Time to Spread Your Toes in Yoga
By Narayani L Guibarra
As a Yoga Practitioner, I have been told on many an occasion to lift and spread my toes to give me a wider base from which I can grow. When I was first asked to do this, I was quite amazed first of all simply to be scrutinising my feet so closely. Then on making an attempt actually to separate my toes I found that my intention held very little sway over the ability of my toes to part one from another. I guess they had spent such a long time in close company that my instruction to them simply fell on deaf ears(!)
Over the years my toes began to listen and their spreading ability improved. Now as a yoga teacher I see in my students’ toes the same line of thinking that my toes formerly held, in other words – “You’ve ignored us this long, why should we pay any attention to you?” and, “Hey, we kind of like it here snuggled up together!” So I see the same mind-toe struggle, the instruction, the resistance, the disappointment, the lack of co-operation.
So why should we stretch our toes apart? Why shouldn’t we fashion our foot shape into the latest pointy shoe style? Well, the answer is simple – balance - the ability to stand steadily on our two feet, which supports our whole structure. Without this stable support we are more likely to have postural problems such as back ache as well as running the risk of twisted ankles and – like humpty dumpty – falling, which can be a tremendous shock to the system. With our toes spread and the big toe in particular brought back into alignment, the arch lifts, the ankle lifts, which then supports the knee, the pelvis, the spine, the neck, the head – basically as mentioned before, our whole structure is supported and lifted as opposed to collapsing downwards.
When, quite by chance, the opportunity to test some toe stretchers (genki kun) arose, I jumped at the chance! Before they arrived in the post, I had wondered whether the genki kun would have any effect on my toes. After all, during my yoga practice I had been spreading and making space between my toes for many a long year, just how much more could they stretch? However, I need not have worried about the genki kun being suitable only for the tight of toe because they spread my toes apart like nothing else ever had. I was aware that this openness in my feet had a corresponding opening effect in my ankles which effect rippled up into my shin where I also felt an opening. I have a sense that continued use will have a grounding and expanding effect on my mind and my outlook as the opening is starting from the ground up. Who knows the ultimate effect?
The genki kun are made of a special kind of washable foam and are rather like a curved bit of railway track with integral sleepers that narrows at one end. The toes are inserted into the gaps and, hey presto, are spread wide apart. Now I know that some yoga suppliers are selling toe separators (the kind used to assist with applying nail varnish) as “toe stretchers” and of course these can help to spread the toes although not as much as the genki kun. Also what they don’t do is to stay in place when moving the toes or ankles for an extended period. The genki kun however, with their curved design, stay in place very well even if the toes or ankles are moving.
I discovered different ways to use the genki kun. Primarily I found that I could simply wear them while relaxing at home, sitting and reading or watching tv and I would suggest that this is the easiest way to try them initially for a few minutes. At first the feet will not feel very comfortable when wearing the genki kun and this is because the toes have taken a long time to form themselves into their current position and will be resistant to any change. After wearing the genki kun on various occasions for short periods whilst sitting, I then began to use them during the floorwork part of my practice and found that I could more easily keep them on for around 10-15 minutes.
Following an initial relaxation, I donned the genki kun, and included the following in my practice:-
- Lying on my back with the knees brought up towards the chest and the feet off the floor, arms straight and at the sides: breathing in bring both arms up over the shoulders and back towards the floor behind the head whilst at the same time extending one leg up to a vertical position and bringing the foot parallel to the ceiling; breathing out returning the arms and pointing the toes up towards the ceiling before lowering the knee to the starting position. This can be repeated by using both arms each time and on the first breath the right leg, second breath the left leg and third breath both legs.
- From semi supine position (lying on the back with the feet and knees hip distance apart) bring one knee up towards the chest and take hold around the shin with the hands interlinked. Breathe in, then on outbreath lift chin towards the chest and lift the chest and upper back towards the bent leg, on inbreath return head to floor keeping chin tucked in until the last moment. Let go of tension in neck and chest between the breaths. Do this movement 4 times with the right leg bent and then swap sides and do 4 times with the left leg bent.
- Lying in semi supine with feet hip distance apart, straight arms 45 degrees from body (forming an arrowhead) with palms down, breathe in then allow both knees to release over to the right, keeping the shoulders on the floor and the head in the centre. Breathing in return the knees to the centre. Breathing out release knees to the left, breathing in return to the centre.
- From Dandasana (staff pose) a sitting position with upright spine and straight legs extended in front on the floor, part the feet a little then-
a. On in breath, flex heels away and draw toes towards the face, on outbreath point toes away.
b. Circle the ankles making a large imaginary circle with the big toes, both feet moving to the right for several breaths (inbreath one circle, outbreath another circle) and then doing the same number of circles in the other direction.
I have found that wearing the genki kun during floor exercises is the most convenient time to use them and the period wearing them can more easily be extended without noticing as the mind is focused more on my practice overall than solely on my toes. Another benefit to using the genki kun in this way is that the toes are being stretched and the legs are subtly opening while no weight is being put through the joints.
Some of my students have tried the genki kun too. Here are some of their comments:-
"They make your feet look as though they belong to somebody else" and "They helped me not to get cramp. I think they feel really nice." (Angela Brookes)
On removing the toe stretchers – "The little toe still feels stretched." (Angela Scott)
So, if you want to widen your base, improve toe alignment (easing bunions or bunions in waiting), open your ankles and generally improve circulation, the genki kun are definitely worth investing in. This said, like the finest of wines and cheeses, they are an acquired taste and need gentle perseverance to gain the benefits of regular use.
Narayani is a yoga teacher and sound healer/ tutor and runs classes in South East London and workshops in and around London and abroad. For more information please see her website Inner Stillness
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