Sole Power

I'm just going to come right out and say it:

Ladies and Gentlemen

I submit to you that aching feet are right up there with death and taxes when it comes to the human experience. 

You doubt me?

Look at the prevalence of foot products, heel cushions and massage parlors around you. Or seriously, just check yourself. Why do we think this is? A fine array of reasons I would say: weight bearing, questionable footwear choices, mindless, yet aggressively goal oriented movement, and, rather importantly, a fuzzy brain map. More and more, science is showing that pain originates in the brain, and is actually a poor indication of tissue health or lack thereof. Do you remember the overwhelming frustration you felt the last time you were driving and your maps app gave you the "spinning wheel of death" ? To oversimplify, when your neural network has areas that are stuck in "loading mode" your body is likely to translate that experience that as pain. 

If you consider what we do to our feet, shoving these highly articulate and intelligent entities in to dark stinky coffins, then forcing them to move according to our ego/survival choices all day long, no wonder some discontent begins to rumble in those areas, so remotely located from our cerebral cortex. 

Most of us don't even have much of a sense of what our feet are doing when we send directions down there. If our hands behaved as our feet do by the time we hit adulthood, we would be fumbling our cellphones, accidentally stabbing our neighbors plates with our forks during dinner ( or maybe our eyes out) and our opposable thumbs might be permanently stuck in an awkward crossed over position, with the end of that bone jutting out like some tropical atoll. 

Let's put this to a test.

Take off your shoes. Now stand up. Without looking down, check that your toes are all facing in the forward direction. Now look down. See what I mean? If you want to take this exercise a step further, arrange your feet so they ARE, in fact, parallel to each other with all of your toes facing forward. Now close your eyes and tell me how your feet feel.

If that feels parallel to you, I suspect you may dream of electric sheep and I will take this as a sign that android life is taking over the earth. 

Feet are complex structures, comprising 26 bones, and a myriad of interwoven tendons, ligaments and muscles designed to allow for the equally diverse range of movements required of them. The chapters on feet in every one of my anatomy books are inevitably the longest, and are guaranteed to evoke calls of "Nap Time!" as the list of Latin terms and tiny diagrams streams on... and on. For anatomy nerds, this may feel like a jackpot, but for the rest of us it's not really helpful on the quest to develop interoception at the furthest away ranges of our body. 

So in a valiant attempt to assist you in creating a clearer map of your feet, I'm going to ask you to get hands on this week.  Literally. 

Are your shoes still off? Because you'll want bare feet for the rest of this blog- 

Please start with taking ahold of your toes with one hand and your arch with the other. Now raise and lower ( plantar and dorsiflex) your toes. Can you feel each one move individually or was it more of a gross mass? Keep going. Can you feel one toe more than the others? Now pinch each toe head individually and wiggle it up and down a few times, then repeat the previous exercise.

There's a lot more information isn't there?

How about movement? If you had pain in your toes, has it changed?  This is all due to these fantastic nerves that transmit information from every part of our body back to our brain, sending signals that help us to clarify where we are in space and what the heck we are doing out there.  And that, my friends, is how I am going to teach you about your feet. 


To start with, let's get a couple of basics out of the way: skeletally, our legs are built in the same 1-2-3-4-5 pattern that our arms are. 1 thigh bone (the femur) two lower leg bones ( tibia and fibula) 3 heel bones ( calcaneus, talus and the navicular) four bones come next (three cuneiforms and one cuboid) that continue to distribute force along the foot, and are followed by 5 long sets of bones comprising the metatarsals and phalanges; jutting out from that structure, allowing greater and greater articulation as they spread, and finally the skin splits around them to form our little toes that you can see wiggling out there. The muscles that support these bones in movement, and provide the essential tensegrity that we rely on to bear our weight can be divided in to two groups: extrinsic and intrinsic. The extrinsic muscles come from the lower leg, weave through our foot bones, and eventually turn in to tendons; supporting their shape like slings, and mobilizing the foot and the ankle like a puppet master. The intrinsic muscles are smaller, and located in the foot directly, we have one fine layer of those on the top, and a whole lot more on the fleshy sole. 


Please wrap both of your hands around the meaty part of your calf. Now draw a circle with your foot.

Those are your extrinsic muscles working. Now hold your arch and clench and unclench your toes. Hello intrinsic muscles! Given that our arbitrary divisions of muscle groups are more for our own sense of organization than actually how movement happens, most foot actions will involve both sets, but we can still create some clarity by separating them out in our minds. 


Let's start with the inside and back line of extrinsic muscles: gastrocnemius and soleus. These run from the back of your calf down to your heel and are responsible for flexing and extending the ankle. 

Please put one finger on your heel and with the other hand, hold the back of your calf, then move your heel up and down.

That's what these bad boys do. Their shared tail is the achilles tendon, attaching their muscle lines to the calcaneus ( heel bone). 


Now move your calf hand down to under the big notch, and slide your heel hand down so it can touch both your big toe and the arch of the foot. Clench your toes in and rotate the foot inwards, then back to straight a few times.

There are three muscles running down the lower part of the inside back of your calf that assist in this movement while supporting your arch : the flexor digitorum runs along the back of your tibia and attaches to toes 2 through 5, tibialis posterior is the deepest calf muscle, originating at the back of both the tibia and the fibula, and attaching underneath the inside of the ankle in a little fan that runs down the side of the heel, and flexor hallucis longus runs from the back of the fibula all the way down to your big toe. If you want to get a better sense of the inner workings here, you can place your hand anywhere along this line of movement, repeat the actions, and begin to suss out what is doing what. 


From here, let's move towards the outside back.

Cross your "calf hand" over the front of your shin and take hold of the outside edge, above the ankle. With your "foot hand"' place three fingers along your heel. Now move your heel up towards your calf hand.

Two muscles are responsible for this: peroneus longus and brevis ( long and short) both running along the fibula, slipping under the ankle bone and attaching along the underside of the baby toe edge of your foot. Your peroneus longus and your tibialis anterior ( from the previous paragraph) work as a team to stabilize your ankles when you rise up on your toes, each supporting one side and forming a sling underneath your heel to help you keep your balance in that position. You can hold the back of your ankle, point your foot foot like Barbie, then move it side to side to feel their dual action. 


Now place your foot on the floor and with one hand, place it along your shin bone with your middle finger pointing down towards your ankle. Slowly flare your toes up, starting at the big toe and rolling the movement towards your baby toe, then trace an arc with the foot, from the inside, over the top, and to the outside.

You just felt your extensor hallucis longus pull your big toe up, and the extensor digitorum longus pulled up the rest of your toes. When you rolled your foot inwards, that was your tibialis anterior, and the peroneus tertius moved it to the outside. 


Finally hold your ankle with both hands and roll your foot around.

That's like a snake nest of movement, right? Well that's because basically all of these muscles originating in your lower leg have to pass through the ankle to get there. And your body, supremely elegant with its packaging, has carefully encased this highway in a good looking muscle called the extensor retinaculum, somewhat resembling a Roman Sandal, that keeps all of these muscles in place. It is assisted by the flexor retinaculum on the inside of the ankle, doing the same job. 


Please place both feet on the floor, close your eyes, and check in for a second. Notice the difference in both feet, and observe how far these different sensations draw up your legs. Stand up and take a few steps. Does one foot feel bigger? Is it moving differently? Try rising up on your toes and/or balancing if your curiosity has been aroused. Exploring through contrast is yet another fantastic way to learn about your own body. 


Simply changing your awareness of movement changes movement itself. Although one side may feel like it just got a massage, this type of work goes far beyond a simple "rub down", allowing your brain to rework its pathways, fine tuning movement, and often shifting pain, by transforming how it understands directional articulation. 

There are a number of movement systems that work with this intelligence in the body as essential elements of their training. Feldenkrais, Franklin and Alexander technique are excellent examples of body/mind training. The Gyrotonic Expansion System even has thorough foot massage built in to the level 1 Gyrokinesis curriculum. Many yoga teachers have incorporated elements of these methods in to their classes, enhancing the innate awareness that is already built in to that practice. However, you can apply "awareness based training" to any movement system with excellent results. 

You may be wondering about those "intrinsic muscles", the ones that are only in the foot. Well, I thought I'd make your video about that this week. Here is a 5 minute foot massage designed for Sole Power. 


May you walk with strength and grace upon this Earth. 


Copyright Domini Anne 2017