Saturday, November 25, 2006


- FEET -

Our feet are the intricate structures of fifty-two small bones each bound by four layers of muscle. The mechanism is a miracle combination of strength and flexibility, designed to support the weight of the whole body, maintain its balance, propel it in motion and to act as shock absorbers. To do their job efficiently the feet must be alive, supple and springy, otherwise their weakness will transmit up through the legs and into the hips and the rest of the body, throwing the whole structure out of alignment. Through the practice of yoga the feet gradually begin to come alive; the toes regain the independence of movement that they were born with, the arches lift, the ankles strengthen. To be stable and solid on our feet is to feel secure and confident at a very fundamental and profound level, giving us the base from which to walk tall through life. To achieve (a deep backbend) is impossible unless you have learned to establish a powerful connection between your feet and the floor.

Why, then, do most of us neglect them? Anyone who has suffered so much as an ingrowing toenail knows how we take our feet for granted most of the time, and how incapacitated we are when they cause us problems. Given their elemental importance, you would think that a large, wide, muscle-bound foot would be the ultimate aesthetic, and yet the foot has been the subject of fetishism and distortion; the idealised foot is small, delicate and soft, not a functioning clod-hopper. The most famously extreme example of this comes from China, where it was the custom to bind women’s feet from early childhood so that they remained tiny and became squashed-up to the point of deformity, thereby incapacitating the women. Throughout history small, soft feet have been the erotic ideal, representing class, a life of leisure, and beauty. ‘I don’t love you coz your feet’s too big,’ goes the jazz song. Until recently in the Western world – where most people can afford shoes – women particularly have stuffed their feet into shoes that are too small, squashed their toes into sharp points and thrown the balance of their whole weight onto towering heels with tiny stiletto bases, forcing them to walk with their bottoms stuck out and their hips swaying. Not only does this put intolerable strain on their lower backs and knees, but clearly restricts freedom of movement both practically and symbolically. Anthropologists may be excused for equating these dictates of Western fashion with the indignities once inflicted on women in China.

But there are many places in the world still, especially in cultures where it is normal to walk barefoot, as in India, in which beautiful feet are portrayed as strong, sinuous and flexible. This is particularly true of representations in the Buddha, as if real enlightenment were only possible with lovely wide, grounded feet.

(From Kathy Phillips' wonderful book, The Spirit of Yoga.)

We spend a great deal of time and effort wishing our bodies were thinner, or more flexible, or stronger, or taller or shorter, anything other than what they are. This just alienates body and mind, and since the goal of yoga is union of body, mind and soul, becoming comfortable in and with your body is a vital first step towards unity. Maybe start with your feet. Our feet are our foundations; our first point of contact with the earth, and just as with a house, if the foundations are shaky or poorly cared for, the rest of the structure will be weak. Start to watch how you stand, where you carry your weight, and make subtle changes that will take you closer to balance.

You can do this in the queue at the supermarket, while brushing your teeth, in fact any time you are standing.

In your yoga practice, focus on the fine muscular adjustments in your foot as you stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or balance on one leg in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Wear comfortable shoes, walk barefoot, have a pedicure or reflexology. Celebrate your feet, your foundations, and enjoy how they support you all day, and particularly in yoga class!


Anonymous said...

If there's 52 small bones in your feet, +- 50 in your hands, and about 210 bones in total, there's very little room for error in these poses.

Nadine Fawell said...

Or, and this is more alarming, a great deal of room for error!