I just returned from a five-day trip to Jelapa, Mexico, where I spent the vast majority of my walking time barefoot. I explored the beaches, the cobblestone town, and the dusty dirt trails leading inland, and my feet were in heaven. I was amazed at how quickly I acclimated to being barefoot, and delighted in the adaptability of those two pals of mine as they maneuvered over uneven surfaces efficiently and without any complaints. So it has been an interesting transition back to Oakland and to shoes and boots for urban living. Of course, I am fortunate to practice and teach yoga every day, so I get to spend a decent amount of time barefoot, but not out on the paths and trails as I did in Mexico.
|Bare Feet by Michele McCartney-Filgate|
In addition to this, I came across some interesting facts about human vs. other animal feet. From the Trail Guide of the Body came a fascinating comparison. Mammals such as cats and dogs are called digitigrades, as they actually walk on their toes or phalanges, whereas hoofed animals like horses, called unguligrades, are actually walking on the tips of their toes all the time. We humble humans are classed plantigrades, meaning we walk on the soles of our feet, although some dancers and rock climbers are known to imitate our other mammalian relatives on occasion!
And I am not certain which source proffered this opinion, but I read that it that plantar fascitis or heel spurs can result from shoe wearing by weakening the intrinsic muscles of the feet (those that arise and insert within the foot) such that the force of our weight is transmitted to the plantar fascia, a thin yet tough sheet of connective tissue that spans the sole of the foot, from the heel bone to the base of the toes. Once asked to take on such a big load, the plantar fascia often protests by becoming inflamed, especially where it attaches to the calcaneus bone, or heel bone, which can eventually lead to the formation of a calcified spur of new bone growing out into the fascia…owww!
If we step back from all this news about feet gone bad for a moment and consider the primary functions of our feet, I immediately think of two. First, my feet have to provide stability for me to be able to stand upright like when I am in line at the bank. And, second, my feet have to allow for mobility when I am in movement. So, stability and mobility, all delivered in one package, is called a foot. Yoga, via being practiced in bare feet and involving both stationary or static poses as well as dynamic movement between poses, is a great way to help your feet fulfill their dual role.
Some of us tend to have feet that are a bit stiffer, possibly with a higher arch, which are better suited for stability. Others of us tend to have more pliable, mobile feet, which adapt nicely to changing surfaces as we move about and are in motion. And there can be a nice mix of qualities in some feet. But feet that are very loose and mobile can even go to the extreme of having a collapse of the arches, especially the medial arch, which runs along the inside edge of the foot. For these students there is a unique way to practice standing poses that can help strengthen the intrinsic muscles, as well as those arising above the ankle but inserting on the foot called extrinsic muscles. Keeping your heel grounded as well as the ball of your foot, with a focus on the big and little toe side of your feet, try lifting the toes (not the ball!) of each foot off the floor as you explore the standing poses, starting with Mountain pose, and even working your way eventually to Tree Pose and Warrior 3! If you can do this regularly in your home practice and stay with it for months or longer, you may find that you have re-established your medial arch! Then of course you will need to relearn how to lower your toes without loosing your newfound springy arches. Sounds worth the journey to me.