Light on (the) Feet

Your lower left hand
Your lower left hand

Another interesting day in Yoganatomy today… and of course I had to write about it cause Leslie (hi, Leslie!) pulled me out and changed my posture…

Today we learned about the feet, everyone’s favorite body part. The cool thing about Leslie’s class is that he focuses on the WHYs and HOWs of anatomy, instead of the WHATs. Meaning, I still can’t name the muscles in the feet, and we didn’t review a laundry list of bones, but I could now tell you how the load-bearing system distributes weight throughout your step. More on that later.

Most people have foot problems. And we usually blame our shoes. Which is legitimate, but not for the reason you might expect. Leslie says that foot pain is caused by the increasingly uniform surface of the Earth, combined with the binding technology of our shoes. Our feet evolved to move over irregular surfaces: rocks, roots, pebbles, mud. Sidewalks and gel-aero-spring-max shoes take away the challenges for the feet, and so their muscles weaken. Fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, and all sorts of other pain result.

My sister has plantar fasciitis, which ended her glorious Division I soccer career, so I’ll just tell you (the Internet) what I tried to tell her voicemail today:

When muscles are not challenged, they become weak, and atrophy. In the foot, this leaves space between the bones of the arch and the connective tissue (plantar fasciia) beneath. The space calcifies with heel spurs and inflames the tendons, aka plantar fasciitis. Typical treatments like stretching the calves, to reduce the pull on the heel from above, don’t address the pull from below. Rebuilding the muscles of the foot, by walking barefoot, or standing on wobbly surfaces, will treat the real source of pain. Orthodics and other shoe devices might help manage acute pain for a short time, but as long as the foot is weak it will have problems. A year or two of strengthening and rebuilding the feet will do wonders for the whole body, since each step ripples up the skeleton.

A side note: Dr. Scholl’s sandals, flip-flops, and even Birkenstocks are not so great, if they make you grip your toes to keep the shoe on. Tai chi slippers, sandals with ankle straps, and anything with a flexible sole will allow the whole foot a stronger relationship with the earth.

Elite runners have known this for years, and often run in little more than socks. The big shoe companies are finally catching up Nike Free offers three stages of shoe that actually move you away from technology and towards barefoot. (The stages let you gradually rebuild your foot muscles, you can’t jump your poor weak feet straight into a barefoot marathon.)

So, back to the movement of weight through the foot. Ideally, it travels from the strike point in front of your heel, down the lateral side and across the ball, spiraling out between your big and second toes. Leslie had us walk around to feel this pathway, with two points to work on:

  1. Move from your center of gravity, with the body as a whole unit (as in Chaturanga) instead of flicking the legs out in front to lead. This translates to a little forward lean, a little weight in the toes, without sticking your butt out to counterbalance.
  2. Keep the point where your foot leaves the ground (the ball of your foot, between your first and second toes) on the earth a little longer. This creates a little more spring in the step.

The combination of all three was too much for me, and Leslie called me out for a curious “skating” gait I’d modged together. I tend to lean backwards and rest my weight in my heels, and apparently I lead with my legs, so when I kept the back foot a bit longer on the ground, there was kind of a slingshot effect as my whole body-and-then-leg had to move forward. Leslie had me stop, and lean forward. My heels came off the ground. He said to ground the heels, and lean my sternum into his hand. I hesitated. “Like Chaturanga,” he said. (The yoga pushup that builds great core strength.) I had to kind of think through those alignments, and what they’d be like perpendicular to the ground, and then I leaned forward. My toes activated, but with my center strong I felt it all the way up the front of my body! And when I walked forward it was all one piece, not my loosey-goosey floating flock of birds. Very cool.

So, sorry Leslie, I spilled my guts about your whole class, but you do give people their first visit free so here it is, with a Thank You! :)