Lift Your Heels! The Little-Known Tip to Transform Your Practice
By balancing on the balls of our feet in a yoga practice, we can gracefully lengthen the lines of familiar poses, turning heels into hocks in a way that recalls the light agility of digitigrades (animals that walk or stand on their toes, like cats and walking birds), and reinfuse familiar asanas with fresh challenges. “Stepping on the gas” or “making Barbie feet” in a standing yoga pose not only encourages the arches of the feet to spring to life, but also, according to Jonina Turzi, a physical therapist and owner of West End Yoga Studio in Lancaster, PA, helps to engage deep postural, or “core,” muscles. “A smaller and more precarious foundation is likely to bring deep foot- and ankle-stabilizing muscles to life, causing a ripple effect of core muscle engagement from the foot upward,” Turzi says. A practice in lifting the heels, according to Turzi, can furthermore “take us out of normal habits of compensation and help us shine lights on 'shadow spots' in our weight bearing in the feet.”
“A smaller and more precarious foundation is likely to bring deep foot- and ankle-stabilizing muscles to life, causing a ripple effect of core muscle engagement from the foot upward,” Turzi says.
Many of us are inclined to favor either the base of the big toe or, more commonly, the base of the little toe when standing and when practicing poses in which the feet bear weight. In the following practice, try to press down into both evenly as you rise to the ball of the foot (attempting to lift the bases of toes two, three, and four), and lift the heel straight up. In all poses, vigilantly track your knees toward the outsides of your feet, and maintain your length from tailbone to crown.
Lifting the heels is not an end but a beginning. As Turzi says, “Ultimately, all four corners of the feet—the base of the big toe, the inner heel, base of the pinky toe, and the outer heel—need to have a relaxation of our weight into them.” After lifting the heels for several breaths, lower them as slowly and smoothly as you can. As your feet come back to the earth, settle your weight into their four corners: through the base of the big toe and the outer heel; through the base of the little toe and the inner heel. “Think of the feet as being crossed by diagonal lines. When the bases of the big toes ground, often the outer heels are lost; when the bases of the little toes ground, often the inner heels are lost,” Turzi says. “When you can get all four corners of the feet to accept your weight, the arches will lift naturally.”
You can practice balancing on the balls of your feet, lowering your heels slowly and mindfully and grounding through all four corners of your feet with the following asana sequence. (You might also lift and lower the heels several times, picking up the pace, but going only as quickly as you can go while still finding and rooting the bases of the big and little toes when the heel is lifted, and finding and rooting the four corners of the foot when it is grounded.)
1.Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with a strap around the thighs
Tighten a loop just above your knees so that when your feet are hip-distance apart the loop is taut. In order to vividly engage the muscles that will help to prevent your knees from knocking inward in the following poses, press your thighs out into the strap while lifting your heels up and rooting into the bases of your big and little toes. Hold the lift for several breaths, then lower your heels as slowly and smoothly as you can. Take the time to ease your weight into the four corners of the feet before moving to the next pose.
2. Ardha Uttanasana with a strap
From tadasana, place your hands on your hips and forward fold until your spine is parallel to the earth, bending your knees if necessary to maintain the lumbar curve, and keeping your lower belly lifted to support your lower spine. Now consider lifting one heel, then the other, then both heels, still pressing your thighs out into the strap. Hold the lift of the heels for a few breaths before lowering them smoothly. Appreciate the thorough connection of the four corners of each foot to the earth before rising up out of the pose.
3. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
With feet shoulder-distance apart, bend both knees—imagining, from now on, your thigh bones still pressing out into a strap—and perch your elbows on your knees, hands together in anjali mudra (prayer position). Instead of clenching around your neck or shoulders, give your weight to your elbows on your knees, and channel that weight down the lines of your shinbones into your feet. Lift one heel and hold, then the other, then both, lowering them slowly, then pausing to give your feet a chance to fully accept your weight.
4. Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Genuflect with your right foot forward, left knee on the floor underneath your left hip. Lift your right heel high. Keep the heel lifted for several breaths, then lower it slowly. After taking the time to ground the right foot down, try the pose on the other side.
5. Twisting High Lunge
From adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose), step your right foot forward between your hands. Keep your left hand down on the floor underneath your left shoulder and bring your right hand to your right knee to guard its tracking, making sure the thighbone aims to align with the center of the foot as you begin to spin your chest open to the right; all the while, press the top of your left thigh toward the ceiling. Lift your right heel. Hold. Lower smoothly. Take a moment to appreciate the connection of the right foot to the earth before repeating the pose on the second side.
6. High Lunge/Crescent
From adho mukha svanasana, step your right foot forward between your hands. Keeping your left toes well curled under, firm your outer hips in for stability, and lift your spine to vertical. You might place your left hand on your hip and use your right hand to check that the thighbone continues to line up with the center of the foot as you raise your right heel, hold the lift, then lower the heel attentively. Then bring the hands alongside your front foot, perhaps taking a moment to admire its new groundedness before stepping back to downward facing dog and switching sides.
7. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)
Stand facing the long side of the mat, and step your feet wide apart. Turn your left leg in so that your left toes point to ten o’clock; turn your right leg out so that your right toes point straight ahead toward the front of the mat. The front heel bisects the back arch. You might place your left hand on your left hip, and use your right hand to ensure the aim of your right knee as you bend it deeply, bringing your thigh toward parallel with the earth, and keeping the thighbone in line with the center of the foot. Lift your right heel, hold, and lower unhurriedly, remaining attentive to the tracking of your right knee. After redistributing your weight through the four corners of the right foot, create virabhadrasana II on the second side.
8. Utthita Parshvakonasana (Extended Side Angle)
From virabhadrasana II, with your right leg forward and well bent, reach long through your right arm, lengthening the right side of your waist by deepening the right hip crease, and bring your right elbow to your right knee where you can use it as a tool to encourage your thigh to come to parallel with the earth, and continue to track toward the center of the right foot. Stretch your left arm up or overhead. Lift your right heel, hold the lift, then lower the heel gradually. Make sure to ease your weight through the right foot before moving on to the second side.
9. Parivritta Prasarita Padottanasana (Twisting Wide-legged Forward Fold) Variation
Stand facing the long edge of the mat with your feet wide apart. Bend your knees, and forward fold by hinging at your hips. Place your right hand down on the floor underneath your heart. Take your left arm out to the side like a wing, and begin to revolve to the left, turning from your rib cage. Keeping your sacrum level, straighten only your right leg, and rise up to the ball of the left foot. Hold the lift, then lower the heel with care. Reroot your left foot into the earth before rebending both knees, placing the left hand on the floor, and twisting to the right, straightening your left leg as you experiment with the lift of the right heel.
10. Parvritta Trikonasana (Twisting Triangle) Variation with bent back knee
Stand facing the short edge of the mat; root down through your right foot, and step your left foot a big step back, feet about hip-distance apart from right to left. Angle your left big toe toward the front left corner of the mat. Begin to bend your left knee, tracking it toward the outside of your left foot, and slowly fold, hinging at your hips to bring your spine to parallel with the earth. Place your left hand on a block underneath your left shoulder, and open your right arm to the right, stretching it ceilingward as your chest spins open to the right. Come up onto the ball of your left foot, holding the lift of the heel for a few breaths, before lowering the heel slowly and grounding the left foot. Rise and switch sides.
11. Purvottanasana (Reverse Tabletop) with knees bent
Sit with knees bent up toward the ceiling, and lean back, planting your hands behind you with your fingers pointing toward your hips, already drawing the sacrum in and up and lifting and broadening your chest. Root down with your hands and feet in order to raise your hips and your heart. Lift one heel, then the other, then both, lowering the heels conscientiously. Sprawl your weight through the four corners of each foot before lowering your hips back to the floor.
12. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge)
Lie down on the floor, knees up, feet hip-distance apart. With your arms alongside you, root down with your shoulders, upper arms, and feet to lift your hips and heart. Interlace your hands on the floor beneath your hips, if that feels appropriate. Lift one heel, then the other, then both, lowering them slowly, accepting weight with the four corners of each foot before coming out of the pose.
13. Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Facing Bow)
Lying down with your hands alongside your ears, press into both your hands and your feet in order to lift up onto the crown of your head. Take a moment to firm your elbows in and press them back toward your shoulders, rolling your heart toward the wall in the direction you are now looking, before you straighten your arms to lift your head off the floor. Raise one heel, then the other, then both, lowering them slowly, and appreciating the connection of the feet to the earth before tucking your chin to your chest and descending.
14. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half-Lord of the Fishes)
Seated with your legs outstretched, bend your right knee up toward the ceiling and then step your right foot to the floor outside your left thigh. Keep your left leg extended, or bend your left knee to bring your left heel to the outside of your right hip. Bring your right hand to the floor behind your hips, and take your left elbow to the outside of your right knee—or hug your right knee—keeping the right knee pointing up toward the ceiling as much as possible. Lift your right heel for a few breaths, actively pressing down through the ball of the foot. Lower slowly, and make your right foot as much like a standing foot as possible. Uncross your legs and switch sides.
15. Parvritta Upavishtha Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold) Variation I
Sit with legs wide and spine vertical. Bend your right knee up toward the ceiling with your right heel close to your right sitting bone. Bring your right hand to the floor behind you and your left hand to your right knee or shin, spinning your chest toward your right knee while doing your best to drop your left sitting bone. Lift your right heel, hold the lift, and lower slowly. After regrounding your right foot, straighten your right leg and bend your left leg to try this variation on the other side.
16. Parvritta Upavishtha Konasana (Revolved Wide-Legged Forward Fold) Variation 2
From a wide-legged seated position, bend your left knee to the ceiling, bringing your left heel close to your left buttock. Bring your right hand to the left ankle, then side-bend over your straight right leg, stretching your left arm up and then overhead, aiming to bring your left hand to your right foot. Lift your left heel for a few breaths, lower smoothly, and ground the foot before taking this pose on the second side.
17. Shavasana (Final Relaxation)
Sprawl out on your back and drift your attention to your feet: imagine your soles glimmering with light. Allow the incandescence of your own energy to flow up your ankles, shins, knees, and thighs, imagining this luminous river eroding any tension that may be serving as an obstacle to its upward passage. The shimmering warm light from your feet gullies through your pelvis, your waist, your rib cage, rivers through your shoulders, down your arms, into your hands. It courses up your neck and fills your head, so that behind your closed eyes all you see are the brilliant spindrifts of your own energy moving in you, ever upward. And when you finally rouse yourself, ease your way up to sit, and then rise to stand, the residuum of the practice remains in the easy descent of the four corners of your feet, the easy ascension of your arches, and your totemically stable legs. When you begin to walk again, you look back once or twice, but the footprints of gold dust you expected to see behind you have already blown away.
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>