Foot Yoga for a Fine Foundation

Yoga mat in fitness class for health and wellness including healthy feet

Article At A Glance

Our feet are our foundation. The integrity of our skeletal structures depends on how we stand on our feet. We may not feel the effects of unhealthy shoes in our 20s and 30s, but our life habits tend to come home to roost as we enter our 40s and 50s. Adding foot yoga to our daily yoga practice or teachings will begin life-long benefits for all.

I can’t claim to have made healthy choices in all areas of my life throughout my history on the planet, but I can claim relative intelligence about one aspect of being in a body: I’ve always worn sensible shoes. I’ve owned one pair of heels in my entire life, a pair of platform shoes I wore a few times in the mid-’70s before chucking them after twisting my skinny ankles in them one too many times. I last wore heels at a fabulous restaurant in Rome in 1979. I borrowed a pair from one of my roommates and ended up walking home barefoot because it was more comfortable than walking on those stilts. I wish I’d known about foot yoga way back then.

I can’t imagine a situation in which I’d be persuaded to wear heels now. First, they’re just way too uncomfortable. I can’t stand having my toes squished into little points, especially with most of my weight pressing into the balls of my feet and toes. When you wear three-inch heels, 72 percent of your body weight is concentrated into the balls of your feet—ouch!

Second, I know too much about what wearing heels does to your feet and the rest of your body. High heels completely throw off your center of gravity, causing everything above your feet—the rest of your body—to misalign to keep you upright.

Building Your Foot Yoga Foundation

Our feet are our foundation. The integrity of our skeletal structures depends on how we stand on our feet. We may not feel the effects of unhealthy shoes in our 20s and 30s, but our life habits tend to come home to roost as we enter our 40s and 50s.

All that said, my teacher says, “It’s not what you do once in a while; it’s what you do every day that makes you who you are.” High heels are probably not going to create huge problems for you if you wear them on occasion. It’s everyday wear that changes your skeletal structure. I once worked for a woman who was incapable of walking barefoot because her calves had shortened so much from wearing heels every day. Her heels could not touch the floor.

As much as 75% of the weight ends up on the big toe mound when you wear heels three inches or higher.

The Problem With Flip-Flops

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but flip-flops are not the best option for your feet either. Because flip-flops lack a stabilizing strap on the heels, you have to tense your toes and the balls of your feet just to keep from kicking them off with each step. Of course, part of their charm is that it’s so easy to kick them on and off, but when you walk any distance in them, your feet will have to work very hard just to keep them on.

The other problem with flip-flops is that they change how you use your feet when you walk. Instead of pressing evenly through your foot, you have to set the heel down, and press through the outside of your foot, ending with the big toe. This can stretch the ligaments on the outer ankle, making sprains more likely. Also, as with heels, any misalignment in your foundation will cause a chain of misalignments all the way up your body.

There’s always a happy medium. Perhaps you can wear more substantial shoes or sandals when you’re going to be walking distances and save your flip-flops for quick walks from your house to your yard.

Foot Yoga and Caring For Your Feet

Young woman on bed massaging her feet for better health and wellbeing

Aside from wearing flat-soled shoes with wide-toe boxes, how else can you care for your feet? Foot yoga, of course. Decades ago, I learned some great foot exercises from Mary Palmer, the yoga teacher who first brought B.K.S. Iyengar to America. More recently, yoga teacher trainer Jenny Otto taught me some more great techniques.

Jenny has incorporated foot yoga into every class I’ve taken from her. In a 2008 article in Fit Yoga Magazine, she said, “Our feet are like steering wheels of the legs … What happens to the feet affects the knees, hips, and, ultimately, the whole spine. Everything starts from the ground up.” According to the article, Jenny “not only healed her painful heel spurs through yoga but also built up the arches of her flat feet.” I also came into the world with flat feet and have seen my feet grow arches over the years of practicing foot yoga.

How to Practice Foot Yoga

Healthy feet make for greater comfort and ease in yoga balance poses and other activities

Here are a few examples of foot yoga I learned from Mary and Jenny:

  1. Start with bare feet. Sit on a cushion or folded blanket, and cross your right ankle across your left thigh. You may also straighten your left leg out on the floor and cross the right ankle over it. Another option is to sit in a chair and cross your right ankle across your left thigh.
  2. Thread the fingers of your left hand in between your toes, moving them as deeply as you can into the webs between your toes.
  3. Squeeze your fingers with your toes; release. Squeeze your toes with your fingers; release. Repeat a few times.
  4. With your fingers still between your toes, circle your ankle 8 to 10 times, then switch directions.
  5. Remove your fingers and massage your toes and the ball of your foot with both hands.
  6. Massage your arch with both hands.
  7. Pull out gently on each toe.
  8. Release your foot to the floor and have a look at your feet. It’s likely your recently massaged foot will likely look pink and alive compared to the other one.
  9. Repeat the whole series on the other foot.
  10. Rolling a tennis ball under your foot can also be helpful. Try it standing in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). Standing on a yoga mat helps keep the tennis ball from sliding away. Roll the ball under one foot for about a minute as you stand on the other. Then stand in Tadasana and check in with your feet, legs, and two sides of the body. Note if the sides of the body feel different from each other. Repeat on the other side.

You can do these exercises as part of your yoga practice or do them at other times. I sometimes do foot yoga while I watch a movie (at home, of course).

Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products. 
Charlotte Bell writer

Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.

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