by Lola Rephann
Energetically, the hands and feet are the foundation in most yoga poses. In all the standing poses, our feet are the foundation. In inversions like handstand or arm balances like bakasana (crow), the hands are the foundation. And then there are some poses, such as downward dog, where both hands and feet are on the ground. Think of the foundation of a home. If a home is built on saggy foundation, the entire edifice sags. A strong foundation can survive hurricanes, floods, and all kinds of challenges!
Something I have noticed as a yoga teacher is that students often stop their asanas at the ankle or wrist. Why does this happen, and what experience is lost when students do not engage the muscles, bones, and energy to the very periphery of their bodies?
I would argue that missing out on the hands and feet, which only amount to about 5% of our total body mass, reduces the amount of energy we experience in a pose by at least 50%. Of course there is no scientific way to measure this that I know of, but I can definitely feel the difference between inactive hands and feet and active hands and feet. I often ask my students to do an asana both ways to feel the difference for themselves.
To feel the difference active feet makes, try this for yourself in tadasana (mountain pose). Spread your toes actively and consciously, moving the pinky toe as far away from the big toe as you can. Breathe. Keep your toes lifted. Feel the air circulate in between the toes. Feel the webbing between the toes stretch. Feel the ball of the foot rooting into the ground and the arch lifting away from the ground. Feel the energy vibrating from each lifted, stretched, expressed toe. Breathe. And now let your feet collapse, just let go of the energy you were running through your feet and toes. Feel the difference between standing with un-expressed feet, and standing on active feet? Standing with engagement in the feet lifts the arches by engaging postural muscles (the peroneus longus and tibialis anterior) that run on the sides of the lower leg. Much like arches in buildings, the arches of our feet are designed to support and distribute weight.
In poses where hands are on the floor creating a foundation, this arch formation is also very important. Take downward dog. Many students, especially beginning students, do this pose with little awareness of what their hands are doing. The heel of the hand and fingertips may be on the mat, but the edges of the palm and most of the fingers are not making contact. Weight is not evenly distributed across the hand and certain areas, usually the heel of the hand, takes the brunt of the weight. Not only does this set us up for injury (the wrist is not designed to support that much weight), but it makes the pose far more laborious than it ought to be.
Since 2011, when I read Ana Forrest’s book Fierce Medicine and was formally introduced to the phrase “active” hands and feet, this has become an integral part of my practice. I have seen the difference in my students as well, who discover the change in their poses by activating their hands and feet. Becoming aware of every small detail transforms yoga from a physical practice into a tool for mindfulness and healing. When we are noticing everything, down to our tippy toes and fingertips, we cannot space out, we cannot go on auto-pilot. We become vigilant and aware spiritual warriors, rooting out areas of dullness and disconnection.
I’d love to hear any feedback on how active hands and feet have made a difference in your practice. Feel free to email me at rephann [at] gmail [dot] com or post your comments to this blog.
Lola teaches Forrest Yoga (Heated Yoga Fusion) Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at Yoga in the Heights.
(Photo by Jessica Lucia)