Monday, June 7, 2010

Barefoot Yoga

My grandmother, who stood for long hours working in as a cook in a cafeteria, would return home and say, "My dogs are barking." My mother would say, "When your feet hurt, you hurt all over." When I spent many hours of my feet teaching school (and wearing heels, no less), my legs and feet would ache through the night. Maybe you can relate to one of these examples. Feet are neglected parts of our bodies. We shove them into ill-fitting (but cute!) shoes. We cover them up with socks. We spent cash on pedicures to make the toes look more attractive, and to slough off rough skin and calluses. But, still, few of us have "pretty feet." There are hammer toes, bunions, corns, fallen arches, blisters, and ingrown toenails. One out of every six Americans will develop foot problems that require medical attention. I can understand why many of us are reluctant to go shoeless or even barefoot when practicing yoga.

Let's get this clear, yoga is not about pretty feet. Yoga is about much more than looking glamorous. Yoga is about connecting with our bodies and respecting the connections. Your feet are the foundation of your connection to the earth, your means of locomotion, and reflect much about your state of health and overall muscle development. I'm not anti-shoe, but I am for letting feet hang out in their natural state while we practice yoga.

Pam Werner of Sun & Moon Yoga Studio has this to say about why feet matter during our practice:

"Our feet are our connection to the Earth; they are our roots to the Earth. A solid connection with the earth helps to keep us grounded which helps to balance the whole body. It is important to pay close attention to our feet and care for them properly to keep our connection to the earth clear and strong.

"As our feet are our connection to the Earth, they are also our body's foundation. Just as a foundation of a building must be level and stable to support the structure above, the feet must be balanced and sturdy to support the legs, spine, arms and head. If your base is tilted or collapsed, a reflection of this will appear up through the body as misalignments. It is also important to note that our feet are not static as a foundation of a building. Our feet have the added complexity of being mobile with the necessity of being flexible and strong.

"The first chakra (muladhara chakra) represents our grounding and connection with the Earth. The feet and legs play a vital role in balancing the first chakra because first chakra nadis flow from the tailbone down the legs into the feet.

"Not only do our feet create our foundation, our feet and toes are essential elements in body movement. They bear and propel weight of the body during walking and running. They help maintain balance during changes of body positions. The function of the toes, especially the big toe, is to help us balance and to propel us forward during movement. Feet create mobility and supply us with direction.

"The body lines up over the feet, when a foot goes out of alignment the ankle, knee, pelvis and back follow. Analyzing the way we stand, walk, run and sit helps determine the cause of misalignment, which is most likely the culprit of pain. Finding and correcting the misalignment usually relieves the pain.

"Our feet are often neglected and abused by wearing uncomfortable or improperly fitted shoes and rarely walking barefoot. Walking barefoot utilizes the foot muscles, which strengthens them as well as helps recreate and maintain healthy arches. It also allows the feet to be free, spread, and get fresh air.

"Our body reflects everything we do with our feet. If our feet are tight and clenched, our whole body mirrors this tension. When our feet are tired, our whole body is tired. When our feet are out of alignment, our whole body is out of alignment. Our feet are also mirrors of our general health. Signs of diabetes, arthritis, circulatory, and neurological diseases often appear first in the feet.

"Many foot problems are due to the fact that our society tends not to maintain muscle tone in the feet. By wearing shoes most of our lives our feet cannot move freely. By not allowing the feet to move freely or walk barefoot, the muscles and connective tissue of the feet weaken, the feet flatten (arches fall), ankles weaken, and other foot problems occur such as bunions, hammer toes, and claw toes. Bad shoes and lack of exercise weaken our feet which not only affects our bodies health it also weakens our connection to the earth.

"The alignment of our feet and the distribution of weight through them will affect the position, function and flow of energy through our knees, hips, back and shoulders. Constrictive footwear limits the blood flowing in and out of the feet and cramps the bones of the feet together, resulting in compacted and clenched musculature not just in the foot, but also in the entire body. Confining footwear includes high heels, cowboy boots, ski boots, cleats, ballet point shoes, rock-climbing shoes and other poorly designed shoes."

When we practice with bare feet, we give our feet (and all their sweat glands) an opportunity to breathe, to develop muscles that might have atrophied from neglect, and to literally get in touch with the earth. Tadasana grounds all four corners of the feet (the big toe mound, the baby toe mound, the inner heel and the outer heel) to align our entire body. Lifting the toes while standing helps to activate foot muscles, to lift arches, and to work all the tiny bones in each foot. Standing asanas and proper foot alignment during other asanas increase our feet's muscle tone and stretch muscles and connective tissue. Any asana that strengthens lower leg muscles and feet improves posture, increases circulation, reduces leg cramps, and creates stability.

Here are some poses that we practice frequently that benefit our feet:

Virasana (Hero Pose) stretches the top of the foot and ankle while toning the sole of the foot. If you have arches that aren't high, or if you pronate (roll inward) when you walk, this pose will strengthen the arches. The pressure on the top of the foot can, with patience and time, realign the tarsal bones and spread the toes.

Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose), like Hero Pose, can rehabilitate or maintain healthy arches, make ankles flexible, and give the tarsal bones some stretching room.

Baddha Konasana (Cobbler Pose) is wonderful for your feet. When all four corners of the feet press together and the toes are lifted away from each other, foot muscles and arches become stronger and more toned.

Squat with Toe Stretch (knees on floor) requires kneeling with the toes tucked under to stretch the bottom of the feet. It's an intense stretch and needn't be held for minutes at a time; nevertheless, just a few seconds will break up tension and tightness in the soles of the feet.

Malasana (Garland Pose), a wide squat with the heels on the floor, builds up the muscles of the feet, toes, and lower legs while improving circulation throughout the entire lower body.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) is a classic pose which lifts arches, stretches the soles of the feet, lengthens plantar muscles and fascia while stretching the Achilles tendon.

Any/All Standing Poses are opportunities to get grounded and in alignments. Feet are the literal basis for all standing work. A firm base of support keep you relaxed, light, and free. Distribute your weight evenly across the entire foot, and use your toes to spread and grip into the mat or floor.

Vipartia Karani (Legs up the wall Pose) is a great pose when you've been on your feet too long and want a break. This pose restores energy and oxygen to the legs and feet while allowing blood and lymph fluid to drain from your feet and ankles.

Until you feel comfortable practicing in bare feet, please don't feel self-conscious. You might need the extra support for injuries that you are healing, you might have a medical issue that keeps you from exposing your bare feet, and that's okay. But, if (and when) you can join us in bare feet, you'll discover a whole new dimension to your strength and practice.

Until next week, namaste,

P.S. I'll be subbing for Lois this Friday, June 11th at her 9:30 class in Glendora. Hope to see you then!

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