As a beginning yoga student, I remember my teacher saying that Tadasana was the foundational position of all yoga asanas. I must admit, I thought she was crazy. Then we moved into Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and into Garudasana (Eagle Pose) then into Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3). Since I was able to do each of these poses, her Tadasana teachings meant nothing to me. But I knew something was missing. My teacher would tell me, “Feel the rhythm of your Tadasana feet and a sense of softness and ease will balance your hardness.” Still, for a long time I had no idea what she was talking about. Then a few years ago, I got it. I began to understand the dynamic interplay between firmness and suppleness, which together create rhythm of the feet, lightness in the standing pose, and ease in the inversion.
Firmness and suppleness are often best described in images. In the feet, firmness is like a pyramid. Strong and stable, its inherent structure gives a sense of grounding. Suppleness is movement – a fluid rebounding effect that generates propulsion or shock absorption. Together, firmness and suppleness bring resiliency, the ability to bear the body’s weight while feeling the energy of floor below.
Firmness: A Closer Look at the Pyramid
The pyramid of the foot begins at the talus, a bone that, from above, is saddle-shaped. Nestled inside the saddle is the tibia. The foot receives the body’s weight at this articulation.
From the talus, the foot spans out to three points that form the base of the pyramid. The first point, radiating backward and downward, is the center of the calcaneus (heel bone). The second point is the head of the first metatarsal (ball of the foot). The third point is the head of the fifth metatarsal (base of the pinky toe).
Suppleness: A Closer Look at the Arches of the Feet
Imagine you have just stepped out of the water and onto a wooden dock. Look at the imprints of your wet feet on the dry dock. If your foot is “normal,” you won’t see the full bottom of the foot in that watermark; instead you will see only the toes, the lateral edge of the foot, the ball of the foot, and the heel. These are the elements of the pyramid. What you don’t see are the elements of the arches.
There are three arches of the foot that together act as shock absorbers. They support the weight of the body when we are standing still in Tadasana and bring about propulsion when moving into Virabhadrasana 3. Two of the three arches originate at the calcaneus and run forward toward the toes. Because of their direction we call them “longitudinal” arches. The longitudinal arch running from the calcaneus to the head of the first metatarsal is the medial longitudinal arch; the longitudinal arch running from the calcaneus to the head of the fifth metatarsal is the lateral longitudinal arch. The third arch – the transverse arch – connects the two longitudinal arches at the forefoot.
Sustaining the Feet: Muscles and Fascia
Sustenance is nourishment, and for the feet, sustenance comes from the muscles and fascia. When muscles and fascia lose their normal functional pattern, the mechanics of the feet can shift entirely, causing and irritating all sorts of conditions (fallen arches, bunions, heel spurs, pronation, supination). Muscles and fascia are essential elements that support the natural firmness and suppleness of the feet.
Let’s look deeper: We know what muscle is, what about fascia?
I have often joked in my workshops that, as humans, we are walking “skin bags” filled with different parts – bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, nerves, vessels and a brain. Many people are happy just knowing that this sac stays intact, its contents contained.
There are others, like yogi anatomists, who are more interested with how it is organized, how it works, and how we can help it to function better.
One of the keys is fascia. In many texts, fascia is described as a body envelope, or sac permeating through and around every nook of the body.
It surrounds nerve fibers, bundles muscle fibers, and lines organs and vessels. It is the element that gives contour and structure to the body, linking the pieces together into segments, segments together into systems. In essence, fascia connects all of our parts and organizes them into a vibrant whole.
The structure, look and feel of fascia varies depending on what it is enveloping or lining.
It varies from the thin, glossy, slick covering that surrounds bone, to a thicker gristle-like white covering that wraps around muscle.
How does this apply to our practice of yoga?
Remember, sustaining the arches with effortless effort and nourishing ease comes from the interaction of both the muscles and fascia. When the interaction of the muscles and fascia is functional, we are more able to feel the two-way energy exchange between ourselves and the earth. From us, our energy can seep into the earth and spread like roots in soil. From the earth to us, we can feel the return of energy back into our feet and through our body.
Begin in Tadasana. Bring your awareness into the bottom of your feet. Feel your feet touching the floor or your yoga mat. Feel for three points of your feet – the ball of your foot, the base of your pinky toes and the center of your heel. Imagine that you have energetic roots in your feet that sink into the floor, through the earth, right to the core. When they get to the core, they rebound back up into you. Feel the lightness that emerges (I have had students whose chronic pain has completely disappeared using this technique).
Next, notice the form of your ankle joint. How balanced does it feel? Now move into Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Notice how each foot is feeling, and how they are contributing to your practice - are you holding your feet with hardness, or is the lift through the arches of the feet happening with effortless effort, with a sense of nourishing ease?
Are you having difficulty “softening” your “hard feet,” or do you feel the fluidity there? Perhaps your toes have clenched, your arches have “dropped”, or bunions have grown. Maybe it feels as if you are standing in concrete, unable to feel or move energy from the earth through your feet. A great way to bring life back into the feet is to take a tennis or similar type ball and roll it under each foot for two minutes. Then, have a seat on the floor, and roll out your calf muscle (gastrocnemius). Then come back into Tadasana and feel what is there......
In next month’s article, we’ll delve deeper into the key muscles that support and sustain the contours and strength of the feet by connecting the function of the feet to the action of the knees. Until then, take some time to explore your feet, feeling the three points and the spaces between them.
Susi Hately Aldous is author of Anatomy and Asana: Preventing Yoga Injuries and Yoga and the Sacroiliac Joints. functionalsynergy.com/programs/teachers-clinics