Your ankle is a marvel of complexity. It functions as a powerful hinge, connecting your leg to your foot and permitting you to push off the block in a race, rise up en pointe in a ballet, maintain your balance on an unstable surface and fold your feet into a yoga pose. Paradoxically, your ankle is a delicate joint prone to injury from sudden stress or habital overstretching. Sitting yoga poses can strengthen, or weaken, your ankles.
The three bones that meet at your ankle are the tibia, the fibula and the talus -- the shinbone, the smaller lower leg bone and the foot bone that hinges up and down so your foot can move. Cartilage surrounds and cushions the joint. Ligaments connect, stabilize and support your bones; muscles and tendons move your ankle. Worn cartilage, sprained muscles or ligaments, and fractures are common ankle injuries. You may feel pain or discomfort in a sitting yoga pose due to an incompletely healed ankle injury, damage to cartilage or overstretched ligaments along the outside of your ankle.
The Hero and the Lotus
Routine seated poses can place too much stress on your ankles. Padmasana, Lotus pose, gives ankles a good stretch, but if you aren't ready for it, the pose can overstretch muscles and ligaments on the outside of your ankle. It's important to maintain an even stretch through the entire foot in Lotus pose. Focus on lengthening each foot along both edges, inner and outer, and pushing the heel down so your feet are more perpendicular than parallel to the floor. Collapsing the inner edge of your foot will shift the entire stretch to the outer ankle, causing short-term pain and long-term overstretched ligaments.
Virasana, Hero pose, may create an uncomfortable stretch along the top of your ankle if your posture is off or if there is insufficient cushioning under your feet. Touch your inner knees together, angle your big toes slightly in and press the outer edges of your feet gently into the floor to distribute the weight evenly across feet and ankles. Use a rolled-up towel under your ankles to relieve any pain or discomfort.
Build strength and flexibility in your ankles with regular practice of yoga poses. Prasarita Padottanasana, Wide-Legged Forward Bend, calls for a wide stance with parallel feet, inner ankles lifted to pull up the inner arches and all four corners of the soles pressed firmly into the floor. Be careful not to push out the outer edge of your ankle. Instead, focus on grounding the inner heel, the ball of the foot under your big toe and the outer edge of your foot as you lift up through the knees and thighs.
Awkward pose or Chair pose will give your ankles a tough workout so sitting poses become a snap. Stand with your ankles touching and back straight. Engage your core as you extend both arms to the front at chest height and bend your knees as deeply as possible. Stabilize in the squat and rise up on the balls of your feet, then lower your heels. Try the pose with raised arms, hinged slightly at the hips and feet flat on the floor. Flex your toes strongly for an opposing stretch and increased range of motion for your ankles.
About 8 million people a year sprain their ankles, according to "The New York Times." For millions of them, the first sprain is followed by repeat injuries. Research reveals that the problem is complicated but the solution may be simple. Once your ankle is injured, the neural receptors in your ligaments no longer communicate clearly with your brain about ankle position. You have to retrain them. Do that by addressing a problem that may have led to a sprained or strained ankle in the first place -- your balance. Stand in Tadasana, Mountain pose, and focus on breathing into stillness and stability. Shift your weight to one leg for Vrksasana, Tree pose, and concentrate so you don't wobble. Increase the challenge in either pose by raising your arms skyward and closing your eyes. Injury proofing your ankles will help to make sitting poses pain free.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .