Oh, our poor feet and lower legs. They never seem to get the attention that tight hips, shoulders, and backs get. And yet issues in our lower extremities can make walking, running, standing, cycling, and any number of other activities challenging.
Massaging, stretching, and mobilizing the feet can have a ripple effect throughout the body. For example, have you ever rolled out the bottoms of your feet with a tennis ball in yoga class and then immediately found that your standing forward bends felt more easeful? Work the feet, and you help the body. (Plus, it just plain feels good!) And improving the pliability of ankles and calves can increase ankle strength and mobility, as well as lead to a feeling of invigoration.
This yin sequence focuses on the feet and lower legs and includes some poses for the rest of the lower body as well. You’ll need two blocks and one or two blankets and/or bolsters.
As you begin your practice, scan your calves and feet. Take note of any areas of tension. Become aware of sensation there. Notice if your feet are hot or cool, pulsating, or feeling stagnant. Imagine your breath reaching all the way to the tips of each toe. Relax your calves.
Butterfly With Zipper Toes
From your comfortable seated position, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, about one and a half to two feet away from your hips. You can support your knees with blocks, folded blankets, or bolsters if you like. If your hips are tight or if your low back rounds when you try to sit upright, sit on the edge of a bolster or folded blanket.
Spread the toes of each foot and then, using your hands, interlock the toes, creating a zipper effect.
Inhale to lengthen through your spine and exhale to fold forward, hinging from your hips and keeping a long spine. When you feel a stretch (probably in your back but maybe in your hips or legs), allow your spine to round.
Stay for three minutes, and then inhale to lift up with a long spine, walking your hands back toward your hips. Spread your toes to release them—with help from your fingers if needed.
Counterpose: Straighten your legs out in front of you and pause there for five breaths.
Move into a comfortable cross-legged position so that your shins are parallel or somewhat parallel with the top edge of your mat. Aim for a 90-degree bend in your knees. You should feel the stretch in your hips, not in your knees. Keep your ankles flexed.
If your knees are fine so far, place your right ankle on top of your left knee, tucking your left ankle under your right knee. If your right knee is quite high, try placing a bolster or folded blanket between it and your left foot. Pause here to give the bottom of your right foot a brief but compassionate foot massage. Try making circles with your thumb, and be sure to give the arch some love! Then fold forward in your square pose, hinging from your hips and allowing your spine to round.
Stay for four minutes, and then slowly lift back up to vertical.
Counterpose: Place the soles of your feet on either side of the mat, and then drop your knees from side to side in a slow windshield wiper motion for 30 seconds before switching sides.
Move into a kneeling position with your toes tucked under, sitting back toward your heels. Use your hands to make sure that all of your toes, even your baby toes, are tucked as much as possible.
If you experience discomfort in your knees or toes, try sitting on two blocks stacked on their lowest setting and placed between your feet. You can also try placing a folded blanket under and/or behind your knees.
To take some of the weight off your toes, you can also place blocks in front of your knees and rest your hands on them. Focus on resting your weight on the balls of your feet. Stay for two minutes.
To come out, lift your seat away from your heels and untuck your toes.
Counterpose: Remove any props, and then drop your hips to one side of your feet and straighten your legs out in front of you. Take five breaths here as you gently shake out your legs.
Cross your right leg over your left. Bend your right knee, placing it on top of your left, and bring your right foot to nestle next to your left outer thigh or hip. Root down through both sitting bones. If your right knee is quite high and doesn’t manage to stack over the left thigh, support it with a folded blanket or a block. You can also place a block or folded blanket under your left knee to maintain a slight bend in the knee and provide relief for tight hamstrings. Feel free to also sit on the edge of a bolster or folded blanket.
From here, interlace the fingers of your left hand with the toes of your right foot for a “yoga handshake.” (This is similar to the toe separating you did in butterfly with zipper toes earlier.)
Fold forward while maintaining the “handshake.”
After holding for four minutes, release your handshake, and lengthen through your spine to lift back up to vertical, walking your hands toward your hips. Lean back to uncross your legs and switch sides.
Counterpose: After you have completed the second side, lean back to uncross your legs, placing your hands about a foot behind your hips with your fingers pointing forward. Bend your knees and plant the soles of your feet onto the mat hip-width apart. Lift up into reverse table and then lower to tap your buttocks on the mat. Repeat five times.
Fire Breathing Dragon to Overstepping Dragon
Come into downward facing dog. Step your left foot between your hands. Keep your right toes tucked under and your right knee lifted. Lengthen your right leg by reaching back through the heel, allowing the ankle to dorsiflex even more and increasing the stretch through your right calf.
If this position is not optimal for your body, you can place your hands on blocks or on your left thigh. For more sensation, come down onto your forearms (you can rest your forearms on the floor or on blocks or a bolster). If you choose this option, first walk your left foot to the left side of the mat to widen your stance as needed. Stay for two minutes.
Then, if you’re down on your forearms, come back onto your hands. If you widened your stance previously, bring your left hand once again to the outside of your foot, walking your left foot back toward the center of your mat. Lower your right knee to the floor, and untuck your right toes. Try not to have your weight directly on your kneecap, but just above it. You can pad your right knee with a folded blanket if needed. Bend your left knee past your left ankle until your left heel is about to lift off the ground and/or you feel a stretch around your Achilles tendon and pressure (but not pain) in your shin.
Stay for two minutes and then tuck your right toes under, lift your right knee off the floor, and step your left foot back, returning to downward dog. Do fire breathing dragon and overstepping dragon on the other side and then return to downward dog once more.
Counterpose: Take five breaths in downward dog and then release your knees onto the mat, coming into table with untucked toes.
Walk your legs in together and then let your hips sink toward your heels, placing your hands on the floor or on blocks behind your hips, with fingertips pointing either toward or away from your body. Then lean back slightly and lift your heart toward the sky, coming into a very gentle backbend. Let your knees lift off the floor.
Stay for three minutes, and then let your knees come to rest on your mat.
Counterpose: Drop your hips over to one side, straighten your legs out in front of you, and open them into a straddle position. Slowly point and flex your feet ten times.
From straddle, bend your right knee and bring your right heel in close to your pelvis. Relax your left knee and ankle. Applying gentle pressure, run your right thumb down your right shin from knee to ankle (just in from your shinbone). Continue the massage by drawing circles around your inner anklebone (medial malleolus).
After completing the massage, fold straight forward until you experience a stretch—probably in your hamstrings but perhaps in your hips and back—and stay for four minutes.
To come out, walk your hands back toward your body while lengthening through your spine. Switch sides.
Counterpose: After completing the second side, use your hands to bend your outstretched leg. Hug both knees into your chest, wiggle your toes for one minute, and then release your legs along the length of your mat.
Lie back for savasana. Consider elevating your feet with a bolster to continue supporting the rejuvenation there. Stay in savasana for at least five minutes.
As you come out, wiggle your toes and be mindful of the many tiny movements required to perform this simple action. Flex and point your feet and become aware of the interplay between your muscles and nervous system that allows this to happen.
Enjoy your time post-practice with invigorated calves and feet!
Photography: Andrea Killam