Updated: Jul 18, 2019
The feet - the foundations for standing poses. Ironically, it’s something practitioners often take for granted because, well, we’re standing, walking, placing one foot in front of the other – it’s all automatic and easy to take for granted.
But when you do standing poses in flows, always remind yourself to place your feet right - and what’s right isn’t necessarily what you think it should be based on what you saw on Instagram or Facebook or even what you were taught as the “classical” way. The last point is controversial, I know. But the simple reason is this - structurally, the “classical” 90 degree angles of the feet might not be for you.
The evolution of yoga has led to incorporate anatomical knowledge of the human body. This makes the practice physically safer because we now understand that the physical structure of our joints and muscular attachments, generally and individually, undeniably dictate our ability to execute poses. In the long run, this knowledge of our physical self - muscle activation, joint articulation and range - will give us the ability to deepen our practice beyond the physical because we’ve developed the confidence to stay safe.
Let’s go through some important notes, hard-earned from years of teaching, education, observation, feedback from students and from my own practice. Hopefully these will help you find your feet too.
Right angles aren’t always right
Most standing poses – Warriors, Triangles, Side Angles – and variations thereof have the back foot down on the mat; the whole triangle of the foot, with the arch strong and lifted. The angle of the back foot should be in either 45 degrees, 30 degrees, or any angle in between. This is all due to the angle of the hip joint in relation to the angle of the pelvis, and in relation to the position of the spine and sternum.
For example, in Warrior #1, I find that when the back foot is in 90 degrees and the sternum is pointed forward, there is an unpleasant torquing, pulling and pinching sensation deep inside the hip joint of the back leg and a strong shearing sensation the in the sacro-iliac joint. It feels as if the body wants to pull the hip, keen and ankle joints inward- which will result in the 450 to 300 angles. So why not start there in the first place, right?
However, in Warrior #2 where the sternum and pelvis both point to the open side of the body and the spine is in an upright position, the 90 degree angle of the back foot then becomes more appropriate as the angle of the hip, knee and ankle joints are facing in the same direction.
In poses where the spine is angled such as Triangles and Side Angles, the back foot is freer to choose its angle. However, I find that keeping the 45 degrees to 30 degrees angles enables the body to ground the back heel because the line of force goes directly to the whole of the heel and not just the side. This grounding enables us to distribute our weight and creates more stable poses; and you can’t go wrong with that. In the revolved or twisted versions of these poses, I would even give the modification of lifting the back heel into a lunge-type position if this feels better.
Choose Your Distances on the X & Y
The alignment of the feet on the X & Y axes also causes confusion. Below are some modifications and their reasons. But first, let’s quickly map out the coordinates of the mat:
In relation to the anterior of the spine facing the conventional front of the mat, the Y axis goes from front to back along the long edges of the mat. The X axis goes from one side to the other side along the short edges of the mat. The coordinates remain even if you spin to face the conventional sides and back of the mat.
Positioning the back foot on the X axis
• Choose a narrow heel to arch alignment if balance is good because your base is narrower. The situation of your hips also plays a crucial part in this stance as it requires the pelvis to be in a narrower angle.
• A heel to heel alignment would be a moderate distance suitable for most practitioners.
• Choose a wider stance if balance isn’t cooperating with you or if the hips need to be on a more level plane to the X axis (or levelled to the short edge of the mat). Choose this as well if you just want a more stable base to free up the mind to focus on the upper body.
Positioning the back foot on the Y axis
A very common cue for standing poses where the front knee is bent is “front knee at 90 degrees, with the knee on top of the ankle”. While the second part is good, the first part is problematic. Practitioners lose track of the back foot while trying to get the front femur parallel to the mat. This tends to collapse the back-leg joints - from the ankle (collapsed arch and raised blade or outer edge), unstable knee and hip, plus a spine that drifts forward because the body instinctively wants to give the back hip more space to angle.
I strongly recommend to my class to adjust the back leg closer until the outer edge of the foot is down while keeping the front knee tracking over or a little bit back from the ankle. The front knee & femur angle will be bigger than 90 degrees and the stance will be shorter, but the body is more stable. In time, the back leg can slide farther for a longer stance when stability, strength and flexibility are cooperating more.
Find your own feet
Remember, never get persuaded, by your yoga teacher or your ego, into positioning your feet, knees and hips into angles that produce discomfort and pain.
I have a regular student who I modify with heels lifted, narrower Y Axis, wider X Axis and combinations thereof. This is because she’d mentioned an unpleasant, tearing sensation in her (back) heels when they’re down in asymmetric standing poses. I explained that years of deep, strong dorsi-flexions may have created micro-tears and instability in the soft tissue connections; a lifted heel may spare her further aggravating it. Every now and then, she’ll try
the full, deep poses; but when she needs to, the modified versions are available. Always.
Her heels don’t hurt so much anymore.
The first and most important rule of thumb is to find an alignment that gives you stability; from there, you can grow your strength and flexibility. Play around with different modifications and combinations and I’m sure you’ll find your feet.