Arches – high and low

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I often focus upon weak/flat arches and over-pronation since this appears to be the most common foot “type” in my yoga classes.  However, I have recently become more aware of my neglect in addressing the problems of high arches and the difficulties that this presents in our “grounded” yoga which emphasizes movement from the floor up.

When we take a step forward, weight is transferred in a diagonal pattern from the outer edge of the foot to the big toe. As weight transfers through the foot, the arches flattens slightly.  Low arches are more flexible than high arches and tend to roll inwards and over-pronate.  High arches are more rigid and the weight transfer  is concentrated in the ball and heel of the foot. This leads to poor shock absorption and pain in the ball of the foot and in the heel.

All children are born with flat feet and most, naturally , develop a normal arch as they grow up.  Muscles in the deep shin and calf area provide integral support structures and tendons from these muscles , namely the peroneus (fibularis) longus and tibialis posterior tendons wrap around the foot , criss-cross and attach to the metatarsal bones. The posterior tibial tendon is particularly important.  It starts in the calf, stretches down behind the inside of the ankle and attaches to bones in the middle of the foot.   This tendon provides support as you step off on your toes when walking. If this tendon becomes inflamed, overstretched or torn, you may experience pain on the inner ankle and gradually lose the inner arch on the bottom of your foot, leading to flatfoot.

My “obsession” with flatter arches when teaching is a result of seeing valgus features in myself and others when we practice standing postures ie. the knees collapsing inwards. This dysfunction can often be accompanied by sore knees and hips as well as problems with balancing.  Our methodical practice of “sprinters” teaches  the feet how to “behave”.  Pete Blackaby writes in Intelligent Yoga that Sprinter’s pose brings:

...mobility into the foot and ankle while, at the same time, informing the nervous system of the very important relationship between the arch of the foot, ankle joint, knee joint, hips ad spine.. (p.112)

Our “rigorous” practice of foot exercises (with apologies for some) helps to keep the sole of the foot flexible.  The three exercises that we practice help to stretch the arch, dome the arch and to lengthen and strengthen the toes.  With high arches there is less surface area for absorbing impact – often leading to rigidity.  Rolling a tennis ball/massage ball under the foot is also a useful exercise.    You take the tennis ball and step on it first near the balls of the toes and gently “pulse” on and off of the ball. Try to wrap your toes over the top of the ball. Then gradually shift to one side and then the other, and then gradually back towards the heel. Where you have more intensity, spend a little more time there.

With high arches, the orientation of the bones on the top of the foot make it very hard to practice kneeling poses such as vajrasana and virasana in yoga. I tend to teach half-hero more often than full hero pose (virasana).  The best way to practice half hero is to be propped upon on blocks in order to reduce tension placed upon the bones on top of the foot.  Cushioning under the knee and also help, as does going in and out of the pose rather than struggling to stay in a shape.  Moving from half-hero to half cobbler and investigating the movement in between, relieves pressure on the top of the foot as well as providing useful rotation in the hip joint.

I have noticed that those with high arches sometimes “suffer” more than others – often suffering in silence.  Giving students alternatives to poses is not always welcome, however. Practising something different, being “highlighted” by the teacher etc brings different emotions to the fore.  It can also be rather tiresome in placing and removing blocks for support but there can be a great intelligence in finding comfort and in exploring a range of movement from a point of  acknowledging “non-compliance” in an area of the body . If using blocks is tiresome, you can roll onto the long leg using the support of the arm on that side.  In this way, you move away from the discomfort of the foot that is turned back and this helps to “diffuse” a preoccupation with that area.

Movement in and out of kneeling  poses into down dog for example, keeps the muscles of the lower leg flexible and responsive to functional movement.  Tight calves and hamstrings pull on the ankle and the thigh.  The gastrocnemius muscle is a big calf muscle. The top of the muscle is attached to your thighbone, the femur, and the bottom of the muscle forms part of the Achilles tendon which attaches on the bone at the back of your foot called the calcaneus.  The Achilles tendon is attached to two muscles: the soleus, which is found only deep and behind the calf muscle and the more superficial and bigger gastrocnemius muscle.  Sprinter’s pose is very useful in lengthening these muscles. As the back leg lengthens, the hamstring, gastrocnemius and soleus are stretched, whilst the hamstring of the front bent leg is strengthened.

The post is slightly late this week but, as ever, please contact me if you have any queries, disputes or comments.

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