The Importance of the Feet & Pada Bandha in Yoga

20 December 2012

Acquainting yourself with the essential workings of your feet and the pivotal role they play in yoga is literally the foundation of productive and genuine practice. It’s the first step in attaining proper balance and body alignment.

Since antiquity devotees have considered it a privilege to touch or kiss the feet of their beloved masters and treat it as an act of reverence. Accordingly, the very first phase of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga’s invocation is, “vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde sandarśita svātma sukhāva bodhe” (Praise and adorations to the lotus feet of the Gurus, for they reveal the happiness of the true Self), acknowledging that the true yoga teachings to have “walked” down through time on the feet of the adepts.

This honoring symbolically represents the importance of the feet as the very foundation of the “temple of the body”. Since the foundation of a temple must be strong and level to support the entire structure, the feet must also be sturdy to support and balance the legs, spine, arms, and head. If our feet are tilted (turning inward or outward) or our arches are collapsed, that will be telegraphed up through the entire body producing misalignment. Ida Rolf, the world renowned body worker and the founder of “Structural Integration” (Rolfing), often pointed out, “A man’s tracks tell quite a true story. They inform quietly about ankles and knees, but they shout the news about hips and pelvis. If one foot is consistently everted (tilted onto its inner or outer edge), the ankles, the knees, and more likely, the entire pelvic basin is rotated.”

But our bodies are not static like temples, we move around, so our feet are required to be flexible and adaptable to various terrains. Simultaneously, they must be firm stabilizers. When the foot is collapsed or distorted, the resulting strain travels up into the hips and lower back, and a strong, adverse pull or twist may develop, either from side to side or back to front.

The best way to tell if your feet are everted is to look at the soles of your shoes. Do the heels wear down unevenly? If there is excessive wear on one side, the foot is shifted off its central axis, resulting in undue strain on the knees, hips, and/or lower back.

Now on to Pada Bandha…

In Sanskrit Pada is translated as feet, and Bandha as lock, and/or a “harness” that can be used to draw energy upward. Pada bandha is a group of muscles in the feet that, when engaged, cause energy (prana) to spread out. They can be compared to valves; when a valve is open, then fluid can move through it to be distributed beyond the feet into other areas of the body, but if the valve is closed, then fluid cannot move into any area beyond the valve. Engaging the Pada Bandha is like opening tiny valves in the feet for energy to move more efficiently.

Pada Bandha is engaged through lifting up the arches of the feet…Stand with your feet together. Lift your toes and gently spread them apart. While keeping the toes lifted, feel the inner edges of the balls of your feet and focus on pressing that point firmly into the mat. It’s quite useful to play around a bit with lifting and lowering the toes giving you a better feel for how the ankles and inner ankles lift up. This awakens Pada Bandha. At first it will be challenging to keep Pada Bandha engaged when you lower your toes to the floor, but with enough practice you’ll perfect it.

Generally speaking, once you cultivate mobility and support in your feet (in other words, once Pada Bandha is actively engaged), you can sustain the same lifting action to pull life force in through the feet. Without Pada Bandha, the thighs, hips, and low back lose their intelligence and they need that intelligence to stay sufficiently active.

As an activated Pada Bandha supports proper elevation in the ankles, knees, and inner groin area, it also supports the lift and firming of the pelvic floor (aka, Mula Bandha). Even though the first primary chakra (located at the perineum in the pelvic floor), is traditionally called the Root (Muladhara) Chakra, our feet provide even broader stabilizing root support for the upward moving calves and thighs of our legs. From this point of view, we have two root supports, located in the center of both feet, like a healthy tree in which the root system divides as it descends.

In addition to our formal yoga practice, we can take many simple steps to improve both the flexibility and strength of our feet. When at home, walk barefoot whenever possible. Leaving our shoes at the door not only helps to maintain a clean house, we will likely develop a greater feel for the textures and surfaces beneath our feet giving us a feeling of being grounded and “in touch” with oue surroundings. Being barefoot at home also gives us the opportunity to incorporate all sorts of “foot yoga” into our daily routines. We can even practice lifting our arches and spreading our toes in the kitchen while doing the dishes or tending to things cooking on the stove.

Additional note from Rae: It is highly recommended you get a pair of “Gel Flex Toe Stretchers”. Simply slide the soft, flexible polymer gel toe stretchers between your toes and feel the circulation and elasticity in your foot muscles and ligaments increase. Best bargain is probably on Amazon.

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