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It All Starts with the Feet by Noah Karrasch

Posted by: Emma on: 29/11/2016


It All Starts with the Feet

I’m a fan of Pete Egoscue (author, physiologist) whose book Pain Free made me realize I liked him, because he thinks like me! Two nuggets from that book: First, most of us are suffering from ‘motion starvation’; second, health begins with the feet! To me, this is purely common sense.

I’ve now authored four books (Meet Your Body, 2009, Freeing Emotions and Energy Through Myofascial Release, 2012, Getting Better at Getting People Better, 2015, and coming in 2017, BodyMindCORE Work for the Movement Therapist (with Rob White and Liz Buri), all with Singing Dragon Publishers of London and Philadelphia. In each of these books (though number three doesn’t specifically deal with body parts) I start with the feet as I try to get clients, students and readers to pay attention to the way their feet work, or don’t work.

Specifically, I’m interested in getting us all to realize we have two hinges or sets of hinges in our feet that are underused—the toes and the ankles. I watch too many people shuffle through life without ever putting energy into their feet, and their health suffers as a result. If we could all learn to find and exercise these two hinge groups, I believe health would ensue.

Think of the old sayings around the feet: “That set me back on my heels.” “I’m really on my toes today.” “She’s a round-heeled woman—a pushover.” “My feet are dog-tired.” “I’m just feeling defeated (defeeted) today.” The old sayings have some truth! Often we do feel ‘in our toes’ but just as often something sets us back on our heels. How do we get out of this situation?

For me it’s simple, but not easy. Attention to the hinges of toes and ankles can create resilience through the entire body. It’s not natural to have a ‘spring in our step’—until it is! A bit of practice, a bit of attention, a bit of intention will let us decide we wish to be ‘on our toes’ more of the time. How?

I practice, and give my students and clients, a simple ‘big toe pushup’. Some people find they can’t even lift themselves into their big toes. That’s fine! I suggest they hold onto a counter or table and use their arms to help lift their body into the toes. Now, most important is the ‘big toe’ aspect of this pushup. It’s quite easy to lift into the toes if one allows the weight to transfer out and through the little toes; it’s quite another task to lift straight up into the big toes instead.

Try this for yourself: Stand, with feet about sitting bone width apart (8—12 inches). Work to find equal weight between the feet, and between the fronts and backs, insides and outsides of your feet. Find the most balanced spot you can find in both feet. Now, lift! Lift straight up, into the big toes, slowly; then down, slowly. It’s hard! Like a prone pushup, the slow lowering is even harder than the slow raising. If you need to hold onto the counter or table and use your arms, that’s fine…just try!

The first time I stumbled onto this exercise I’d damaged my left knee by falling at the top of an escalator that ate my untied shoelace. I thought I’d broken my kneecap! All my practitioner friends on both sides of the Atlantic did their best to help me through the pain, but nothing worked….until I began working with toe pushups. Immediately, I felt pain not only in the damaged knee, but all the way up into the hip! This was my initiation into the realization that the way our toes work will have a direct effect on everything above.

One other bizarre occurrence I’ve experienced in my stretching routines: One day, while stretching my own feet, I was standing with the left toes folded back under the feet—that is to say, my toes were pointing backwards and the tops of the toes were on the floor. As I twisted and twirled my foot around, my neck and toes snapped simultaneously! This second initiation into the marvelous working of the toe hinge made a believer out of me: Anything that happens at the toes translates through the body; and when nothing happens at the toes, not much happens above. So, I’m a believer in getting the toes in shape.

However, just as important, I believe, is an appropriately resilient ankle hinge. Without toe and ankle hinges, no muscles in the calves are able to move….if one shuffles without toe and ankle action, the calves never have the opportunity to flex. It’s the flexing action that pumps the old and toxic blood up and out of the legs. Veins have small trap doors; there’s no action that provides that pump except for the muscle action…and if you have no muscle action because you don’t exercise toes and ankles, you pump no fluids back up the body! Think of varicose veins and edema…can you see a correlation between the lack of movement in toes and ankles and those conditions? I certainly see that relationship.

How to improve ankle function? Two simple steps can really help to create this resilience. First, can you squat? It’s not important to squat so far as to bring your tail to the ground; most of us can’t do that. It’s also not important to squat without a support; holding on to a chair or some piece of furniture isn’t a bad thing. It’s a bad thing to not try squatting at all!

Do you realize that many cultures spend lots of time in squatting positions? Men, and women, often squat to visit and talk…they can spend minutes and hours in such a group. When is the last time you spent ten minutes in a group of squatters? It doesn’t happen in our culture. And are you aware that in cultures that do squat more, there are less bowel and back problems than our culture has. Have you heard of the ‘Squatty Potty’? By simply bringing the feet up higher while on the toilet, we’re encouraging the bowel to remain more open. So squatting, while obviously irritating weak and tired knees, is opening these ankle hinges and getting the legs back in shape.

A second way to enhance ankle function: using stairs as exercise equipment instead of a barrier! It’s fine to hold onto railings while ascending and descending; but it’s critical to think of both aligning the feet into toes forward, then asking the ankle to sink below the step, then rising through it. In descending, one can also allow the knee to take the weight (again, with support from railings and arms) in such a way that the ankle and the knee are beginning to wake up. On moving on through the step, one also again exercises the ankle.

Even older folks in nursing homes could easily sit in a wheelchair and draw circles with their toes; write their name, do seated ‘pushups’ or in some way decide to move the feet, toes, knees and legs. We’ve all heard the phrase “Use it or lose it.” When it comes to feet, this phrase is ‘foundational’! If we won’t use our toes, ankles and knees, we won’t find health above.

So, consider challenging your clients to create more movement below the knees! They’ll be rewarded with greater flexibility and better health through the entire body. Help them get a ‘spring in their step!”

(Noah Karrasch, developer of CORE® Bodywork, certified with the Rolf Institute in 1986 and received advanced certification from Guild for Structural Integration in 1991. Over the past 30 years he has developed his style of fascial release work, and teaches in the US, UK, Jamaica and soon Malaysia—techniques for massage therapists, physios, Pilates/yoga instructors. Author of four books (latest due in May of 2017), Noah will next visit UK in May of 2017. See his website, www.noahkarrasch.com for details or to schedule a training in London or Edinburgh.)

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