How we use our feet in yoga

A Yogi’s Toes: It All Begins With the Feet

Our feet are our foundation whether we are standing, walking, or running. With over 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles from the ankle to toe, our feet are our primary means of both balance and mobility.

But they’re unique in other ways than just physical. The foot is like our energetic epicenter, the first and last place energy enters and leaves our body. Although, the foot chakra is actually split with half in the ball of each foot. And when we bring the balls of our feet together, we make that energy whole.

And why in samastithi (equal standing), we begin with the feet. Not uncommon also is for beginners in yoga to notice their feet, especially during one-legged balancing postures, which are wonderful for developing ankle stability and foot strength. Honestly, I think it’s when we gain more experience or the practice gets more complicated – like add some inversions, arm balances, and jump backs and jump throughs – it’s like our feet are just some sort of useless appendage attached to the end of our bodies.

Seriously, I’m not even making a joke. And especially when the feet aren’t within eye sight … like in chaturanga, updog, backbends, inversions, and arm balances. Start doing a whole lot of those poses with no attention to your feet and all of a sudden you have a bunch of yogis complaining about their shoulders and back. Then what happens? We pay even MORE attention to our shoulders and back and even LESS attention to our feet.

bakasana with pointed feet

Pointing your feet in arm balances help lift you – so it’s not all in your shoulders.

All I can tell you is – the more I focus on my feet, the easier all my postures become. And here’s the kicker: nearly all my shoulder problems also went away.

The Point in Practice

Generally in yoga, we have two distinct, active choices in regards to our feet: to flex or to point. Though there is one more often thrown in the mix and that is the “floint” – a curious (yet perhaps useful) combination of the two. And of course, I should mention a more neutral position, one that is still active, but also more natural.

Some postures may need to flex to activate, some a point, and some a floint (whatever the hell that word is/means!) Keep in mind that there is often a progression to these understandings and ability to control the body and its parts, to create different effects.” (David Keil)

The Flex

flexed footA flexed foot is one where the heel is actively pushing away from the body as the top of the foot pulls up and into the body. It is an especially important action any time the knee extends beyond the ankle, as it does in utkatasana (chair), pasasana (noose), and virabadrasana (warrior).

Active flexion can also be found in the seated postures, where the hamstrings don’t have to bear the weight of the body, like dandasana and marichasana c. The other seated postures call for a more natural flexion. Ironically, too much effort in flexion here can hurt the hamstrings. Which is why, I suppose, some teachers will suggest some students relax their feet. Relaxed for these students, I imagine, probably translates in their bodies as neutral.

The Floint?

flointed footPointed toes are actually pointed feet, so this term is a bit misleading. Those of us who took ballet were taught the idea of pretty feet vs. stinky feet – so we already realize the point isn’t just the toes. It’s the whole foot that points. But in watching my daughter painfully curl her toes till cramped, I quickly realized – this was not a lesson the rest of the world is privy to.

Hence, the “floint” which is an extension of the foot, leading with the ball instead of the toe. In other words, it’s a point but with the toes spread and flexed back.

I do like the floint. Usually the postures have the condition that tells you whether to flex or point. Dorsiflex seems straightforward enough, but pointing can be a bit more complicated. Flointing seems to take people out of the toe death-curl. (David Robson)

The Point

pointed footPointing is the opposite action of flexing, as the toes now actively push away as the heel pulls up and into the body. Perhaps the most obvious place to point is in inversions, as toes reach for the sky, pulling you up, away from the ground. This same concept applies to arm balances. These include postures like bakasana (crow), tittibhasana (firefly), and mayurasana (peacock). Often we  put all our energy into our shoulder area (because that’s where we feel it) and overlook the feet as a place to pull and alleviate some of that weight.

But also, backbends where the legs are extended straight like primary’s purvatanasana (reverse plank), setu bandhasana (bridge) and viparita dandasana from Ashtanga’s third series. Plus those backbends when the feet are not grounded, as in danurasana (bow) and natarajasana (dancer).

Hanumanasana with pointed toe

In intense hamstring stretches pointing the toe protects the hamstring while also straightening the leg.

“Flointing” is almost pointing, but falls a bit short. Pointing is a much less common position for our feet to be in, and it stretches the muscles and tendons along the front of the legs, which are difficult to lengthen without this specific action. A properly pointed foot starts with stretching through the ankle and moves to the arch or mid foot, then carries on to the tips of the toes. When your feet are fully engaged through this pointing action, it lengthens and activates the muscles in your legs, which provides greater stability and control. (Harmony Slater)

And why, in the more intense forward folds such as kurmasana, utthita hasta padangusthasana, and hanumanasana, we point as a way to also protect the hamstrings as we lengthen. Not to mention, it’s key in straightening the legs.

The Biscuit

That’s right. There’s actually a fourth position of the foot – which is really no position at all. In ballet, they call this biscuit feet, which is definitely NOT something any dancer (or yogi!) wants to have.

Doodle courtesy of A Ballet Education

Because biscuit feet just hang off the ankle joint, like either soft sacks of flour or a couple of stale buns. The first may be from a lack of strength and the second, flexibility. But most of the time, it’s really just US. It is our lack of intention that makes our biscuits both stale and tasteless.

And why often all our feet need to liven things up is simply a bit more direction from us.

“I think of the event as happening as a result of an integrated movement of the whole leg, a gesture that moves along the leg from the hip and finally expresses itself out through the extremity of the leg – as a reaching through the heels (flexing), the toes (pointing) or the balls of the feet (flointing). I tend to use flexing and pointing about equally, with less flointing.” (David Garrigues)

So remember: doing something with your feet will always be better than doing nothing.

 The feet wake up the legs. So maybe you floint to bring that action … or you flex in a headstand to feel the backs of your legs … or point in a seated forward fold for straighter legs … or even relax your feet if you have a tendency to over-effort … whatever you do, do consciously.

Create an intentional experience through your feet.

Ground Zero

There are so many areas of practice I purposely haven’t mentioned – because that part is now up to you! Take note in your jump throughs, in the way you kneel and squat, even just standing in your kitchen – what are your feet doing? This is the purpose of a yoga practice, to bring more awareness and greater control to the mind.

So what better place to begin than with the feet? 

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*Images and sketch by Meghan Powell

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