Forget the pedicures and colorful nail polish, the best thing you can do for your feet is to keep your toes happy and healthy!
I grew up in Finland, a land that is covered in snow and ice for most of the year. It's a land where summers are short and winters are long. I have definitely spent a lot more time in bulky shoes and thick woolen socks than running around barefoot.
Things changed when I moved to the tropics and stopped wearing shoes. Like the rest of myself, my toes really responded well to the change. They became more flexible, and I can actually spread them now -- a task which was nearly impossible before. It used to be as if my toes were glued together and only moved in bulk!
What is a happy foot?
After I settled into my life of no shoes, I started paying more attention to feet. The locals here have hardly ever worn shoes. They have flip-flops, and they work barefoot a lot, especially the local fishermen on their boats. I could not help but notice that the shape of their feet was very different from mine.
I learned that the natural shape of a foot is like the foot I see here; wide at the ball of the foot, with toes spreading out, and with plenty of space between the toes even when the foot is relaxed. For us shoe-wearing folk, the conventional shoes have shaped our foot to become narrow. The small toes are often curled due to years of lack of space, and we have issues like bunions or flat feet.
But just imagine: If you never take care of your toes, how do you expect them to function when you are older? There is no amount of nail polish that will bring them back to life after decades of inactivity!
How can yoga help to keep your toes alive? Issues in our feet also relate to pains and misalignment in our knees or hips. But even if you have to wear shoes for the most part of your day, there are many yoga poses that can help with keeping your toes happy and healthy!
1. Roll a tennis ball under the foot.
To open the soles of the feet, roll a tennis ball under each foot for a few minutes at a time. By doing this, you massage the many pressure points found on the bottom of the foot. This also releases the long line of fascia that begins under the feet and runs all the way through the back of the body to the top of the head.
2. Strengthen the toes.
To exercise the toes and the arches of the feet, start by standing in Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Stand equally on both feet, and distribute the weight evenly.
Begin lifting all of the toes up while keeping the rest of the foot on the mat. Then, lift up only the big toe, and press the other toes onto the mat. Next, press the big toe onto the mat and lift up the other four toes. Finally, try lifting up the big toe and small toe together, pressing the three middle toes onto the mat.
You'll be in total focus at this point, as it is quite a challenge!
3. Squat with toe stretch.
For the toe squat, come to your hands and knees, tucking your toes under so that you are bearing your weight on the balls of the feet. You can sit upright, but since this may feel quite strong for the toes, alternatively you can also keep your hands on the floor. Another option is to lean forward and bring your elbows onto the ground.
You can start with 1 minute and work towards holding it from 2 to 3 minutes. When you want to come out, release slowly by leaning onto your hands and knees, lifting the toes up without moving them at first. Feel the rush of energy in your feet before you start moving your toes slowly.
4. Strengthen the ankles.
Strong ankles are beneficial to happy and healthy feet. You can start by sitting in Dandasana. Point the toes away from you, then draw the toes again towards you. This strengthens the muscles around the ankles and increases mobility.
5. Interlace your fingers with your toes.
When sitting in Badhakonasana, or Butterfly, interlace your toes with your fingers. Another variation is to interlace the toes of both feet together. This will provide more space in between the toes, allowing them to spread wider by stretching our toe muscles.
When we bring the focus to our feet and toes like this, we not only gain foot health, but can also extend a moment of gratitude for these parts which carry us all day long.