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Feet - a guided tour of the body

"Splendor in the Grass", Sara Goldsmith

Unappreciated. Neglected. Taken for granted. Maybe even abused. I’ve never met anyone with anything nice to say about their feet. Yet we speak about feet all the time. We know what being caught flat footed means – unprepared, off balance. To have your feet on the ground signals stability. Now we admire those who stand their ground but we envy those who are footloose (and fancy free). Even our under-standing comes back to the feet.

I’ve been learning at the feet, sorry, couldn’t help it, of yoga anatomy experts, Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews of The Breathing Project, and here is what I understand.

Our feet are the only part of our body regularly in touch with the earth. We negotiate the symmetrical pull of gravity through our bodies into the feet. Of course, the earth we stand on is not what our ancestors stood on. How often do you stand with bare feet touching the ground? No, most of us wear shoes encasing our feet, walk on predictable, hard surfaces, and disregard our feet as the all-terrain vehicles (Leslie’s term) they are.

Our foot is a masterpiece of engineering with 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons. And when our feet give us aches and pains, such as plantar fasciitis, bunions, osteoarthritis, it sometimes arises from a misunderstanding of how the feet work. We underuse our muscles, overuse our fascia, and rely on orthotics and expensive shoes to solve our foot problems. Certainly, high heels have exacerbated these problems for women shortening the calf muscles, unnaturally cramping the toes, and ultimately straining the spine and the hips. No doubt genetics play a significant role as well.

As Leslie and Amy describe it, the foot is best understood as a tripod: from the heel foot up the lateral side to the point below the pinky toe crossing the pad right below the big toe and back inside to the heel foot. The bones of the heel are compact and solidly constructed to bear the transfer of weight all the way down the spine, the pelvis, the femur, the tibia into the heel foot (the way Amy distinguishes from the ankle foot). So that’s the first step to a healthier foot: feel the transfer of weight into the heel, not the toes.

Next, comes attention to the spiraling action up the body. As Newton long ago proved, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The ground force reaction to gravity spirals up through the body. While gravity may be symmetrical, nothing in the body is linear. The foot is remarkably adaptable although severely hampered by shoes and predictable, hard surfaces. If movement or weight bearing is distributed from heel to pinky toe across to big toe and back to heel then the muscles do their job activating and strengthening the arches. No fancy shoes come close.

So we all need to take baby steps to stronger feet. If possible, go barefoot more often. If impossible, at least change your shoes at the end of the day. Stimulate your feet activating the muscles that strengthen your arches. With our bare feet on sticky mats, yoga enthusiasts are leading the way rediscovering the beauty and functionality of our feet.


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