Oh our poor, neglected feet! We only notice them when something goes wrong, they cause us pain, or they come out of our shoes and socks in the summer and we decide they are weird-looking or ugly. One of the first things I learnt in yoga teacher training was how powerful and important our feet are, both for yoga poses and in daily life. They do an amazing job of holding us up and moving us around but they can also benefit the rest of our body and even our mind. So here’s a reminder of why we should pay more attention to our feet and some ideas for how to do exactly that.
The intrinsic amazingness of feet
A quarter of the bones in our body are in our feet! A single foot contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. The reason for this complexity is that they have lots of different and important jobs to do. The average person takes 3,000 to 4,000 steps every day, which means the feet work very hard to take our weight, keep us stable and upright, and keep propelling us forward. And we don’t make it easy on them – high heels, tight shoes, collapsing our arches and slouching with our weight on one leg all take a toll on our poor feet.
Our feet can strengthen a surprising part of the body
You’re probably all aware that, because all our bones are connected to each other, if our feet and ankles are out of alignment this will affect our whole posture, leading to pain in the knees or back. In yoga, if you attempt a standing pose without first activating and grounding your feet, the whole pose will be affected and is likely to be misaligned or unstable as a result.
But did you know that your feet can affect your pelvic floor? The pelvic floor is a sheet of muscles between your pubic bone and tailbone. In both men and women, strong pelvic floor muscles give control over the bladder and bowel. In women they are particularly important for sexual experience and in pregnancy. Activating the feet is a great way to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles while keeping them supple. Read on and I’ll tell you how to do this while you’re standing around in queues…
Our feet can help us cope with stress
Most of us spend a lot of time in our minds and little time being truly present in our bodies. This is usually exacerbated when we feel stressed, anxious or low. Negative thoughts and feelings have a habit of spiralling round our minds, feeding each other, and making us feel worse. Bringing attention to our feet can be a powerful way of breaking out of this cycle, because focusing on the connection between the feet and the ground helps us feel more grounded and present in our bodies.
After reading this far, hopefully you’re thinking about how you might pay more attention to your feet. Here are a few ideas…
Give yourself a massage
Show your feet a little appreciation and give them a massage at the end of the day or before yoga practice. Take some massage oil or moisturiser and really work into the soles and tops of your feet – you can even use your elbow to get a bit deeper into the muscles if your hips are flexible enough. This will help awaken your feet and release the muscles and connective tissue. You’ll probably find that when you stand up afterwards you’ll have more feeling and sensitivity in your feet, which will help you be more aware of how you’re moving and standing on them.
Maximise your time in queues
When you’re waiting for a train or in a queue, notice how you’re standing. Focus on pressing into the ground evenly through your heels, your big toe mounds (balls of the feet) and your little toe mounds, with your weight centred. Draw up through your inner ankles and inner calves to activate your foot arch. Rotate your thighs slightly inwards. Move the weight of your body backwards while staying rooted down in your toe mounds. Relax your shoulders, soften your front ribs and imagine your breath softly expanding your back ribs.
If you’re doing all this you might feel your lower belly and pelvic floor muscles contracting (the skin of you lower belly will flatten and suck inwards in a fairly subtle motion). Don’t worry if you don’t feel this straight away – it might take a bit of time and practice. Over time, this exercise will help to strengthen your feet and improve your posture, as well as toning your pelvic floor.
Breathe into your feet
When you notice yourself feeling stressed, anxious or low, bring your attention to your feet and imagine you are inhaling from the ground upwards, and exhaling back into the ground through your feet. You can do this lying, sitting, standing or walking. I like to do this while I’m walking to the office – think of it as mindful walking. Connect your breathing to your feet, and focus on placing each foot on the ground and the sensations in your feet as your do so. Breathe deeply, softly, and calmly into your feet to quieten those anxious or negative thoughts and become grounded and centred again.
And take a moment to say a little thank you to your amazing feet.