Your feet are essential not only to most yoga poses, but to your daily movements and activities. They support your body weight, provide lift and balance, and create a dynamic foundation, enabling you to stand, walk, and run.
But when was the last time you paid attention to your feet? Our feet receive little love: They are seldom stretched and spend most of the day squeezed into constrictive footwear which limits blood flow in and out of the feet and cramps the bones together, leading to rigid, clenched muscles. Even in our yoga practice, the importance of our feet is often overlooked.
Habitual misalignment can lead to a variety of health issues like collapsed arches, flat feet, or overpronation. This can create problems further up in the body: pain in the knees, hips, and eventually the back. Even neck pain can be rooted in the way you place your feet. As renowned bodyworker Ida Rolf explained, “A man’s tracks tell quite a true story. They inform quietly about ankles and knees, but they shout the news about hips and pelvis”.
Just as the foundation of a building must be level to support the structures above, the feet must be in correct alignment to support the rest of the body. Thus, taking care of your feet can lead to a healthier body overall. How can you find the correct alignment that leads to happy, healthy feet? With Pada Bandha.
What are Bandhas?
The word Bandha describes a lock or bind. In yoga, Bandhas are performed in order to direct the flow of life force energy to certain areas of the body. There are three major Bandhas: Mula Bandha (Root Lock), Uddiyana Bandha (Diaphragm Lock), and Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock). Combined, they form Maha Bandha. These Bandhas have been used by ancient yogis to promote the flow of prana and maintain optimal health.
The minor Bandhas are Hasta Bandha (Hand Lock) and Pada Bandha (Foot Lock). While they are not considered classic energy locks, both Hasta and Pada Bandha are essential for creating stability and preventing injuries during the asana practice.
Pada Bandha: The Foot Lock
Because of its many tasks it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the foot is a complex mechanical structure: It contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
There are three arches that provide flexibility, absorb shock, distribute our body weight and give our feet the ability to adapt to different surfaces: the medial longitudinal arch, lateral longitudinal arch, and the transverse arch.
These arches are crucial to our posture. Fallen arches, commonly referred to as flat feet, can no longer support the ankle bone. Once the ankle collapses inwards, the inner thighs are weakened – leaving the lower back vulnerable to compression.
The purpose of Pada Bandha is to activate and lift these arches which support the ankles, knees, and inner groin. This is what gives stability to our standing asanas.
- Start in Samasthiti, also known as Mountain Pose. Broken down, the Sanskrit word sama means “equal” or “upright”, while sthiti means “to stand” or “to establish”. Thus, Samasthiti translates to a pose of equal standing.
- Try not to lean too far forward (weight mostly on the toes) or backward (weight mostly on the heels). Align the center of your pelvis over the heel bones.
- Looking down at your feet, lift and spread your toes wide apart. Keep them spread as you try to plant down each toe one by one. This helps bring awareness to the feet and activate the necessary muscles.
- Root down through the three corners of the feet: the heel and the balls of the feet, especially at the base of the big toe and pinky toe. This action creates a triangular base for the foot, as shown in the picture above.
- To fully lift your arches, you also have to lift the muscles of the lower leg. Be aware of the sensation of hugging muscle to bone, drawing the muscular energy up through the midline: from the inner arch of the foot up to the knee and the inner thigh, all the way into the pelvic floor.
- Final tip: With all this muscular activation, you might start clenching your toes as though you’re trying to “grip” the floor. Release this tension and make sure to keep your toes elongated.
How to Activate the Feet?
If you struggle to feel the lifting of the arches in Pada Bandha, you might need to give your feet extra love and care. One amazing way of restoring elasticity and lift is to roll a tennis ball under the sole of your foot. This stimulates and releases tension from the muscles, fascia, and ligaments.
Another great exercise is the Toe Squat. Kneel on your yoga mat with your toes tucked under. Shift your weight back on the heels. You can rest your hands on your thighs or in your lap. Hold this pose for about a minute, breathing through any discomfort. If the posture starts feeling too intense, you can bring your hands to the mat for support, shifting your body weight forward to release the toes slightly. This Toe Squat gives the underside of the feet a deep stretch.
To stretch the top of the feet, come to Virasana (Hero Pose). Kneel on the floor with your knees touching. Slide your feet apart, slightly wider than your hips, and sit down in between. Keep pressing the tops of your feet flat on the floor. If your buttocks don’t comfortably rest on the mat or you feel discomfort in the knee joint, elevate your hips by sitting on a block or a stack of books. Rest your hands gently on your thighs or in your lap and turn your awareness inwards. Stay here for about a minute. Over time, you’ll be able to hold this pose longer.
After doing these warm-up exercises, come back to Samasthiti and observe how your posture has changed. From Samasthiti, you can explore other standing and balancing postures.
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