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In ballet, it’s referred to as “relevé.” When you’re attempting to walk quietly, it’s called “tiptoeing.” And when you’re heading out on the town, it’s the shape you make when you slip into your stilettos.
Heel lifting may have been around since forever, although it rarely makes an appearance in yoga aside from Goddess or the occasional transition into an arm balance. Lately, however, Instagram influencers as well as anatomy-minded yoga teachers are suddenly relevéing everywhere—Low Lunge, Wheel, Chair, you name it.
So why, exactly, is it recently fashionable to lift your heel during your practice?
What lifting your heel in yoga can teach you
The explanation for the movement in ballet can be traced back to its elegant and sloping lines. Ballet is, after all, an art form. Yoga and ballet each emphasize movement that is mindful and intentional, although the goal of yoga isn’t to create a look with our bodies but rather to experience a feeling and an awareness within ourselves.
That doesn’t mean we need to cast aspersion on the variation simply because it bears a pleasing aesthetic. There are actual biomechanical advantages to lifting your heel in various yoga poses, and the recent emphasis on functional movement, which attempts to help you become more aware of how you move in yoga and in everyday life, may be responsible for the inclusion of an occasional heel lift.
You may find that by incorporating this element to certain postures, you experience the poses—and your body—in an entirely different and beneficial way.
1. Reveals muscular imbalances
Perhaps you recall the children’s song, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”? There’s wisdom in it. Starting with your toes helps you know what’s going on in your knees, hips, lower back, shoulders, and more.
We tend to think about alignment in macro terms. “Is my leg in the right place?” and “Am I twisting the right way?” Intentionally destabilizing yourself by lifting your heel can shift your thinking toward more subtle aspects of your body’s response, such as “What are my toes doing right now?” Or “Where is my weight shifting in this pose when I lift my heel?”
Many musculoskeletal imbalances that show up in your body can be mapped back to your feet. Everything is connected. And it all starts with your foundation. Lifting your heel demands that you engage not just the muscles of your feet and ankles, but many of the supporting muscle groups as well. This helps you find more stability. It also prompts you to feel into which muscles you most strongly engage. Notice whether it’s your calves, quads, glutes, or core. The more effort you feel in a particular muscle group, the more likely you aren’t engaging them sufficiently when your heel is firmly planted on the ground. This helps you become aware of which muscles might be weak and where you tend to focus on strengthening.
2. It strengthens your ability to adapt
When you’re challenged to do something unexpected—and perhaps seemingly crazy—like balance on your toes or even close your eyes during a pose, your body has to work harder to discern where you are in space. This awareness is known as proprioception.
The unfamiliarity of lifting your heel results in a heightened awareness around your center of gravity, or where you tend to shift your weight, which can be easy to overlook in your everyday practice and in life. The better you can control the shifting of weight in your feet, the better you can control the rest of your posture.
For example, a common tendency in forward bends is for students to shift their weight into their heels and move their hips toward the back of the mat without being aware of it. This causes the quadriceps to become lazy and can also overstretch the attachment place of the hamstrings to your bones, causing irritation (the dread “Yoga Butt”).
Lifting your heels in a forward bend is a safer way to stretch the hamstrings. Without your heels as an anchor, you need to work harder and more honestly to keep your hips from swaying too far back. Imagine hugging your thighs in and up in forward bends, as if you were trying to plug the femur bones further up into the hip sockets. The balance of stretching and strengthening shifts your weight to the center of your foot without feeling like you’re going to topple forward.
Another way to practice mindfully shifting your weight is placing yoga blocks on a medium height on the mat alongside your inner and outer ankle to frame your foot. From here, practice lifting and lowering your heels. You will notice if your heel prefers to roll inward or outward, depending on which block it knocks.
If your heels tend to roll out to the sides (supination), you may need to ground down more through your big toe ball mound. If your foot has a tendency to roll inwards (pronation) you may need to think about lifting up through the inner arches of your feet. It’s up to you if you carry that awareness forward into the rest of your practice.
3. Keeps you honest
The added muscle activation that results from lifting your heel helps prevent you from passively sinking into the joints rather than actively engaging, especially in familiar poses that you have grown comfortable in. Once you’ve become aware of how you start to collapse in your low back, for example, in Low Lunge, and feel the difference when you instead engage your core and calves, you can take that awareness with you into each future experience with the pose.
4. Improves balance
The reason balancing on the ball of your foot is more challenging is simple: You’re attempting to stabilize yourself on less surface area. The beauty of lifting your heel is it improves your balance through strengthening the muscles that keep you stable, which is an essential component of aging gracefully.
However, muscle strength alone isn’t enough. In order to improve your balance and proprioception in a posture, you need to tap into the sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex. Sometimes the mind can become lazy when something is familiar, so it needs a little innovation to create new neural pathways that support the continued improvement of balance over time. Adding a heel lift in an otherwise familiar pose is a simple and effective way to do exactly that.
5. Strengthens concentration
Although awareness and presence are tenets of yoga, it can be easy to become comfortable and complacent in poses that are familiar to you. Concentration can be one of the easiest things to lose. Adding a novel element, such as heel lifting, to your practice can serve as a reminder to be exquisitely focused on the same pose that you have taken literally hundreds of times before.
With this undivided attention comes space for investigative questioning in the form of curiosity. You could ask, where in my body do I feel my muscles compensating when I try to balance on my toes? Which muscle groups have started screaming at me now that all I can think about is not dropping my heel? Wait… am I breathing? What is my inner dialogue right now? Is it supportive or destructive? Um…did the teacher just say something?!
Thus begins your mindfulness practice. But remember: Yoga is a practice that leads to a lot of self discovery, so as you play around with lifting your heel, you may notice some things, whether big or small. Try your best to not place judgment on what you uncover or jump to self-diagnosing misalignments. These explorations are simply tools that lead to better understanding and a deeper integration of mindfulness in your practice. There’s no need to demand answers or place labels on what you might discover. Simply speculate on a deeper level than usual while leaving space to accept whatever you notice.
6. It engages your creative and playful side
Essential reminder: Yoga doesn’t have to be serious all the time.
Your practice can be therapeutic and mindfulness-inducing while also indulging your need for creativity and playfulness. Adding a heel lift provides a novel way to express yourself in a pose. If it feels good in your body, then I say go for it.
Try lifting your heel in these yoga poses…
Next time you’re in the following poses, play with lifting a heel. It might change a calf stretch to a calf strengthener, bring a lovely stretch to the bottom of your foot, or help you become aware of where you can improve your balance.
About our contributor
Jenny Clise has been teaching yoga since 2012. Her classes are inspired by many schools of yoga, and her favorite style of yoga to teach is alignment-based flows. She leads retreats around the world and is the author of the yoga e-book BLOCKASANAS. To learn more about Jenny, her classes, or upcoming events, check out her website JennyClise.com or follow @jennyclise_.