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Lifting your toes and activating your feet can seem like a weird thing to do in a yoga pose. Afterall, most of the time you’re gripping the floor with your toes to help find balance, so activating them can seem completely counter productive. So why do we do it?
When the toes are lifting they can’t grip the floor. When you grip with your toes it engages the long muscles and tendons on the soles of the feet, which are already tight in most people. To test yours simply kneel up with your butt resting on your ankles and your toes curled under. If your muscles are tight you’ll feel it right away along the length of your foot arch. It can be a pretty excruciating stretch and many people can only hold this for a minute or so.
When these muscles are already tight, toe-gripping causes them to tighten further, or even spasm and cramp. Activating the toes and lifting them creates a stretch, which is more gentle and bearable than the kneeling position described above.
By lifting the toes you engage the muscle which runs along the outer edge of the shin bone and around the ankle – the fibularis. If the fibularis is weak or doesn’t function correctly the midfoot and the foot arch will be unstable and unable to provide support to the inner arch of the foot. The ankle will also be unstable and the leg unsteady on the ankle joint. So, activating the toes strengthens the ankle and helps improve standing balance.
Activating the feet also engages the muscle with runs over the front of the shin bone. – the tibialis anterior. This muscle is a shock absorber as well as creating a healthy arch in the foot. A healthy foot arch helps prevent knocked knees. Literally when the foot arch flattens, the foot rotates inward and the knees follow. When the shin muscles engage, they lift the foot arch, reduce the inward rotation of the foot and straighten the knees.
This chain of muscle engagement extends beyond the knees, up the leg, and ultimately up in to the hips and lower back. In bent leg yoga poses it can be very easy to dump or collapse in to the hips. Engaging the toes helps prevent this by activating the chain of muscles up to the hips.
For me personally, since my teens I had always suffered from shin splints which were aggravated by short runs or even power walking in thin-soled shoes. Since activating my feet and lifting my toes regularly in yoga, my shin muscles have strengthened and I no longer suffer from shin splints.
Activating the feet also results in a more engaged and conscious yoga practice, as well as strengthening your connection to your feet and the earth which has a psychological and energetic grounding effect. When you are more grounded you feel more stable, certain and secure.
If you're interested in knowing why we do the things we do in a LLiV Yoga class, check out these blogs:
Why we OM in yoga
Why we sigh, groan and roar in yoga
Why we say Namaste in Yoga
What Makes LLiV Yoga Different
Why there's such an emphasis on breathing in yoga
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