The Foot and the Arch
If you are an athlete of any kind, you probably spend a majority of time on your feet. If you practice yoga, you know the foundation of many yoga poses usually incorporates the feet. Let’s take a deeper look at the foot as an athlete and yogi to understand how important it is to our game and to our practice.
The feet are the foundation for the temple of the body. Structurally, the feet support the body. The foot is complex in that it is made to adapt to all kinds of terrain. It’s responsible for weight bearing, balance, propulsion, walking and running.
There are 26 bones in our foot. A web of ligaments holds the bones of the foot together. These ligaments provide further flexibility to the bones. The ligaments limit intense movements that
would cause dislocations of the bones.
Arches of the Foot
Our foot has three distinct arches. Two of these arches run lengthwise on either side of the foot, while the third runs crosswise (across the midfoot, from inside to outside).
The medial arch or the one that is most noticeable on the inside of the foot absorbs a majority of the shock when you walk, run or jump. It provides connection to our trunk while offering
support upstream to the inside leg, inner groin muscles, and pelvic floor.
The outside arch of the foot known as the lateral longitudinal arch (That’s a mouthful.) is parallel to the medial longitudinal arch. This arch will be most noticeable in a person with a high arch.
The transverse arch which runs midfoot provides support and flexibility to the foot. Take off your shoes and socks and point your toes to see if you can identify all three of the arches in
The arches of the foot are maintained by the shapes of the bones, but the ligaments and muscles play a huge role in supporting our arches. The arch rises and drops based on the twist of the foot when we walk, run, and jump. We can have a clear arch in our foot, but not a clear pathway of weight. But, if we have a clear pathway of weight, the archway will be what it needs to be.
Now, think about a 4-legged stool for a moment. When one leg is off, the chair is still able to balance on the other three legs. The 3-legged structure is better able to adapt to the surface
without a fourth leg in place. Given this, three points of contact in the foot give more adjustability when we stand. If we lift the third leg of the stool, we still have two points of contact. In this example, imagine standing on the balls of your feet as your two points of contact.
The foot is shock absorption to our ankles, knees, and spine, even our necks. Force travels up through the body. If the foot can’t adapt to the force, something else will upstream.
Think about when you walk or stand for long periods of time. Hiking, walking at the mall while shopping; or walking around a theme park, you may notice your neck sore at the end of the
day. The force traveled up is due to the planting of the foot. The distribution of weight to the foot sends waves of energy throughout the body.
If you have ever lived in a downstairs apartment, you know the sound of the giant upstairs stomping around in the room above you. That neighbor may have also suffered from back, shoulder and neck aches.
Types of Foot Strikes
Pronation is the natural motion of our foot during walking or running. It’s also known as eversion. When you walk, it usually comes from the center, inside or outside of the heel. Your foot normally rolls a bit inward with each step.
From the time your heel strikes the ground, your arch begins to flatten and cushion the shock. Your weight shifts to the outside of your foot and then back to the big toe. If you have a neutral gait, your foot should begin to roll outward with the toe-off. The arch rises and reinforces to provide stability as your foot rolls upward and outward. All of the toes aid in push-off in normal pronation, but the big toe and second toe do more of the work while the others do the stabilizing.
In overpronation, the ankle rolls too far downward and inward with each step. It continues to roll when the toes should be starting to push off. As a result, the big toe and second toe do
all of the push off and the foot twists more with each step.
In supination, the foot is making a rolling motion to the outside edge of the foot during a step.
Do a self- assessment here. Look atthe bottom of your shoes. You will be able to tell by the wear pattern how your foot lands.
An overpronator will see more wearon the inner side of the heel and forefoot.
You may be at an increased risk of injury, and heel pain may also be the result of the stress on the ligaments and tendons of the foot due to overpronation.
But as a supinator, you will see more wear on the outside edge of your shoe. Supination is more observable inpeople with high, stiff arches that don't flatten enough during a stride.
Supination may increase your risk of ankle injury, like strains and sprains; as well as plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, and Achilles tendonitis.
Take note which category you fall under; pronation or supination.
Whether you are walking running or standing in a yoga pose, consider the distribution of weight.
Why does all of this matter? As an athlete, your feet play a large role in performance. Running on flat surfaces and uneven terrain puts constant pressure on your feet and thus, through your entire body. It is no wonder after a long run, the body feels tired all over.
When learning balance in the standing postures of yoga, we are training our feet to press into the earth so we are grounded evenly through the three points of the foot. By subtly and actively pulling the big toe mound towards the heel of the foot we can create a strong medial arch, and build strength in the footbed and instep (top offoot).
Sectionsof the Feet – The Bones
The foot is also divided into three sections. First are the toes or (phalanges) and the 5 longer bones (called metatarsals). The middle section, the arches of the feet; include the cuneiform bones, the cuboid bone, and the navicular bone. The third section, the rear of the foot, forms the heel and ankle. The talus bone supports the leg bones (the tibia and fibula), forming at the ankle.
The calcaneus bone (or heel bone) is the largest bone in the foot. But it’s also the hardest. This is understandable given the heel’s role in bearing the weight of the body.
Now, in order to organize our distribution of weight, we need to position the talus over the calcaneus. It is important for the weight to get into the calcaneus.
If the talus bone rolls inward into the inner heel or too much weight rolls into the inside of the heel, it will be harder to get the weight into the heel – and there will be a collapse in the inner part of the foot. You may have experienced this when stepping off a curb suddenly, and felt a little jab in the inner foot. We can fix that by using the muscles to lift the arch.
We want to organize the bones so that we get the weight into the calcaneus (heel bone). Spreading the front of the foot will cause the arches of the foot to rise.
Think of the span between the baseof the little toe and the base of the big toe like a miniature bridge. The bases of the first and 5th metatarsal are bases of the bridge andare primary pressure points for weight bearing.
Let’s go back to the 3-legged stool. The foot needs the right distribution of weight in three corners of the foot in order to stabilize.
Now, in a standing yoga posture, whether it is tadasana (mountain pose) or even vrkrasana (tree), we need to ground down into the heel, the pinky toe mound and the big toe mound, THEN use the MUSCLES to activate the foot to lift the arch.
By energetically pulling the big toe towards the heel, we begin to feel the shift of lifting the arch. If we think of our feet like the roots of a tree and actually press into the floor, we bring wakefulness into the structural integrity of the bones and ligaments in
the foot. Imagine the toes spreading like roots reaching for water in the ground.
These actions distribute up through the body into the spine and support the rest of our metaphoric tree. The truck supports the limbs of the arms and hands.
The small roots (26 bones) in our feet are placed so strategically to hold up the entire structural organization of our body. There are more than 30 joints in the foot which bend and flex as we walk, run and stand.
Think about this. Those little bones and joints immediately upstream, hold up two long bones in the leg. And above that, is one large bone, the femur. Imagine the feet like the foundation of a house. Small rock pebbles (foot) spread out to create joints, which take the weight of bricks (the leg bones), and the entire house (torso).
We take our feet for granted. By notactively endorsing the foot consciously, we are underutilizing its complex motions.
And we know what happens when joints don’t move. They stiffen up.
The top of the foot has little padding and or muscle. Poke around, and you will feel ropy tendons all the way to the shin bone.
However, the bottom of the foot has a thick layer of padding. The plantar fascia is a strong webbing that functions like snowshoes. It’s elastic, tough and resilient, assisting the metatarsals to spring off the floor. This webbing attaches the heel (and weaves into the Achilles tendon) and into the roots of the five toes.
The rigidity of the plantar fasciais a common barrier in yoga and other regular daily activities. The inflexibility in the foot and calf causes difficulty in squatting poses and in
downward facing dog (where the heels have a hard time touching the floor). If you are a runner suffering from plantar fasciitis, you may consider yoga as part of your training to help lengthen and strengthen the feet and body.
It’s critical to activate the foot in all poses – standing poses, backbends, forward bends, as well as seated postures. When in a pose, ask yourself: “Am I collapsing the inner or outer edge of my foot or heel?”
There is a correlation between the engagement of the sole of the foot or (pada bandha), and the pelvic floor (mula bandha). These two bandhas or locks suggest and interior joining of prana (inward moving energy).
By lifting the energy of padabandha, the pelvic floor is stimulated by involving the “heart of the foot” through the legs. If you look at a foot reflexology chart, you will notice the
heart referenced in this area, stimulating the inward moving energy of the stance.
It’s even important in inverted poses like headstand and shoulder stand. If the feet are dead weight and not active, the neck, shoulders, and skull end up suffering from compression.
Think of the feet like solar panelsreaching for the sun during inversion poses. The feet fuel the legs.
As we age, toes may become twisted or clenched due to sensory feedback. Like the loss of vision, loss of toe mobility is a very real thing. Inflexible toes in an elderly person may make them prone to falls. Practicing toe spreading and giving the feet sensation and
movement may actively enhance stability.
Let’s practice standing on two barefeet.
Stand with your feet hips distance apart. For good measure, this is about a fist or a fist and a half apart. Tadasana or mountain pose is the embodiment of stability.
Ground your feet down into the floor. Actively press into the floor and feel the sensation of the earth pressing back. Grow tall in the spine, and relax the shoulder blades. Lengthen the spine to the crown of the head.
Draw your awareness to the midline of the body. Maybe even imagine a plumb line running from the crown of the head to the base of the feet. The belly is firm.
The crown of the head and the soles of the feet are uniquely paired. Although they are at extreme ends of the body, they form a dynamic balance between earth and sky.
Stand with resolve, resilience, and poise.
Do you notice a difference in your left and right sides? Are you leaning more into one leg than the other? Do you notice one leg may be longer than the other?
This is natural. Over the course of our lifetimes, our bodies have been subjected to traumas like trips and falls and even breaks. The body adapts.
In Sanskrit, this pose, tadasana, may also be called samasthiti, which suggests “even standing”.
Sama like the word, same means equal. The root word “stha” means to stand or have stability. So, stand even with stability.
Stand in this mountain pose for a couple of breaths and begin to notice your structure upstream.
Are your feet rolling inward or outward? Are your shoulders collapsing? Is your head pitching to one side?
Avoid hardening anywhere in this pose. Avoid tightening your buttocks. You may try positioning a block between the thighs and note a slight internal rotation. Let the back of the head float back so the skull sits comfortably on the spine.
Play around with the dynamics of this posture for a minute or more.
Then stand with your back against a wall. Place your heels at the base of the wall, and rest your sacrum, shoulder blades and back of the head to give you feedback on your alignment.
Are your pelvis, trunk, and skull stacked over your feet? What structural differences do you observe?
These exercises are to give you feedback on alignments you can work on in your posture. Since the feet are the foundation of your mountain, your feet may need some more attention.
Another way to look at the feet is through the spine. The gentle curves of the spine from the neck to the sacrum, in a subtle way, mimic the foot structure.
The c-shape develops from birth into the s-shape while the baby learns to crawl and walk.
In the connection between the foot arch and the lumbar arch, the neck arch becomes important when baby learns to hold up the head, translating to the bridge of the toes to support the foot and body.
Developing spring and strength in the soles of the feet helps to provide structural support for the entire body.
When practicing yoga poses or beginning a run or a jump, bring your awareness to your feet, your stance and your structure. Observe the nuances of your stance from the ground up. Be curious about your adjustments. The body will tell a story. Let the story
unfold naturally so you can make mindful decisions on your next step.