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Strength and mobility exercises for feet and ankles

We generally don’t appreciate our feet until there is a problem, a sentiment captured well in a local foot clinic’s tagline: Get back to not thinking about your feet.

Each foot has 26 bones and 33 joints all held in position by hundreds of ligaments, tendons, and muscles. They carry, balance and pivot our weight–supporting us from point A to point B. Whether we are chasing after a toddler, marching in a protest, or climbing a mountain our feet must hold us up.

Some of us also squeeze our feet into beautiful works of art by following trending shoe styles. Still, our feet keep working for us even when we adorn them with this less-than-optimal footwear.

Our feet are often a body blind spot–highly utilized and yet so misunderstood.

Take a moment to remove your shoes, wiggle your toes, and maybe even give yourself a little foot massage.

How we position our feet and distribute our weight has a domino effect on the rest of our bodies when we walk, stand, run, and spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.

Or, maybe it is the other way around: if we cross our legs, hold tension in the pelvis, and have uneven muscle distribution in the torso, how does that impact your feet?

In other words, it’s all connected, but today we will work from the ground up.

Tuning into how I am using my feet has become an easy access point to my own ability to heal myself. Relieving sciatica, halting my bunions, strengthening my arches to relieve pressure in my knees have all been accomplished.

And, yes, when I begin to fall back into old habits of over-pronating my feet, pain and discomfort start to come back. But I can look down, notice and make a change.

Here are four simple practices to reconnect to, re-energize and strengthen your feet.

  1. Take the first step. The biggest thing we can do for our feet takes very little effort: simply notice and appreciate them. This means spending some time with them and giving them your full and positive attention. This short three-minute stretch will help bring much-needed space to your tarsals while relaxing the joints in your ankle.
    • Interlace your fingers in the toes of your opposite foot.
    • Wiggle your toes and squeeze them into your fingers.
    • Add ankle circles and other creative movements.
    • Repeat on the opposite side.
  2. Roll them out. This is an incredibly satisfying practice, with immediate benefits releasing stuck fascia, bringing in oxygen, and enlivening nerve endings. This may even create an energizing ripple effect throughout your body.
    • Stand with one hand on a wall place and place an original size Yoga Tune Up® therapy ball under the sole of one barefoot. Or, if possible, do two feet at the same time (as pictured).
    • Squish Squish Squish those therapy balls (like I Love Lucy crushing the grapes).
    • Then roll the therapy balls up and down and side-to-side re-stimulating sensation.
    • Make sure you do both feet!
  3. Go ahead and jump (prep). Get access to the potential strength in your feet that, when engaged, will make you feel lighter all over. You have 20+ muscles in your feet, with ten of them being in the what is often referred to as the main arch, the medial longitudinal arch in four layers. How do you begin to access their power? For starters, try out this jumping prep exercise.
    • Stand with the spine long and your feet parallel, hands against a wall (or tree).
    • Inhaling, come up on the balls of your feet, exhaling heels back down, x5
    • Then, come up on the balls of your feet and hold for 60 seconds.
    • Next, with a blanket rolled up on the floor, place the balls of your feet on the blanket, your heels on the floor.
    • Spread toes wide, maintaining a neutral spine, hold this sole opening toe strengthening position for 3 minutes (adding more height to the blanket as needed)
  4. Structure matters. The Yoga Tune Up® version of Tadasana (aka Mountain or neutral position) energizes this traditional pose, strengthening alignment from the base of your feet to the top of your head.
    • Stand with medial sides of your feet together, hip bones facing forward and aligned, arms relaxed at your sides, open across the sternum, chin tucked ever so slightly to elongate your neck.
    • Lift your toes off the earth, wiggle them around, place them firmly on the earth, rock back and forth on your feet a little, finding a firm neutral place, noting there are three bones that touch the ground. The lines between these create a structure of arches for your feet, allowing the support of the earth to travel back up into your system, spring-like.
    • Line you shins, your knees, your thighs on top of your feet. Keeping a little lift up through your center channel.
    • Now, make this a dynamic check-in:
      • First, scrape your heels apart on the mat, as if you are tearing the mat apart, without moving your feet or legs
      • Next, make the action of pulling your feet together, adducting your inner legs, without moving them
      • Finally, the right foot acts as if it is moving forward and the left foot back, without actually moving anything and then switch, left foot forward, right foot back.
      • Repeat all of the above a few times, building from your foundation. Each time, pay a little more attention to how each muscle group engages. Proprioception is key, but also consider checking in a mirror as you are doing this — sometimes we are so used to feeling unaligned that when we are truly aligned we feel wonky.

Come back to a neutral position, take a few more deep breaths, then let all effort go.

This pose is practical. You can do it when standing in line, riding the subway, or cooking–wherever and whenever you want to connect to your feet and strengthen your alignment.  Practicing this pose gives you the personal intel to intuitively move back into a stance that is most efficient for your body.  

 

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