The Right Way to Align Your Feet in Yoga Poses
The feet are often the literal foundation of yoga poses, yet they are largely overlooked. And for good reason: it’s hard to get aware of the feet, as they’re so peripheral, and our awareness tends to center on our bigger muscle groups.
I remember in one of my first yoga classes when the yoga teacher said to lift and spread your toes, and I looked down at my feet and attempted to move my toes, but nearly nothing happened. But here’s the thing: even by just attempting to spread your toes, muscles in the feet and lower legs are activated, and through repetition and practice, you can learn to build awareness through the soles of the feet.
A lot of yoga’s alignment can be done by focusing on balanced action in the feet. Let’s look at it:
Stand with your feet hip-width and rock forward and back, shifting the weight between the balls of your feet and toes, and your heels. Keep your knees a little soft as you do, and try to find the place where the weight feels balanced between the front and back of each foot.
Once that is established, lift one of your feet in the air a couple inches. On your standing foot, roll in and out on the foot and discern the difference between the inner and outer edges of your foot. I learned a lot by exaggerating these actions, and looking down to see the weight shift on the foot.
You may already know if you feet have a tendency to pronate (roll in) or supinate (roll out), and in a way, if your feet tend towards one of these extremes, it can be a little easier to discern the difference between pressing through your inner and outer foot.
For supinators (those of you whose shoes get worn on the outer edge of the soles first, and who easily sprain your ankles), feel how when you emphasize pressing through your inner foot, there’s muscle toning around your ankle, and also up along your outer shin (the peroneal muscles). Simply by affecting how your press down through your foot, you activate muscles farther up the leg.
Whatever the patterns are for you, here are a few yoga poses to help build awareness of the feet, and begin to see the connections between the feet and other parts of the body.
In forward folds like uttanasana and prasarita padottanasana, weight tends to shift into the heels. Try bending your knees in your forward folds, and shifting your weight forward until you feel as much weight in the balls of the feet and toes as your heels. Then keep that balanced as you press your hands down and forward to access a deeper stretch.
In asymmetrical standing poses like Virabhadrasana II that have one bent leg, the bent leg will tend to do more than its share of work. Check out this video on transferring half of the pose’s work into the straight leg, and note how that changes not just the feet, but also the pelvis, legs and torso.
Standing balancing poses like tree pose benefit greatly by balancing the action in the feet. If your knees lock (hyperextend), weight will dump into the heels, and balancing will be difficult. Feel it in tree pose: bring your left foot into your inner thigh or shin. Keeping your right knee bent an inch or so, shift weight both forward and back and in and out on your standing foot until it feels balanced. Notice how that engages muscles around your legs. As you press your leg straighter, think of extending from your pelvis directly down through a straight line in your leg, rather than pushing your knee back (and thus shifting the weight into your heel).
You’ll find this essential as you move towards more complicated balancing poses, including turning your gaze up towards your thumbs in vrksasana. Try it!