Many of us have heard the enigmatic phrase “all yoga poses start at the feet”—usually followed by a few vague cues on how to position and move your feet in a specific asana. Among the most common cues “lift from the arch of your foot,” especially in certain poses, like Prasaritta Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). But what, exactly, does that directive mean—and why is it important to follow?
Functionally and structurally, your feet are critical to your practice. They’re flexible yet strong, helping you transition in and out of poses with ease. They also help you grip the mat and maintain balance. Having awareness of what your feet—and specifically the arches—are doing in different poses is important, because the entire kinetic chain depends on them. If they aren’t positioned correctly, you can develop low back pain, sacroiliac dysfunction, knee misalignment, and other issues.
Anatomy of the cue
Your foot actually has three bony arches that bear weight, help you maintain balance, and absorb the shock produced during movement. The medial, or inner, arch, is located on the inside of the foot and stretches from your heel to the ball of your foot near your big toe. The lateral arch, found on the outside part of the sole, extends from your heel to the ball of your outer foot and is the arch that touches the ground when you stand. The transverse arch runs across the ball of your foot, from the metatarsals of your big toe to pinky toe. It acts as a connector between the two other arches and provides the dome-shaped concavity of the sole, protecting the nerves and vessels that run through the bottom of the foot.
The peroneus longus muscle (the largest muscle of the outer calf) is responsible for stabilizing the foot and helping create lift in all three arches. The peronus longus runs behind the outer ankle from the head of the fibula to the inner arch, creating a pulley along the sole of the foot.
When you balance on one leg in a posture like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), the peroneus longus prevents your lower leg from collapsing inward and your inner arch from flattening.
When you press the fleshy pad of the big toe into the mat in Half Moon Pose, a second calf muscle—the flexor hallucis longus, which runs from the fibula down the sole of the foot to the base of your big toe—maintains the lift of the inner arch and stabilizes the big toe mound to help you maintain balance.
If you distribute your weight through all four corners of your foot—for example, as you do in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), you stretch the sole of the foot both lengthwise and laterally, which vaults the inner arch. This action creates a trampoline effect along the bottom of the foot, ensuring you don’t dump all of your weight into your feet and instead distribute it evenly in your body.
What your teacher wants you to do
Most of us stand with the majority of our body weight in our heels. This alignment prevents the peroneus longus and flexor hallucis longus muscles from engaging, and deflates the arches of the feet. Regularly standing with the arches flattened in this way can cause knee issues and tightness in your hip muscles that can encourage anterior pelvic tilt and excessive backbending in the lower back.
When you hear “lift the arches of your feet” in a standing posture, your teacher is essentially asking you to balance your weight through all four corners of your feet and press the fleshy pads of your big toes into your mat, as if you were pressing a button. This activates the peroneus longus and flexor hallucis longus muscles, which lift the arches.
Practice this by making your way into Tree Pose: Evenly distribute your weight between your heel and the mounts of your big toe and pinky. Draw your outer ankle in and maintain the lift of both the inner and outer arches.
You can also feel this movement by practicing Dandasana (Staff Pose) with the bottoms of your feet against a wall. Press through the inner corners of your heels and toe mounds to activate the peroneus longus, which prevents your feet from rolling outward.
Distributing your weight evenly over the 4 corners (some teachers prefer 3 corners, combining the 2 corners of the heel into a single point of contact), achieves the same action as saying “lift the arch of your foot.”
What not to do
Don’t curl or scrunch the base of your toes to lift the sole of your foot, or shift your weight completely to the outer edges of your feet. While this can create the appearance of a higher arch in a pose like Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Legged Forward Bend) by taking excess pressure off the inner edge of your foot, it’s easy to exaggerate this movement and cause unnecessary strain on your outer ankle.
Try it yourself
In standing poses, lift your toes off the mat to feel your arches elevate, as the corners of your feet ground into the mat. Then, lower your toes and press the big toe pad into the mat, without losing this lift in the arches. Notice where you maintain pressure to keep the arch lifted (did you feel your peroneus longus and flexor hallucis longus?).
About our contributor
Jennifer Chang, DPT, C-IAYT, E-RYT is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga therapist in San Diego, CA. Through her dually-informed therapeutic practices, Dr. Chang understands how yoga can enhance traditional physical therapeutics to help students improve their awareness in all aspects of movement and honor the needs of their bodies. Jenn enjoys helping students and clients build a sustainable asana practice, striving to help others find joy through movement to improve their quality of life. Follow her on Instagram: @the.movement.mechanic.pt.