Yoga isn’t one size fits all. It’s not all or nothing. The way we practice should be flexible and ever evolving—in our bodies as well as in our minds.
The balance, or “middle ground,” that we can find through yoga is a place between extremes. A place where our movement is neither too forceful nor too soft. The way we hold our body is neither too rigid nor too floppy. The way we perceive and think is more open, receptive, and adaptable.
Being in this middle ground creates an ideal environment for moving efficiently and creating new movement patterns.
To physi-yogis (those of us who practice and teach a unique physical therapy-infused yoga method), “adaptable” and “open” are themes we incorporate in order to optimize results through the brain-body connection. In practice, that means approaching all movements with specific awareness of this brain-body relationship, thereby fostering increased connection and receptivity to new ideas.
Let’s explore this further by looking at the feet.
Toes gripping the mat for dear life in warrior III or a front arch completely in contact with the ground without energy in a high lunge are extreme examples of action and inaction that can affect the rest of the body, as well as the brain. Finding the midway point between these extremes (think of a pendulum at rest—between exertion of energy in opposite directions) is hugely beneficial for our body, awareness, and breath. At either end of the spectrum, we sacrifice many of those benefits.
To make movement more efficient or to optimize movement, we need a system that is both receptive and responsive. A foot that is mobile and adaptable, for example, can easily receive information about the environment, with muscles that react quickly to that environment, and exhibit efficient biomechanics that will transfer up the chain to the knees, hips, and trunk. Put these together and you have the basis of efficient movement that is easily adapted to running a marathon, practicing yoga, or walking on uneven surfaces.
The powerful and rich connection between the limbs and the brain allows us to make changes that originate from the brain or the limbs or both. Such changes can help facilitate more easeful and steady ways to walk, run, stand, or do yoga.
The Nervous System Pieces
The connection between the feet and the brain relies on proprioception and the number of specific neurons in the brain for both motor and sensory signals affecting the feet. Proprioception is the body’s sense of where it is in space. The proprioceptors are sensory brain receptors, something like the body’s ball bearings. They live in joint capsules, muscles, tendons, and fascia. For this article, I’m going to focus on the ones that live in the joints.
Generally speaking, these joint receptors play a large role in motor planning, control, and adaptability. They are responsible for the feet’s ability to respond and adapt to unexpected changes or new challenges. When you unknowingly step off a curb and your foot, ankle, knee, and hip gingerly adjust and you gracefully continue walking, that’s a proprioception win. (If you suddenly become rigid and lock your foot and ankle and fall, that would be a proprioception fail.)
Proprioceptors are stimulated when the joint is stretched or compressed, at which point they send signals to the cerebellum (the part of the brain that receives, coordinates, and executes movement functions)—specifically the sensory and motor cortices. If there is no movement in a joint, the proprioceptors aren’t stimulated, and the brain receives no input, and therefore cannot adapt its motor plan.
If you wear a stiff shoe, or you grip your feet and toes in warrior III, for example, the joints of your foot are locked into the position of the shoe or the grippy arch (locked being an extreme), and your brain doesn’t receive input that tells you where you are in space and how to adapt accordingly.
The motor and sensory cortices are major hubs for receiving information and discharging motor action. It is there where we get sensory input from our experiences and identify motor needs. The motor centers find solutions by organizing and reorganizing the signal and output between the spinal cord and (eventually) the muscles.
As mentioned above, these hubs are in the cerebellum. Inside the cerebellum is the homunculus. The homunculus is a map of the body. Each physical area of the body—hands, feet, lips, hands, hips, etc.—is distinctly represented by areas of nerves that receive information from them and send information to them. The more refined and specific the function, the denser the area of nerve representation.
Because the feet are so valuable for survival (for gathering food, walking, running), their sensory and motor nerves occupy a large area of the cerebellum and a denser supply of neurons is allotted to them. This creates the possibility for enormous variability in movement.
Being in the middle ground in our bodies and minds allows freedom of movement and awareness of the foot, helping to facilitate the exploration of different ways to move, and of unknown situations and environments—essentially, to play. This freedom cannot happen unless we are open and adaptable in our thoughts and minds. If, for example, we move through our sun salutations focusing on what we’re going to have for dinner rather than on what our feet are doing, we may miss the information our feet are gathering. We may neglect to notice, for example, any rigidity or gripping, or an opportunity to enhance our arch support. But if we are open, embodied, and receptive to input and change, we will be able to receive, alter, and strengthen our body-brain-body connection and control.
Take a moment to walk around the room barefoot. Then roll out your feet with your favorite self-massage balls, and then walk around again. Notice any difference. Don’t your feet feel more alive? That’s because you’ve stimulated your proprioceptors and sent millions of little signals to those dense connections in the brain’s homunculus.
Freedom in the middle path allows us to be variable in movement and motor plans.
Let’s look at a test-retest example to see how being in the middle helps create sensory and movement changes.
Remove your shoes. Then:
1. Experience the unknown by standing unsupported on the floor. Stand in tree pose without using the wall.
2. Identify any problem you experience. What do you feel? Do you tend toward any extreme? Does one foot collapse and flatten through the midfoot arches or do you grip with your toes and shift weight toward the outside of the foot?
3. Solve the problem. If you tend more toward collapsing, give yourself cues such as “Imagine palming a basketball with your foot,” which can help to create awareness and muscle engagement. If you tend more toward gripping, think of softening, widening, and releasing your toes.
frequently in tree pose. Notice how the time to create or release muscle engagement decreases with practice and becomes easier even on uneven or unstable surfaces (like standing on a BOSU Ball or walking barefoot on a rocky beach). This happens as the groove or pathway in the brain-spinal cord-muscle loop deepens and strengthens with time, awareness, and effort.
The musculoskeletal system refers to all of our bones, joints, and muscles, as well as the connective tissue that holds it all together. Movement happens because the muscles move the bones and joints. Yet no movement will occur without our nervous system sending the signal to the musculoskeletal system. Everything begins with the nervous system. After receiving instructions from the brain and spinal cord, the musculoskeletal system carries out the orders. The foot contains a fascinating amount of bones, joints, muscles, and interesting biomechanics. We will explore those in the feet that are most relevant for yoga practice.
First consider these points:
• Feet and ankles are designed for mobility.
• Their primary job is gait.
• They were meant to do this without shoes.
There’s a lot to unpack in those points, but they basically explain why we experience so many foot and ankle (not to mention knee and hip) problems in modern-day life.
The feet are composed of 26 bones and 33 joints. Remember that proprioceptors live in ligaments, and ligaments connect bones to make joints. There are lots of bones, lots of joints, and lots of ligaments that can be activated—therefore lots of proprioceptors and lots of info!
The feet have a lot of interesting and necessary biomechanics. When we walk, the foot and ankle need to adapt to two different roles—mobile adaptor and rigid lever—in order to be maximally efficient for load transmission and proprioceptive awareness.
During the initial loading, or standing phase, of the walking cycle, the foot is more rigid in supination (rolling outward) as the heel first contacts the ground. Next, as the entire foot becomes loaded on the ground, it becomes a mobile adaptor. During this time, the tissue on the bottom of the foot lengthens and the midfoot bones spread. Finally, the stretched tissue and mobile bones rigidly come back together to create a supinated lever for push-off. This movement adaptation that occurs in seconds during the standing phase of gait is called the windlass mechanism. Being in the middle in both body and brain (not too hard or too soft, neither too rigid nor too floppy) helps us activate this mechanism with little or no effort.
The three arches (longitudinal, transverse, and distal) of the foot create the tissue tension that helps to power this mechanism. In a middle-path foot, the arches are receptive and help transmit load and energy during standing and walking. Where the three arches meet is the keystone. This is a point of real strength, where the forces of body weight, gravity, and the ground are distributed equally to the front, back, and sides of the foot.
For ease and efficiency we should be standing centered over our keystone, coming often to this place of tadasana (mountain pose), even while carrying heavy packages or climbing stairs. This produces better distribution of force from the ground through the foot, centered up the tibia, across the patella tendon, through the quadriceps, into the core, and up through the crown of the head.
The three arches direct us to imagine a tripod under the foot when standing. The three weight-bearing points of the tripod are: underneath the big toe knuckle/MTP joint (metatarsophalangeal joint), underneath the baby toe knuckle/MTP joint, and the center of the calcaneus (heel bone).
Try this: Stand with your weight distributed equally in all parts of the tripod under both feet, then under one foot, and then under the foot in the back leg of .
Can you imagine the tripod when your foot is not on the ground? Imagine that I painted the bottom of your foot with green paint—now press that foot into an imaginary white wall: Press the center of the heel, the big toe knuckle, and baby toe knuckle equally into the wall. Try this in the lifted leg of warrior III or in (imagining that you’re pressing your feet into the ceiling).
Do both feet feel the same? Can you execute a tripod foot in both feet?
If you can’t, why not? Does the problem lie with the foot, or does it feel as if it comes from somewhere up the chain—maybe in your brain?
When we are able to stand in the tripod—in the middle—we reap benefits distally (into our toes) and proximally (up the kinetic chain to our core and brain). We are able to transmit clear force with a softness and supple responsiveness that is adaptable. We want to be able to find this place, and to come in and out of it. The point is not to live there all the time, but rather to know how to get there. If you don’t, it can be a problem.
The interesting thing about feet is that no two are the same—not even your own two. Look at your feet while you’re sitting down, and then again while you’re standing. They probably look and feel different. Here’s a little more information about some ways feet can be different.
Some feet are floppy, some are rigid. Some are floppy but look rigid, while some are rigid but look floppy. It can be confusing. These characteristics can be a result of bone structure, genetics, unconscious or conscious mirroring behavior, habit, injury, or environment (e.g., walking in shoes on concrete versus walking barefoot on sand). Your past influences your present. Maybe you were a gymnast with beautifully articulating feet. Maybe you were a skier with boxed-in toes and metatarsals. Or perhaps you had three babies and your feet have become longer and wider because of hormonal changes, and therefore feel like completely new feet to the rest of your body and brain.
With regard to motion that serves function, rigidity and floppiness can describe either the whole foot/ankle complex or just part of it. A rigid foot has no springiness, no give; the midfoot doesn’t splay and contract, and toe mobility may be limited through the gait cycle. Overworked toe flexors or extensors can contribute to rigidity, as their tendons cross the midfoot and can effectively lock up the arch if they are constantly firing. In response, we could see the weight shift to the pinky side in tree pose, outward or external rotation at the ankle, and stiffness in front of the ankle in utkatasana (chair pose).
In contrast, a floppy foot falls flat, the midfoot has very low or no arches, and the weight collapses toward the big toe side in tree pose.
Floppy feet can cause overwork and stiffness up the chain if there isn’t proper support from the feet. Rigidity can cause less movement through the ankle, knee, or hip when walking.
When we are in the middle in both our brain and our body, we can create true transformation. If we aim to strengthen the connection of the foot to the hip in our balance poses, we have to start in the middle.
Yet it's important to state that not all feet need to be adjusted, and not all rigid or floppy feet will cause injury or pain.
What Can We Do About It All?
Luckily, we can easily work with our feet. The work begins with awareness and mobility. The goal should be to achieve functional mobility that can be used in our everyday life. Once those goals are met, they need to be used. Use it or lose it is real.
A great way to start is to begin with self-release work. Myofascial release balls, foam rollers, our hands, and body awareness are all great tools. Using them and following up with movement exploration and strength help create lasting mobility, strength, and awareness. You can even manipulate the breath to create nervous system responses or encourage postural or muscle activation work. Tapping into awareness with release and movement will not only help optimize foot to brain and body function, but will connect mind and body—perhaps the greatest benefit of these practices.
Imagine this. When it comes to transitioning from mountain pose into a high lunge, before even moving, what if we focused our awareness first on the front tripod foot, took an inhale, and then stepped back with the other foot? What if we followed a sequence of awareness, breath, movement instead of movement, breath, awareness?
With deliberate application, these tools can provide a platform for optimizing function and making lasting changes. Harness the efficiency and ease of your movement by finding your middle. Get comfortable there, be aware, and then explore your edges. But allow yourself to return regularly to that middle place in both your body and your mind.