Yoga techniques can help you overcome bunions and other foot problems.
By Violet Snow
It was a recipe for bunions. As a ballet student, and later as a competition ballroom dancer, Debby Green, 56, spent hours in either toe shoes or three-and-a-half-inch heels. Punishing or ill-fitting footwear is one of the primary influences that can cause the bones of the foot to misalign, creating a bunion—a bony enlargement on the inner side of the joint near the ball of the foot. “My bunions were extremely painful,” Green recalls.
When Green began to study yoga, she chose the Iyengar form, which involves precise analysis of movements within each asana, or pose. As soon as her teachers saw her feet, they began to train her in directing the foot muscles, both inside and outside of class. She gave up dancing. With diligent work her bunions got smaller and she was able to walk without pain.
A Novel Approach to Foot Care
Green, now a yoga instructor herself, recently offered a workshop devoted to bunions at the Yoga Union Center for Backcare and Scoliosis in New York City. Some students had bunions on both feet, others on one foot. Some had redness, indicating inflammation. Most had pain in their feet. And not everyone was older; several students were in their 20s.
“Even if you’re not in pain,” Green explained, “the bunion causes problems because that deviation goes through your whole structure. Your standing is uneven, not as stable, and the instability increases as you move. If you’re in pain, it’s even worse, because we move away from pain.”
Green passed out a diagram of the bones and muscles in the feet as she explained how the first metatarsal (the long bone on the inner side of the foot) and the first phalanx (the big toe bone) respond to excessive pressure by angling toward the inner edge of the foot. Further pressure at their juncture stimulates secretion of bony material, creating a protrusion on the bone. Yoga can’t eliminate the bony material. But by correcting the alignment of the bones, overstretched tendons and muscles can be relaxed, relieving pain and postural problems.
Each student received two rubber bands to place over their big toes, one at the base and one near the tips, so the toes were bound together. Then Green had them stand and look ahead. “Feel where you are, and how it moves through the rest of your structure,” she suggested. “Now draw your inner heels together and lift your ankle bones without rolling onto the outside of the feet. It’s not easy, especially if you have an extreme deviation, and it may hurt at first.”
The next step was to use a foot-long piece of wood called a yoga block and a yoga belt—a sturdy cotton strap with metal rings to secure it in an adjustable loop. With the block between the feet and the belt wrapped around the big toes and the block, each student stood erect. “Reach forward through the big toes,” Green urged. “Work the skin on the inner heels against the block. What has to happen in your feet in order to do this? Reach the heels back and the toes forward, and lift the inner ankles. Use the metatarsals to lift the arches.”
Green says that working all standing poses with the block and belt, while consciously correcting alignment, can be helpful in relieving bunions. Yoga can also help correct foot problems including hammer toe, in which the last digit of a toe becomes permanently bent; flat foot, in which the arch of the foot makes contact with the ground; and plantar fasciitis, in which a thick band of tissue along the sole of the foot becomes inflamed.
You don’t have to practice yoga to benefit from maintaining awareness of foot alignment and applying corrections throughout the day. “Even when you’re walking down the street, just put your mind there,” says Green. “It changes what you do and makes your feet more intelligent. But you have to work at it every day. Doing a few exercises once a week isn’t going to have much effect.”
Lynn Shivek, 61, does not have bunions, but she suffers from scoliosis of the back and flat feet and has had several surgeries on her feet for neuromas—tumors formed of nerve tissue. Teachers at Yoga Union had her tape Life Savers—the hard candy—to her arches to remind her to raise her inner foot. Between yoga classes and specific exercises she does every morning, she now has much less pain in her back and feet.
Donata Colucci, 55, one of the students at the December workshop, reported three weeks later that she had incorporated Green’s directives into her daily workouts and already felt less pain from plantar fasciitis, hammertoes and bunions. “What I feel is that my toes are lengthened, and other parts of the foot are stretched out better,” Colucci says.
As a fitness trainer, Colucci has also been using foot-correction principles with her clients, who work with five- to seven-pound weights. “If someone is doing a bicep curl, and I don’t like her posture, now I’ll put a block between her feet, to help her find a neutral spine,” she says. “I have one client who’s 68 and in great shape, but her posture is an issue. She called after a workout the other day to tell me how wonderful she felt. I had never been able to align her properly before. I’m very excited about what came out of the workshop.”
You can look for a yoga instructor through your local phone directory;
ask if they can work with foot problems. You can also try the internet; www.bksiyengar.com lists Iyengar yoga practitioners by state.