Feet are pretty fabulous. And fascinating. And unfortunately they are sometimes confusing and painful. I am asked so often in Yoga about foot issues that I actually had to blog about it. Bunions, cysts, flat feet, plantar fasciitis, and general foot cramps are just some of the challenges you may be facing, not to mention how tired your feet might get in those wide legged standing postures. Read on for some simple explanations and how you can help yourself ...well...stand on your own two feet!
Much like your hands, your feet are just appendages with tons of muscles and bones. While not as dexterous as your hands, the feet are designed to be mobile. Outside of a yoga practice, many of us shut our feet up in restrictive shoes for most of the day. Even without shoes, you might find yourself wearing socks or nylons rather than going barefoot and none of this allows the soft tissues of the feet and toes to spread and move as they were designed. Think if you wore mittens, or even gloves, on your hands all day - you would probably feel pretty restricted and eventually start to use your hands less, or at least differently, than what you're accustomed to right now with your naked and free fingers. Without use, the abilities of your muscles and soft tissue start to deteriorate. In short...you
might have lazy feet.
When pain arises, your first thought is to just make it go away - and understandably so! When your doc tells you that your feet hurt because your arches have fallen, you may be inclined to go out and get more supportive shoes or orthotics. Bunions lead you to wider shoes and eventually surgery. Just get a cyst drained and you'll be off and running, maybe literally. All of these are valid short term fixes, but they don't correct the original problem of muscular imbalance (fallen arches/flat feet), tight tendons (bunions), or lack of space for bones/tissues in the foot (a cyst is kind of like a fluid-filled air bag for cushioning). So what's a person to do? Stretch, strengthen, and in many cases exercise some patience - it took some time for the imbalance to arise, it will take some time to correct it also*.
1. Flat Feet: An arch is an incredibly solid structure for supporting weight (architects figured this out a long time ago). This is why your feet have them! We even have smaller arches in the palms of the hands, but we're all about the feet today :) When you cram your feet into shoes all day and generally ignore them, their tissues weaken, tighten and lose efficiency...kind of like any other seldom used muscle in your body. Problems can arise from overuse as well. As previously noted, adding supportive footwear makes it feel better initially, but it doesn't correct the causative problem - you need to work your feet to get your arches back. You can also stretch the tops of the feet and ankles in plantar flexion (toes pointed), much like a Hero's pose position. As this gets easier, you will probably start to notice less cramping when the toes are pointed. One simple thing to do for flat feet is to STAND/WALK WITH YOUR FEET PARALLEL! When toes are turned out, the talus bone in the foot can slide inward and weaken the connective tissue promoting fallen arches. Standing with toes forward is a simple first step to correcting this situation. Strengthening the arches can also be helpful for heel spurs.
2. Plantar Fasciitis: If your feet are flat, see #1 above - your fallen arches are making you walk on your plantar fascia which is irritating the he!! out of it. If your arches are in good shape or even quite high, you might need to stretch your calf muscles more. A good example of this in a Yoga class would be what happens with the back leg and foot in Warrior 1, Crescent, or Flank Stretch.
3. Bunions: The tendons/muscles that connect the inner portion of your big toe and the rest of your foot are tight, and that's pulling your big toe toward the others - once it starts, they no longer pull in the right direction. There's a lever action here, so as the top of the big toe is pulled toward your second toe, the base of the big toe is being sent toward the inner side of the foot (the opposite directions can happen with the little toe also). You can't stretch tendons, but tendons attach muscles to bone and you CAN stretch the muscle - you need persistence here. BUNIONS ARE REVERSIBLE! Try "holding hands" with your feet: place a finger between each of the toes to create space manually (see picture below). Beyond this, pull the top of the big toe inward (ex. left big toe is pulled to the right like this video) while pressing on the bunion to push it inward. Dilegence pays off. I suggest doing this at least 10 minutes a day and you may notice a difference within a month or two. Keep going! Just because it feels better doesn't mean it is better, so keep this up for as long as it ta
4. Cysts: See the above "air bag" analogy and the "holding hands with your feet" suggestion in #3 (pictured to the right) - you need to make space to relieve the pressure.
For everything above and more...I strongly suggest going barefoot as often as you can! Our society may not appreciate you walking through the office without shoes, but you've got some time at home, in yoga class for sure, and you can make different shoe choices when you do have to wear them (my doc recommends Keens; Merrill and Ahnu are great, too, in my experience).
The human body is quite resilient. We notice its fragility when things go wrong or become painful - in fact it makes us really pay attention! But it is important to remember to give your body the tools it needs to recover and rebuild itself. Keeping the tissues in the feet pliable, healthy and strong can help keep you moving comfortably throughout your lifetime. Lose the high heels, dump the orthotics that further weaken things*, and get your feet moving the way they were intended to move.
You can do it...just one step at a time.
*This is not in reference to hereditary issues or damage due to serious injury. The ideas here are not all encompassing and are not meant to replace advice from your foot care provider.