By Madeline Black
Pilates has developed a reputation for building core strength, especially once the fitness and physical therapy worlds came to Pilates in the 1990s. But my history with early Pilates, studying in New York in the late ’80s, was always about the feet. Along the way, the core became the mantra of Pilates. I strongly feel the time has come to a focus on the feet again.
In Pilates, the feet are very important to the way we engage the body, and they deserve more attention. Feet bring to mind metaphors for moving us forward in life and finding our sense of place and existence in the world. Yet in our bodies, we pay little attention to them. We squish them into shoes, stand for long periods of time, walk on cement sidewalks. I live in the country, and we still do not pay attention to our feet here. If we did, we may lessen back issues, hip and knee pain, and release our necks.
From Sole to Spine
Our feet are not only our sensory input telling us where and how to step, but also they set up the balance of our pelvis and translate through the spine. How you use your feet has a direct influence on your core.
The way we stand on our feet, or how we move the feet, recruits different muscle lines up the leg into the pelvis. Body weight from our spine and pelvis is placed on the legs through the femur into the tibia. At the end of the tibia sits the talus.
The talus is one of my favorite bones of the foot because it reminds me of a turtle shell with the turtle’s head looking out. It is also the only bone in our body that has no muscle attachments! It moves according to the structures around it. Why is this important? The talus receives the body weight from the tibia, the main weight-bearing bone of the lower leg. The tibia is curved over the top of the talus “shell” with the fibula supporting the talus on one side. As the weight then transfers from the talus, it spreads through the foot. Depending on how we are moving or standing, the bones of the feet shift from the outside or inside. These shifts are dynamic and in turn shift the whole structure of our skeleton.
The Neutral Talus
The talus has a neutral position that is important to maintaining a neutral pelvis. The relationship of the talus is with the tibia from above and the navicular bone from below. If you draw a line connecting the talus, the navicular, the three cuneiform bones and first three metatarsals into the toes, you will see the medial arch (inner foot). The other side consists of the calcaneus, cuboid, the 4th and 5th metatarsals and toes. This is the lateral arch, or the outer foot. The inner foot is where we are more stable, and the outer foot spreads the weight and helps us right ourselves into stability. The inner foot line is extremely valuable for working on balance in standing.
Many people unfortunately pronate or collapse the medial arch and roll the arch in toward the floor or even onto the floor. When this happens, the navicular drops and the talus is pulled down out of its neutral position. The whole pull of the pronated foot influences the femur to roll in and pull on the pelvis anteriorly. Now, we have an anterior pelvis on this side. You can see how if you continue to look globally, the pull continues all the way up the body. By correcting the talus position you will see the body move back into a more neutral position globally. The neutral pelvis then provides the balanced position from which to engage the deep abdominals and strengthen the core.
The talus moves with its structures around it. The navicular bone is one of the bones that can pull it out of neutral. When you lift the inner arch, the navicular moves up and moves the talus laterally. When the inner arch drops, the navicular moves medially pulling the talus with it. Some people need more flexibility in this area and some more awareness of where it should sit. Naja Cori, an unrecognized “elder” whom I studied with in the 1980s, taught us a simple exercise to improve this area:
Arches In, Arches Out (Naja Cori)
Stand with the feet in a parallel position, legs straight and body upright, do not look down at your feet, use a mirror to watch the navicular moving down toward the floor and away from the floor. Roll the feet toward the lateral arch (outer border of the foot) lifting the inner arch. The big toe ball, (the MP joint and tip of the big toe) will lift slightly off the floor. Roll the medial arch (inner border of the feet) in. The weight will be more on the MP joint and less on the little toe ball. Rhythmically move the arches out and in and finish on the lateral arch after about 8 repetitions. Then slowly move the navicular bone toward the midline but only until the Achilles tendon is straight, do not go past this point. Try to maintain this position of the foot. [See the slideshow below.]
Pilates is brilliant at working the feet on the Reformer or the Parakeet Bar, but only when you place them on the bar or in the straps with intention of a neutral talus. Prehensile is the best foot placement to work on this idea of the feet and the contrast of the hips and spine. When the metatarsal heads are placed on the bar with the toes long and wrapped around the bar, it places the forefoot (the metatarsals and phalanges) into a supportive transverse arch. (See photo at right.) Most people have to roll their legs inward in order to meet the bar evenly. But the thigh bones should be in a neutral alignment with the hip joint. What I mean by the contrasting work of the hips and spine is the inward spiral of the feet with an outward rotation of the hip. It creates a strength pattern from the feet to the pelvis.
Some people have compensated forefeet, their metatarsals don’t meet the ground in an even transverse arch. The metatarsals and toes bow or tilt toward or away from the mid line. The big toe may be higher than the little toe or the opposite, the little toe higher than the big toe when the talus is in neutral. This is due to years of walking around with the talus not in neutral. If the client has this compensation, teaching them foot corrective exercises can improve the function of the foot and in turn change their pelvic position.
More Foot Exercises
All the movements below are performed with the talus in neutral. First find the neutral position with the “Arches In, Arches Out” exercise. Then perform the following:
Doming the Foot
The purpose of this exercise is to feel the dome of the plantar arch, tri-bone contact points and the lower extremity musculature.
Stand or sit in with a neutral spine and lift toes off ground. Weight should be evenly distributed between big toe ball, little toe ball and the center of the back of the heel. Maintain this position of contact, and while standing, try to bring the femur into a neutral position without loosing big toe ball contact. You will feel the hip rotators activating. Hold 5 seconds. Lower toes to floor and keep same weight distribution. The tibia should be vertical to the best of your ability.
Dome the plantar arch, which consists of the medial, transverse and lateral arch. (The three points that form the plantar arch are the center of the heel, the first toe ball and the little toe ball.) Puff up the arch like a parachute by inching the heel point toward the toe ball points. Move the toe ball points away from the heel to relax the arch. Repeat the motion of doming the arch and inching the foot forward. Try doming and inching in the reverse direction, bringing the toe balls toward the heel until the tibia returns to the vertical starting position. To increase intensity, wet one end of towel and place it on the floor. Place the foot on the dry end of the towel and inch the arch while dragging the towel. The towel creates a resistance.
Toe Extensor and Flexor Exercises
1. Lift all the toes up, pressing the metatarsal heads into the floor, and try to separate the toes creating space between the toes; lower the toes. Repeat and visualize the action for spreading the toes, and feeling the big toe ball and little toe ball press into the floor.
2. Lift all the toes again, this time lower one toe at a time starting from the little toe. Try the other direction. Imagine playing the piano with your toes.
3. Press the big toe down, hold it down and lift the four other toes. Repeat several times. Reverse the action—press the four toes down and lift the big toe up. You can do both feet at the same time. Or, really challenge your coordination by doing one action with one foot and the opposite action with the other foot!
Recently, a local teacher, who attended my “Sole to Spine” seminar in California, used this concept of neutral talus in her Reformer class by cueing her students to stand with the heel contact on the bar centered throughout the exercises, being aware of when they rolled off center or lost heel contact. After one class, a student told her in the next class that 90 percent of her knee pain was gone. As she found, paying closer attention to feet while doing Pilates can help eliminate knee pain; it can also help with lower-back tension, even SI pain and more.
Understanding the power of the feet, along with both their static and dynamic structure, gives you the tools to enable your clients to feel the connection up the leg into the pelvis and spine. Bringing awareness and change to a client’s alignment increases positive results, whether it is less pain or simply feeling the work more. That all adds up to getting stronger and feeling better.
About the Author
You can catch more of Madeline Black’s advice for on working with the feet in her workshop “Sole to Spine” throughout 2009. Visit her website for dates and locations. Madeline has 20 years of Pilates teaching experience and currently directs Studio M in Sonoma, CA. She has a B.S. in PE and Dance from Skidmore College, has ACE, ACSM, Gyrotonic® and PMA certifications, and is currently studying Integrative Manual Therapy. Madeline presents advanced continuing education seminars for Body Mind Spirit Expo, Pilates On Tour and the Pilates Method Alliance, and at studios in around the world.
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