Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Smart Feet

How cute are these piggies?
Yoga students are eager to move through poses that strengthen their limbs and core and lengthen their spines in back bends and twists. When it comes to balance poses, usually polite students barely suppress groans.

I get it. For years I dreaded balance poses. It's easier to look graceful and accomplished when cycling through a round of sun salutations or warrior poses than it is to balance, or more precisely, to fall in and out of, Tree pose.

I inherited a tendency for bunions. Wearing cute high heels when I worked book conferences on concrete convention center floors exacerbated the problem. I still remember with fondness the pair that did them in. The were floral print, square-taper pumps from Spain. They were so pretty and stylish, teenaged boys would compliment those shoes. The charm wore off when, after a twelve-hour day on my feet at a book fair in St. Louis, I swear my bunions swelled to twice their size. I've worn sensible shoes ever since.

During yoga teacher training, a stern acharya took one look at my feet and said, "You've got some work to do."  I discovered a gem of an article by Doug Keller that offers great and easy therapy for distressed feet. I did the exercises every day and found that not only were standing poses easier but so were the dreaded balances! Where I had once had "stupid feet,"Keller's exercises had helped intelligence move into my feet. It's a long way from the brain to the feet. Just as the spine lengthens and rejuvenates itself in virtually every yoga pose, messages from the brain to the feet extend their reach when you consciously work on it.

There are 28 bones in the foot. The harmony of the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments holding this miraculous structure together can so easily be disrupted.

Foot work is not just for students who have bunions. The feet take a beating over the course of a lifetime, and we mistreat them with the shoes we wear. So I've incorporated what I call Smart Feet exercises into my teaching. My students' favorite--OK, it's my favorite--is toe raises. You practice lifting only the big toes while keeping the other toes on  the floor. Then you raise only the pinky toes while keeping the others pressed to the ground. The bonus round: simultaneously lifting the big toes and pinkies while keeping the middle toes on the floor! I worked on this last move for a month before I could finally do it.

When you try it, you'll find your fingers wanting to conduct what your feet are doing, and that's fine. The fingers are more flexible, more alive with intelligence, because we use them all the time, and they convey it to the feet. Anatomically, the big toe raise is strengthening the anterior muscles of the foot, and the pinky raises strengthen the lateral sides of the foot. All of it adds up to strengthening the feet and making them more flexible. Most people also pronate and supinate.Working with the feet yogically helps resolve these imbalances in weight dispersal, and thereby improves balance.

The shoes you choose to wear also determine how smart your feet are, as I learned the hard way. At the recommendation of teachers at the ashram, I got a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. They look like toe socks with a thin leather sole. Best $75 I ever spent. My feet sing when I wear them. I balance over my arches better, and utilize the soles of my feet more fully and efficiently. Some hardy souls I know use them to run in. But I've determined that my feet are too far gone to use the Five Fingers for running, despite the rehab I've done. I tried it once, and the left sole of my foot hurt for weeks afterward. I'll stick with my C-width Brooks running shoes.

Try the foot exercises and see for yourself how much more supple your feet are in standing poses and balances. Smart feet are always in fashion.

I may have bunions, but at least I don't have hobbit feet.

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