One of the biggest challenges for me as a yoga teacher is teasing apart the directions that serve a specific biomechanical purpose from the directions that simply work to create the classical form of a pose. For instance, I’ve been wondering lately if we insist upon pointing our toes back in upward facing dog only because it’s traditional, rather than because that direction is either important to our safety or confers a specific anatomical boon. As Kat Heagberg points out here, there are plenty of vinyasa “rules” that can be safely broken.
Could “point your toes back in upward facing dog” be one such rule, or will I suffer some unknown and terrible consequences if I keep my toes curled under instead? I brought this question to Bill Reif, a physical therapist with forty years of experience and the author of The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain and How to Treat It. He answered, “For yogis who regularly practice upward facing dog with ease, there’s nothing wrong with curling the toes under in that pose.”
Reif conceded that, depending on the interrelationship of parts—how high the chest lifts, and how low the pelvis then drops as a consequence of that action—curling your toes under may increase the backbend. For advanced practitioners, this may be desirable. But if curling the toes under extends the lumbar spine too much too soon, there are simple adjustments you can make to lessen the backbend, according to Reif: “By continuing to reach back through the heels, you’ll create length, and by bending the elbows slightly, you can control the depth of your backbend.” (Reif recommends pointing the elbows straight back as you bend them, as you would for chaturanga.)
So if pointing the toes back is not absolutely indispensable to the creation of a graduated backbend, could it be that the toes-back position is de rigueur because it makes an essential contribution to our foot and ankle mobility? After all, plantar-flexing (pointing) the feet can feel like a good stretch for the fronts of the ankles, especially interjected between chaturanga and downward facing dog, both of which require dorsiflexion.
“Plantar flexion stretches the tibialis anterior, the muscle lining the front of the shin, and alternating between plantar flexion and dorsiflexion is important for foot strength and mobility,” said Reif. But although he agreed that ankle extension is important in general, he didn’t see any particular benefit from extending the ankles in upward facing dog specifically, adding that it may be better to practice foot and ankle movements in poses where you can actually see your feet and ankles. He recommended “walking the dog”—lifting and lowering the heels one at a time in downward facing dog—or stretching the legs straight up when lying on the back, and practicing reaching up with your heels, then with your toes (which just happens to be a good neural glide for the sciatic nerve, too).
In addition to not being harmful for many practitioners, keeping the toes curled under in upward facing dog may supply a few benefits worth considering:
1. Makes for smoother vinyasa transitions.
Admit it: Flipping the feet over when transitioning from chaturanga to upward facing dog, and then curling the toes under again when transitioning from upward facing dog to downward facing dog, are pretty awkward movements—and yet we make them dozens of times in a vinyasa yoga class. We may come up with our own personal strategies: rolling both feet over at once, lowering our knees to flip the feet, or flipping one foot and then the other.
As an aside, Reif doesn’t think that one of these “flipping” strategies is necessarily better than another. “Flipping both feet at the same time is more difficult. Flipping one foot at a time would be better and easier for most students, and perfectly fine as long as they switch the foot that flips first,” said Reif. “It’s important to give both feet equal opportunity to lead. Musculoskeletal problems often arise from repeated, weight-bearing asymmetrical movement that encourages the dominance of one side.”
Even those of us who have become adept at flipping both feet simultaneously may still find an awkwardness in the transition (and not just because of the number it does on the skin of our toes). How many of us find that when we move from upward facing dog to downward facing dog via a simultaneous foot-flip, our downward facing dogs actually end up being too long? We might actually need to take a small step forward once we’ve turned our feet over, courting asymmetry once again: Chances are, one foot still tends to lead on that forward step.
By keeping the toes curled under as we practice upward facing dog in a vinyasa, we skip the awkward repositioning of the feet that could wear out the backs of our mats and leave our toe skin ragged, and we keep our movements symmetrical.
2. Gives us a better shot at keeping healthy ankle alignment throughout the vinyasa.
Yoga teachers often stress that the heels should be vertical in upward facing dog rather than “sickling” (i.e., heels flopping out while the toes point toward each other). But getting our feet not to sickle can be hard, since we can’t see our feet during upward facing dog.
Reif agreed that sickling is to be avoided. “Habitual sickling, or supination, is not a good idea, especially if you are doing it repeatedly or bearing weight on the sickled feet, as you do in upward facing dog. That is a stressful asymmetric position that may overstretch the lateral evertor muscles, tendons, and ligaments: the peroneus longus, brevis, and tertius muscles, anterior talo-fibular, calcaneo-fibular, and the posterior talo-fibular ligaments. You definitely wouldn’t want to do this if you have a history of ankle sprains.” He added, “Keeping the feet neutral [in this pose, heels vertical] is a much more stable position.”
By keeping the toes curled under as we transition into and out of upward facing dog, we minimize the risks of ankle misalignments. Reif said that “Dorsiflexed feet give you less room for error: Your ankles won’t be able to move as much as they can in plantar flexion.” (Note that ankles rarely veer off course in plank and chaturanga to the extent they do in upward facing dog.) Moreover, if we can establish neutral feet when we can see them—making sure in downward facing dog that our toes are pointing forward, and our heels are disappearing behind our toes—perhaps we will then be “primed” to keep our feet in that healthy position in the poses that follow.
3. Provides a greater stretch to your hip flexors and abdominal muscles.
Is it my imagination or do I feel a greater stretch along my waist and at the tops of my thighs when I practice upward facing dog with my toes curled under?
“If practitioners are already able to lift the chest quite high in an upward facing dog with the tops of the feet down, they might not feel that much of a difference, but if you are lifting the chest further and dropping the pelvis lower because your toes are curled under, then you will have increased the backbend here, yielding a greater stretch for the rectus abdominal muscles, the iliopsoas, as well as the quadriceps,” said Reif.
For some of us, keeping the toes curled under in upward facing dog may feel like a more productive version of the pose.
4. Stretches plantar fascia.
“Whenever the toes are curled under, heels reaching back, the plantar fascia gets stretched,” said Reif. So in plank and chaturanga, you’re already stretching the tissue along the arches of your feet. Curling the toes under in upward facing dog adds this benefit to the pose, which may be particularly valuable for those with plantar fasciitis, the micro-tearing or inflammation of the plantar fascia. (Reif offers his insight here as to how yoga can help this condition.)
By contrast, “pointing the toes back,” as you do in a traditional upward facing dog, “is something that those with plantar fasciitis should not do repeatedly or over a prolonged period,” said Reif, adding: “That position shortens the calf muscles and pulls on the plantar fascia.”
Just as keeping your toes curled under in upward facing dog is not “wrong,” neither is pointing your toes back. But if you enjoy varying your practice, you might investigate how it feels to keep your toes curled under every now and then. If you find that this way of practicing the pose feels more natural or productive, then by all means, keep doing it—without fear of any dire consequence resulting from your modification of the traditional pose.
Just as keeping your toes curled under in upward facing dog is not “wrong,” neither is pointing your toes back.
And should you find yourself missing the stretch for the tops of your feet, fronts of your ankles, and muscles along the shins that came from pointing your toes back in upward facing dog, then be sure to include poses in your practice like low lunges (with the back knee and foot down), locust pose, camel, hero’s pose, and also take the tops of your feet down to the floor (or the seat of a chair) in plough.
While you’re in these poses, or any traditional poses, notice which of their elements you may have accepted without question. Which elements do you feel are absolutely necessary? Which are not? Would revising any “givens,” in ways small or large, make the poses better fit you? This practice is strong enough, and has lasted long enough, to withstand both interrogation and alteration.