of your feet, you'll deepen your understanding of an important yogic lesson, that of seeking balance. You will learn to find the balance point between lifting up and pressing down, working hard and letting go, moving and being still. Keep on practicing, and one day you will find yourself at the calm center point of all these opposing forces.
Julie Gudmestad is a physical therapist and an Iyengar Yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon.