Foot Love Workshop Exercises – October 2015

You can find variations of some of these exercises in world-renowned Biomechanist Katy Bowman’s books & DVD included in her Healthy Foot Kit.

Healthy_Foot_Kit-1

Standing Exercises

All standing exercises should be done in Tadasana aka mountain pose with your feet pelvis-width distance apart, pointing forward, which means the outside edges of your feet should form a straight line (you can line up the edge of one of your feet on a yoga mat to check that it is actually straight and match the other accordingly); and your hips back so that they are stacked over your knees, ankles, and heels and not drifting or thrusting forward. Keep your weight back in your heels. I call this Smart Tadasana Alignment.

Toe Spreading

Lift your toes (this is called extension), spread them away from each other, and place them down onto the mat. Repeat several times throughout your day. You can improve your ability to actively spread your toes by passively spreading them using toe socks.

Short Foot Exercise

A full explanation is linked, but the short of it is to draw the base of your big toe towards your heel, without flexing or curling your toes. It’s OK if they grip the floor. This action lifts your arch, thereby shortening the length of your foot, and strengthening the arch-supporting muscles. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times for each foot. Try to do 5 sets of 3 repetitions per day, holding for 5 seconds each rep. You can perform the short foot exercise any time your standing in yoga postures and as you get stronger, you can do it while balancing. The Short Foot Exercise is comparable to the Strong Yoga Foot.

Balancing

Any single leg balance will strengthen your extrinsic and intrinsic foot musculature. Once you are skilled at balancing on a firm surface, you can explore a variety of unique surfaces – a folded up towel or blanket, a yoga block, a half round, a boot tray of rocks, your yard…Hold for up to one minute and repeat several times throughout your day.

Exploratory feet

Move your feet in exploratory, weird, random, bizarre, strange, silly, varied ways. This can be done sitting in Dandasana (with your legs extended in front of you) or lying down. This is a great way to mobilize your feet before you get out of bed in the morning. Repeat throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Extend a leg behind you, pressing the top of your foot into the mat. It is important to keep your pelvis back and stacked vertically over the knee & ankle of your front or support leg as the tendency is for it to drift forward. If balance is a challenge, please use a chair so that you can concentrate on the stretch without worrying about the balance.Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Top of foot stretch

Calf Elevator

Lift the heels of both feet, coming up onto your tippy toes. Try to avoid letting your ankles blow out to the sides. If they do, then only raise your heels as high as you can keep your ankles stable. Hold for several seconds. Once you are skilled at balancing on both feet, start working towards one foot at a time. You can do this either by lifting the heels of both feet, but letting the work happen mainly in one foot; or you could do this balancing on one foot! Whichever variation you choose, make sure your hips are back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Calf stretch

A half round (or half moon as one of students sweetly miscalled it) is best for this stretch, but you could roll up a couple of yoga mats or blanket or use a book. Place the ball of your foot on the top of the half round with your heel on the ground. Keep your other foot even to and pelvic-width apart from the stretching calf. You can advance in this pose by slowly stepping the non-stretching foot forward. If your pelvis moves forward with you or you lose balance or get rigid, bring the forward stepping foot back and don’t progress until you can do so in a relaxed and balanced stance with your hips back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

I purchased a SPRI Half Round Foam Roller, 36 x 6-Inch that I cut down to one 18″ length and three 6″ lengths that I use for various purposes as yoga props.

Calf Stretch/Elevator Combination

Stand with one foot on the half-round and elevate both heels to a slow count of three. Hold for 3 counts. Lower for a slow count of three. The lowering is where you train eccentrically, generating force while you are lengthening your muscle tendon units. This is how you get stronger at greater ranges and with more control. At the place that you want to give up and drop your heel is the opportunity to exercise muscle control.

Hamstring stretch

I’ll be posting later this week on hamstring stretching, but for now, start from tadasana, place your hands on your thighs and hinge forward at your hip joints, allowing your hands to slide down your legs, keeping your spine in neutral. As soon as your spine starts to deform ie round, stop, come up a few inches and work instead on lifting your tailbone, which will move the proximal muscle attachments for your hamstrings that are located on your sitting bones away from the distal attachments that are located on your lower legs, thus stretching these muscles. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Ball rolling massage

Place a new, firm tennis ball on a yoga mat or carpet. Keep your heel down as you drape only your toes over the ball, weighting it as much as you can tolerate. Very, very slowly, roll the ball under your toes, from side to side, allowing your toes to spread as you go. After a while move your foot forward so that the ball of your foot drapes across the ball. Again, move very slowly side to side. Continue to move your foot forward in small sections using a side to side motion. When you are deep into the arch of your foot, you might explore some front to back motions, or invert/evert your foot to get into the lateral and medial arches. The benefit from this massage comes when you slow down, take your time, move forward in tiny increments, hang out in sore spots, and remember to breathe. This can and should be done daily as a meditation practice.

staticball3

Floor Exercises

Plantar Fascia Stretch – kneeling/squatting

In this exercise, you kneel with your knees pelvis-width apart on a mat or padded surface. Extend (curl) your toes forward. If you can, reach around and separate your toes from each other and make sure they are all extending forward. You may be able to lower your hips, shifting more of your weight onto your feet, but do this slowly and with ease as the thick band of fascia and four layers of intrinsic muscles on the soles of your feet may never have experienced this type of stretch. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Barbie foot

This is the exercise where you press your balls forward (of your feet, people!), all toes forward, all toes back, foot back. You know the one. In the balls forward, toes back position, your feet look like Barbie’s. You can use your arms to support you in an upright seated position, but I suggest you place your hands in your lap from time to time and hold yourself up using your own trunk musculature. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Bridge with marble

I know you all remember this bit of love from the workshop – a yoga bridge pose holding a marble with your toes and extending your leg. Yes, that one.  Remember, cramping is good…a good reminder, that it, that you should be moving your feet more. Again, images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Ankle circles, point/flex, invert, evert

This can be done seated with legs extended or on your back. My preference is supine with legs extended 90 degrees and soles of your feet facing the ceiling. Try to keep your legs straight and pelvis-width apart and don’t be in such a hurry. Slow, sweeping circles will assure full range of motion. If you fatigue, bend your knees, but keep moving your ankles & feet.

Exploratory feet

Exploratory feet can be done standing in Tadasana with your feet squirming around on the mat; seated in a chair with them wiggling about on a bolster; seated on the floor with them playing mischievously out in front of you; or lying supine, my favorite, with your feet in the air spazzing all over. The object is to make as many movements as you can. According to my teacher Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and math dork, if you apply a mathematical concept called a factorial, a foot with 33 joints can deform into 8,600,000,000,000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 unique ways – or thereabouts. Whatever.

Toe spreaders

These exercises will help to undo the harm that shoes with small toe boxes cause to the muscles between your toes that have so little range of motion or strength that you may not even be able to generate enough of your own force to spread your toes. The third exercise, Toe Lifts, was not included in the workshop because a) I forgot; or b) We ran out of time. Whatever.

Namaste, Michele

Welcome to your shoulder girdle – shoulder extension

Q. When I extend my arms, called shoulder extension in yoga, with a strap looped around my hands (or just hands clasped), I have significantly more range of motion than when I do the same action but holding a block. What is the difference?

These are the kinds of questions that I ponder at 3:30 am, when I should be sleeping. I don’t have enough tacit knowledge (yet) to answer such questions, so I get out my anatomy books and play, trying to puzzle it out. It is in this way that I’ve layered functional, contextual understanding on top of fuzzy recollections and ineffectual memorization. As always, what is happening is way more complex than my summation, but you’ll get the drift.

What are the similarities?

Let’s first look at the similarities. In both examples of shoulder extension, the primary movers or agonists – being the posterior deltoids and triceps – are contracting with help from latissimus dorsi aka lats, while the anterior deltoids, pectoralis major aka pecs and biceps are stretching.

And now the differences.

shoulder_extension_strap

In the strap example, because my hands have to push outward against the strap to keep it taut, my arms are therefore attempting to abduct or move away from my body, which means my lateral deltoids are also contracting. Were the strap removed, continuing to abduct my arms would eventually bring them into the arm position of Virabhadrasana 2. The loads are different, but the result would look about the same if I were clasping my hands instead of using a strap.

shoulder_extension_block2

In the block example, because my hands have to push into the block to keep if from falling to the floor, my arms are thus adducting or moving towards my body, meaning my lats and pecs are also contracting. By contracting my chest muscles, I effectively put the break on further extension of my arms behind me because I am now co-contracting muscles that both cause and keep me from extending. And that is why I cannot lift my arms as high with the block. 

Which method is better?

Is one method – strap or block – better than the other? It depends…

If you want to increase strength and integrity of your tendons, which is my goal in yoga, the bock technique is better for two reasons:

Co-contracting provides greater resistance for the primary movers – posterior deltoids and triceps. I don’t need to tell you this as you can experience it yourself, when you attempt to extend further.

  • the technique I use is to place a block behind me with elbows extended (straight), press firmly into the block (~75% of maximum effort) and try to lift it higher – just like in the picture above.

Adding  an isometric contraction at end range of motion signals collagen production in your tendons thus increasing their stiffness and their capacity to withstand greater loads. Relax already, stiffness as a biomechanical concept is not the same as that feeling of “tight” or “stiff” often exclaimed in yoga; tendon stiffness is a desirable thing. This kind of muscular work in yoga will make your tendons and ligaments more resilient against injury and ultimately may improve your flexibility.

  • One technique I use is to place a block behind me with elbows extended, and barely holding the block, lift my arms until I hit my end range and then press my hands firmly (~75% of maximum effort) into the block, holding for 10 seconds. This technique differs from what I described previously in that I lift my arms first  and press the block second; whereas previously, I pressed first and lifted second. It makes a difference how you get there. 
  • Another technique would be to press the block down onto a counter/table which is essentially trying to move into shoulder flexion and will fire the stretching anterior deltoid. At the same time, press your hands into the block (adduct) to isometrically contract your pectoralis major. It’s a lot of work!

shoulder_extension_blocktable

  • And yet another technique would be to clasp your hands and push them into a block positioned against your sacrum – here you get concentric work in the posterior deltoids, triceps, and lats as well as isometric contraction in your anterior deltoids while they are stretching at what may or may not be your end range. It doesn’t matter – you want to be be able to generate force at all ranges of motion.

shoulder_extension_block3

Think of this work in shoulder extension as prep work for puvottonasana aka reverse table top/plank. Ray Long, whom I introduce in an earlier post, is a master at knowing what muscles are working in just about any yoga pose you can think of. Once you know which muscles are contracting and which are stretching in a pose, you can manipulate variables to increase active mobility. He cues to isometrically attempt to scrub or drag the hands towards the hips, but without actually moving them. This simulates shoulder flexion,  and just like in the examples above using the table or the block against the sacrum, it causes an isometric contraction in the muscles that are stretching, and that makes them strong, more resilient at that range of motion. You can read more here in his book Yoga Mat Companion 3: Anatomy for Backbends and Twists.
Try it.

purvottonasana_RL

Purvottonasana by Ray Long

Or, you could just go back to passively flopping your arms overhead, which may increase your flexibility, but won’t increase strength and resiliency of your tissues. I like to think of passive, yummy poses as junk food yoga, a nod to Katy Bowman’s junk food walking. It’s really yummy and pleasurable, but should only be consumed in small amounts, not that often, and never in place of nutritious, connective tissue loving active mobility.

shoulder_extension_yummy

Namaste, Michele

Oh My Knee (OMK!) and lateral hip strength

I’ve been studying knee biomechanics for an epic upcoming series of posts on knees and yoga. I’ve had over 25 years of knee pain and will be blogging about my dumb knees, what finally nearly fixed them, what set me back from this fix, and how to apply yoga and Restorative Exercise™. Thomas Michaud, who wrote THE book on human locomotion – Human Locomotion: The Conservative Management of Gait Related Disorders, provides in another of his books, Injury-Free Running: How to Build Strength, Improve Form, and Treat/Prevent Injuries, an eye opening test for lateral hip strength, which is the domain of the abductors – gluteals and tensor fascia lata. The test is called the Forward Step-down Test.

I photographed and videotaped (see my FB page) myself doing this test. In the images, I used an 8″ stool instead of a 4″ box to step down from, because that is what I had at the moment and I am impatient. **Later, I stacked yoga blocks on a book to make a 4″ box, which is the customary height for the test. The results were about the same, albeit less dramatic on the 4″ box. Otherwise, I tried to replicate his assessment.

Ideally, when I step off the box, my non-stepping hip should not displace laterally (to the side). The more it displaces, the weaker are my abductors.  My abductors should be firing (eccentrically contracting) to stabilize my hip joint, keeping movement in the sagittal plane since I am moving sagittally or forward. Notice the difference in displacement of my right hip (second image) as compared to my left. What is interesting is that I can and do make a point of firing my lateral hip muscles in yoga, especially in single leg balancing postures, and I regularly do the “pelvic list,” an exercise I learned from my teacher Katy Bowman (warning if you don’t like toddlers, don’t watch this video).  All of this work balancing while intentionally firing my lateral hip muscles in yoga and active mobility training via the pelvic list has made me strong and good at balancing in yoga and pelvic listing. But, it has not translated into coordinated, timely recruitment of my lateral hip muscles during this particular movement – stepping down.

ForwardstepdownLforwardstepdown1R

Who cares? Well, besides my hips, my knees care. Not only do my hips take a beating each time I go down stairs or downhill, hip weakness is the most likely cause for patellofemoral pain syndrome. It turns out that this pain may not be due to an unstable patella that is not tracking correctly, thus moving  sideways, as has been thought for years by sports scientists and clinicians, but it is likely due to the outer aspect of the femur moving into a stable patella because of weak abductors. Whoa!

Here is the lesson. “The inability of strengthening exercises to alter movement emphasizes an important point…you can’t just make a muscle stronger, you have to retrain the muscle to interact in synchrony with other muscles.” Dr. Thomas Michaud

I want to protect my hip and knee joints by functionally improving my lateral hip strength. I’ll continue conditioning these muscles through active yogasana balancing and pelvic listing, but I’ll also be devising a plan to train my hips for the hugely important and frequently occuring movement pattern for which they are currently offline – stepping down. By varying frequency, rate, direction, location, and any other force characteristics of stepping down that I can manipulate, I will train my hips not just for stepping down from a 4″ box but for stepping down in a multitude of situations. Like life. I’m going for variation in my stepping down –  from varying heights, from unstable objects,  from varying surfaces, by controlling different joint angles, etc. If you get in my way, I will step down from you. Or maybe onto you.

Namaste, Michele

FootLove Yoga’s Online Offerings!

I’ve added Online Classes to the menu with links to video shorts of me demonstrating how to use yogasana and other movement exercises to:

  • Improve strength to weight ratio – see if you are strong enough to hold/move your own weight
  • Train active mobility – add eccentric, isometric, and concentric action to yogasana, which is actually how you get more flexible, if that is your goal
  • Stay within your boundaries – learn your functional end ranges of motion, how to get there, and how to get stronger there

Also, you can use the Online Classes menu item to get to $5 Alignment Snacks. I often get asked how I learned what I teach. I read and train a lot, but those who most inform my current yoga teaching are highlighted in this post. I trained and certified in Restorative Exercise™ under Katy Bowman. You can learn straight from Katy with these killer 30 – 60 minute exercise videos, called Alignment Snacks, that you download, own, and view as often as you like for only $5 each! This is a fantastic deal.

Load Your Feet to Improve Plantar Fasciitis

Last month, I wrote about dissonance that occurs, when I perceive discord among yoga teachers and other movement thinkers, whose work I follow. As a yoga teacher, former research librarian, soon to be Restorative Exercise Specialist™, and someone with rebellious tendencies, I am wired to ask a lot of questions about what is being taught in yoga – and why – and whether cues were informed by research or lineage. Often this results in mental compromises (and annoyed teachers & colleagues) as I try to reconcile such teachings with each other and with what I experience in my body or with my students and clients. There comes a time when a clarifying convergence of ideas emerges that confirms I am on the right path and following teachings from which I am meant to learn. This is one of those occasions. 

In previous posts (listed below), I discussed plantar fasciitis (aka plantar fasciosis) and biomechanical and environmental factors that can be addressed conservatively through yogasana, plantar fascia-specific stretching, alignment, and conditioning.

Previous posts on plantar fasciitis and exercises that can help:

https://footloveyoga.com/2015/01/05/plantar-fasciitis-what-we-know-what-we-can-do-about-it-january-5-2015/

https://footloveyoga.com/2015/01/08/what-does-plantar-fasciitis-your-down-comforter-and-your-sleep-position-have-in-common/

https://footloveyoga.com/2015/01/17/simulating-the-toe-off-event-in-walking-to-stretch-your-plantar-fascia/

https://footloveyoga.com/2015/01/13/strong-yoga-foot/

https://footloveyoga.com/2015/03/16/the-strong-yoga-foot-and-your-flat-feet-in-research/

Upon returning yesterday from what has come to be known as the Jules Mitchell Portland Tour, I found the September 1, 2015 issue of my partner’s American Family Physician peer-reviewed journal sitting on my desk with a section circled. The article was titled “Top 20 Research Studies of 2014 for Primary Care Physicians.” Basically, a group of clinicians with expertise in evidenced-based medicine performed monthly surveillance on 110 clinical research journals in 2014 (the 20th year they have been doing such surveillance). They identified 255 studies that had potential to change how family physicians practice, and narrowed that group down to 20 studies with relevance to primary care practice, validity, and likelihood that they could change practice. The section circled for my benefit was from one of these 20 studies titled “High-load strength training improves outcome in patients with plantar fasciitis: A randomized controlled trial with 12-month follow-up,” which addressed the question of whether strength training is more effective than stretching for patients with plantar fasciitis. The bottom line answer was YES. “A regimen of strength training improves pain and function in patients with plantar fasciitis faster than a typical stretching regimen. Over time, though, patients who stretch will continue to improve and have similar improvement.” My take home, after reading the full study, is that high-load strength training, at 3 months out, resulted in quicker reduction in pain and improvement in function, when compared to stretching alone. However, 3 months was the magic time period. Before three months and at 6  and 12 months, strength training was not superior to stretching.

So, how does this research study on plantar fasciitis converge with the Jules Mitchell Portland Tour? Jules is one of the teachers in my dissonance piece. She is a biomechanist and yogi, who wrote her masters thesis on the science of stretching and turned the world of yoga on its head. One of her workshops that I attended this weekend was an impressive attempt to distill  3 years of research on the biomechanics and neuromechanisms of stretching into 8 hours of yoga workshop. The piece that is relevant here, further distilled from 3 years of research to 8 hours of workshop to two minutes of interpretive writing, is that loading connective tissues, which happens in active static stretching and isometric and eccentric training, is how we get stronger, healthier connective tissues. It is all about the load. You must input load. It is so much more complicated and nuanced than that…I challenge you to learn more by reading Jules’ seminal post on tissue mechanics, which begins her blogging journey of her thesis work.

In explaining results of the plantar fascia study, the authors confirm Jules’ findings that large tensile forces (loads) are associated with improvements in symptoms in conditions involving degenerative changes, like plantar fasciosis. Since the plantar fascia is composed of type 1 collagen fibers, it responds to high loads by laying down more collagen, which may help improve the condition. An additional benefit of high-load strength training is increased ankle dorsiflexion strength, as decreased ankle dorsiflexion strength has previously been identified in those with plantar fasciosis.

Applied exercises in your home yoga practice

With a little creativity, you can use yoga props to combine ankle dorsiflexion and controlled loading of the plantar fascia. This exercise can be used by those with or without plantar fasciosis, as it trains active mobility and improves strength at end ranges of motion in your feet and ankles, which is good for everyone. We know that strong, flexible feet are healthy, happy, and mobile.

I use a block, half round, and yoga mat. You can use a stair step or low stool in place of a yoga block and a rolled up towel or yoga mat for the half round/mat combo in the images below.

The first two pictures show my naked set-up, but I actually cover the whole contraption with a yoga mat because the half-round slides on the block without the mat, when I start doing the exercise. You probably won’t get slippage if you are using a towel instead of a half-round.

plantar fasciosis load1 plantarfasciosisload2 plantarfasciosisload3

  1. Place the toes of your right foot on the mat-wrapped half-round (towel), so that they are maximally dorsal flexed, meaning your toes extend back towards you.
  2. Place the ball of your foot on the block (stool or step).
  3. Hold onto a chair/rail for balance and slowly, over a period of 3 seconds, lift your right heel, so that you rise up onto the ball of your foot (concentric phase).
  4. Remain in the raised position for 2 seconds (isometric phase).
  5. Slowly lower your heel, over a period of 3 seconds, to slightly below the level of the block (eccentric phase). The rise, hold, & lower is one rep.
  6. Repeat up to 12 times (reps) for up to 3 sets.
  7. Once you can do 3 sets of 12 reps, play around with increasing the load by wearing a loaded backpack. You might decrease the number of reps at this new load, but increase the number of sets. The idea here is to progressively load the tissues as you get stronger.
  8. Perform this exercise every other day.
  9. If you find you are not strong enough to do unilateral heel raises, try using both feet at the same time until you are stronger.
  10. This protocol is just a suggestion. Modify the load, reps, sets, and props, customizing it to suit your strength, flexibility, and movement history.

plantarfasciosis load5 plantarfasciosis load4

P.S. Look at how in the first picture, both ankles are dorsal flexed; and in the second both are plantar flexed. Not intentional. Just a neural pathway, I guess.

Consider adding this exercise to your foot health protocol of stretching, strengthening, and mobilizing your feet.

Namaste, Michele