When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening throughout the foot muscles.
Feet. Boy do feet get ignored. I never realized this until I started going to therapeutic yoga and my teacher Marianne had us do toe exercises. We sat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The exercises started off simple, “Lift your big toe up and keep your little toes down,” and progressed often to strange places like, “Big toe down, little toe down, three middle toes up. Okay, big toe and little toe up, three middle toes down!”
Go ahead. I’ll wait while you try that. Oh, and breathe. Breathing is important.
Hard, isn’t it? Our toes, like our fingers, should be able to move independently of one another. But unlike our fingers, our toes are constantly wrapped up inside socks or shoes and rarely experience full sensation or range of motion. Marianne told us not be discouraged, because with consistent practice those neural pathways between the brain and toes could be re-awakened.
Yoga gets you back in touch with your feet and toes relatively quickly. Whether it’s hooking your big toe with the first two fingers and thumb in a balance, grabbing the soles of the feet for happy baby or cobbler’s pose, or shifting weight to/grounding through different parts of the foot, we tend to focus on feet a lot. That’s because every asana, pranayama, and meditation requires a solid base of support. In order to find the “easy comfortable seat” in practice, we must first be able to feel grounded.
When I want to stretch and strengthen my toes and feet simultaneously, I like to flow through variations of utkatasana (awkward pose / chair pose) that require strength and stabilization through the ankles, feet, and toes, but also require pliability in the toes and general lengthening of the foot muscles. Try the sequence below, flowing through it three times.
If you have trouble with the balance, do the sequence with a wall behind you. Not only will it assist balance, it will also help you find the perfect alignment for a nice, straight spine throughout. You can also try the sequence with feet flat on the floor to learn the breathing cues before adding the tip-toes.
Cues for the breath are below the video.
Inhale, and come high up on the toes and bring the arms up parallel to the floor.
As you exhale, slowly begin to sit down on the tops of the toes, keeping the spine long and upright. Press the heels forward, bringing more weight toward the first and second toe to keep the ankles or heels from splaying outward.
Engage the inner thigh muscles and pull the navel back toward the spine. Take a full inhale. On the exhale, slowly begin to hinge at the hips until the torso comes into line with the hips.
Keep sinking the hips low, pushing the heels forward, and drawing the lower abdominals in. Bring the arms alongside the body with palms facing down, or interlace hands behind the back and lift them up on an inhale for a shoulder stretch.
To release, inhale and slowly hinge back up from the hips, engaging the core through the heels, inner thighs, and abdominal muscles. Return the arms to the parallel position. Hold the upright pose through the exhale.
Inhale, and come high up on the toes with straight legs, and exhale to release to tadasana (mountain pose).
The keys to working through this sequence from the bottom up are:
Ground all of the toes. Really feel as if you are “plugging in” to the ground.
Press the heels forward firmly throughout and let the toes bend.
Engage the inner thighs (as if you were squeezing a ball or block between the legs) to keep the legs in line with the hips and feet.
Pull in the lower abdominals and draw the navel back toward the spine.
Lengthen through the spine. Traction from tailbone all the way through the crown of the head.
Broaden the back and retract the shoulder blades to keep an open chest and lots of space for your even breaths in and out of the nose.
Squeeze all five fingers together. It might seem silly, but this forces the arms to engage all the way through the finger tips and stabilizes their position.
Breathe evenly. The steadier the breath, the steadier the balance.
Steady your gaze. In the upright position, the gaze is ahead. As you fold, slowly shift the gaze to a point on the floor between your toes.
Above all, have fun! It’s just practice and play.
Try more utkatasana variations and standing poses with me at Hot Hatha Detox on Mondays at 10 am, or Hot Hatha Classic on Wednesdays at 6 am and Fridays at 4:15 pm at Mind Your Body Oasis.