In our yoga practice we try to ensure that our feet are stable and flexible so that they can adapt to movement in different directions and over different terrains. We use “sprinters” (Sprinters – the challenge? The vote?) to develop healthy foot-ankle-knee-hip alignment. We move our toes to ensure that our feet remain alive and responsive to movement. We have been concentrating upon keeping the big toes and little toes down on the ground then lifting the middle three toes – and some of us are having some success! If you watch Pete Blackaby demonstrate toe yoga, don’t despair – small improvements do come with practice.
When we walk, about 75% of our support is from the toes and the balls of the feet. If you try to walk with your toes raised as high as possible, there will be no spring, no traction to propel the body forward. We know that people with missing toes can still move forward, however. The spine acting as the “engine of the body” will provide sufficient side bending and rotation to drive the body forward but we relieve the spine and lighten its load if we have stable and flexible feet. Our toes also help us to maintain balance on uneven surfaces.
SO – with all this practice, why do some of us struggle with balance poses such as “tree pose”? One fairly obvious answer is that in class there may be a sense of “performance” , thus a discrepancy between perceived balance and actual balance in the presence of others may be an issue. A real factor is our centre of gravity and how we orientate ourselves around it.
Gravity is the downward pull of an object. If we throw a ball up into the air, gravity will pull it back down. The ball’s centre of gravity is neatly in the middle of a nice smooth shape. Our bodies have more complex shapes and the centre of gravity is just above the waist because there is more weight in the top of your body than the bottom. Added to this, when we lift one leg in preparation for a standing balance the centre of gravity changes and muscle activity adapts to hip flexion:
This is why putting your hands on your waist in tree pose helps some of us to feel more balanced – we begin to feel how the trunk copes with the shift. If we lower our centre of gravity by bending the knees, we can feel more balanced. Thus, time spent at the wall bending and straightening the knees whilst training the foot to support the body, should not be viewed as a “dummy” exercise but as useful training for balance.
When we shift weight onto one foot in standing balances the degree of sway contributes to our sense of “losing it”. We generally do not compensate by putting our arms out to the side, bending our knees, as a tightrope walker would, for example. In some styles of yoga, students lock the knee of the standing leg and this reduces the body’s ability to find a centre of balance. A 1999 study examined 2 groups of different ages to measure how sway and foot pressure affect the centre of gravity. in relation to standing balance. The study found that the toe’s muscle activity in the forefoot are important factors associated with the centre of gravity in elderly adults. It seemed that each base of support area of the older adults was smaller than that of younger adults. This may indicate lack of sensitivity in the big toes particularly as we lose flexibility with aging. We need to give our nervous system something to “talk” to; or as Pete says “…getting my brain closer to my feet…”
Other factors come to play in balance (The feel of Balance) – how we are able to stack our bones up from the feet, aligning the pelvis etc. When we practice global movements of flexion and extension in standing we move around our centre of gravity:
Without a big toe or with reduced sensation in our big toes, we can still balance but it is harder. The little toe has its own tendon which allows it to flex and extend, as well as abduct and adduct. Thus the “pinky” can help to shape and to orientate the foot. In class, many of us seem to have lost touch with our little toe.
So – onwards and upwards. Toe yoga this week. You Tube now has an abundance of videos following Pete’s – see what you think.