Just as foundations are crucial for the stability of a building, your feet are the base support for your hips, spine and head—and everything in between. Simply looking at individual parts of the body without considering the feet misses a vital component of your health. Indeed, many bodywork practitioners recognize that a number of alignment and pain issues can stem from the feet.
Finding your feet
It's important to be aware of your feet when you stand and move—it links you to your entire nervous system. Humans are designed for this responsive relationship with the ground, and stuffing feet into shoes can interrupt it.
Few people walk barefoot on natural and unpredictable surfaces, leaving their feet with little to no sensory experience. A lack of sensation in the feet may even increase the risk of falls.1
Ideally, you want to spread the feet out across the base from the little toe to the big toe, which creates stability and easy uplift. Creating expanse in the triangle from here to the front of the heel opens the plantar fascia web in the instep (see illustration, below).
Regularly separating the toes (with your fingers if need be) and practicing little 'waves' with your toes in both directions can help regain and retain this space and movement.
On the other hand, not having this base support can have effects on the upper body as well as cause tightness in the buttocks, hips and lower back. The arches of the feet act as your suspension, giving bounce, elastic recoil and shock dispersion when they have the flexibility through natural movement.
Over time, the complex architecture of the feet can easily become hardened and rigid, particularly with constriction in the plantar fascia, which shows up in body patterns as difficulty squatting, tight hamstrings or the inflammatory pain of plantar fasciitis.
Hardening or collapse of the feet can also cause you to feel more shockwaves through the pelvic floor, which then tightens in response and ripples up into tension in the belly, diaphragm, shoulders and jaw.
Ahead of the curve
Humans have evolved many secondary spinal curves in order to stand upright—the curves that move inward (anterior), rather than out, such as the lower back and neck (lumbar and cervical spine) as well as the backs of the knees and the arches of the feet. A healthy instep (plantar) supports these curves.
Dropped foot arches (pronation, see illustration, right) can leave a person more prone to lower back and neck issues and less able to contain their belly, which can lead to organ prolapse, particularly if that person is sedentary and overweight.
Indeed, research shows that when the arches drop, there is greater tension in the muscles in the lower back, pelvis and spine.2
Shoes, man-made surfaces and a lack of natural walking can contort the foot's natural shape. Overly supportive shoes (especially cushioned and arch-supporting athletic shoes) can make uplift in the arch of the foot redundant and weaken it over time, meaning there's greater reliance on the shoes rather than a focus on strengthening the feet themselves.
When the heels are raised higher than the toes, it's like tipping a building to its side—it creates pressure and tension in other areas, most often the sacrum and low back.
This lack of natural motion means the small muscles and tendons between the foot bones can become tight and weak. The 26 bones in the feet (as well as 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles and tendons) need to have space to move, relay the force transmission of motion, distribute your weight evenly and quickly adapt to change.
Getting used to walking barefoot at least some of the time is crucial to regaining this plasticity and strength. It can be a significant change for tissues of the feet to recalibrate from supportive shoes to relearning to support themselves, but you can build up gradually from a few minutes of walking barefoot at home to slowly changing your shoes to more minimal soles with less heel support.
Trying the exercises on the following pages and regularly massaging your feet with your hands or a spiky ball can also help your feet to regain their flexibility.
Exercises for healthy feet
It's the pliability and range of motion in the feet, ankles and lower legs that determine what happens in the body above and your ability to move free of tension or injury.
Ankles are designed to absorb force as part of ground stability, then shift and stabilize your weight for the next movement, which happens faster than you think. Therefore, it is vital to prepare your feet for exercise and general movement.
The exercises that follow focus on the full range of motion in the feet, from pliability in the fascia (connective tissue) to ankle rotation, pointing and flexing as well as strengthening of the instep.
Lying foot motions
Moving the feet while lying down allows you to explore their full range of motion without any body weight to support. It also allows any fluids pooled in the lower legs and feet to easily drain out with gravity. Simply lying with legs up on a chair or sofa also has this effect. Try the following two simple movements.
Point and flex
Lying down, imitate the motion of walking with one foot flexing, the other pointing, and move side to side. Let the pelvis move with the feet, so the side flexing moves up (hip bone toward the head) and the side pointing moves down. You can also reach the arm up on the same side as the foot that's pointing away to lengthen the whole body.
Rotate, point and flex
Raise your foot in the air with your ankle above your hip (bend your knee if needed) and rotate the ankles fully clockwise and counterclockwise. Also, point and flex each foot. Do this for at least a minute on each side.
'Z-legs' moving twist
Sitting with knees bent and wider than your hips, let both your knees drop to one side to come into a "Z" position. Move from side to side, feeling the movement from your belly and your feet. You can build from here, eventually moving further around each time with arms open wide. You may move forward as the feet find a natural walking motion.
'4' shape stepping into lunge
Sitting in a '4' shape with one foot crossed over the other, start by moving the upper leg side to side and turning away from the legs in a gentle twist. Once you get used to this, you can start stepping the foot further away and shifting your weight forward toward a natural lunge.
Low lunge with front ankle focus
Coming onto all fours, step one foot in between the hands (or step back from hands on a chair if you need a higher version). Keeping the whole front foot on the floor, rock forward and back to ease weight onto the ankle as you create pliability there. Repeat on the other side.
Downward dog with bended knees
From all fours, lift the knees and hips toward downward-facing dog position, with open hands to support the weight through the shoulders. With your heels lifted high, move between having your knees bent deeply and belly toward your thighs, to having your legs straightened with your shoulders above your wrists, lifting up onto the toes. Move forward
and back through the feet.
Low lunge with foot walking action
With feet hip-width apart and parallel, step one foot between the hands again. This time keep the back knee up and allow the foot to move, with your heel lifting as your hips come forward and the ball of your foot lifting as they come back. Take your time to feel this walking motion and the shifts in weight distribution on each foot.
Sitting onto heels
Sit back onto your heels with toes tucked under, even for just a few breaths. You may need to start on all fours before lifting up the torso, and you can start with one foot at a time if needed. This opens the backs of the toes and can feel rather difficult as tissues tend to be tight there, but breathing out fully (even sighing) with the sensations can help.
Foot massage with a spiky ball
Standing on one leg, holding onto a chair or balancing against a wall if necessary, roll one foot at a time over a spiky ball (sometimes called a prickle stimulating ball) to explore every part of the foot for a good few minutes every day. Include the heel and outside edge, particularly spending time on the instep.
Do each foot separately, standing and then walking after massaging each one to feel the difference through each leg up from the ground.
Qigong standing rotating ankles
Stand with feet together, bending your knees with your hands on them, and rotate knees and ankles in one direction and then the other. Knead your knees to regain range of motion and responsiveness.
New stepping motion
With feet hip-width apart, feel your stance above your feet. With an inhale, lift one knee, and place the foot down with an exhale; move this side to side. As you find your balance (with a steady gaze and breath) you can begin to bend the standing leg more to step forward into a lunge and reach forward with rounded arms. You will need a bit of space to keep striding with the breath, but you can turn corners and explore the motion. You can also do this outside with thin-soled shoes.
Lift one leg to explore your balance and wake your supporting foot up to adapt to the constant change. Hold a wall or chair if you need, but let the weight drop onto the standing foot as often as possible. You don't need to 'get it right'—you'll likely need to put the other foot down or even stumble a little.
Our feet are built for walking upright, and this walking meditation can help to tune in to the sense of moving and placing of the feet and legs. You can then move onto sensing the lightness of the foot when lifting it, movement of the foot pushing forward, heaviness when it descends and then the touch of the heel on the ground. You can do this at home to support more sensory awareness when walking outside.