When you are new to the practice of yoga, there's tendency to grab and grip the mat with the toes, actually curling the toes under the mat. Over time, as you develop your practice with correct instruction, you learn how to spread the toes to create a deeper connection to the ground surface and to expand to a wider surface. This leads to widening the toes, which strengthens and improves balance. Eventually, as you become a more seasoned yoga practitioner, you develop so-called monkey toes, which enhance mobility, circulation, gracefulness and balance.
Yoga toes may help to relieve foot cramps, says David Michael Hollander, E-RYT and director of the Ananda Ashram Yoga Teacher Training Program in Monroe, New York. Cramps can be caused by a variety of factors. When muscles start contracting, the contraction can become a cramp. Stretching out and articulating the toes, as you do in yoga toes, stretches the calf muscles on all sides, so the toes become more open, says Hollander, so more blood flows through them and they more readily move into different positions. By waking up the feet in this way, you create enough space so that there is less cramping and pain.
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Some people stand on their feet for long periods, and many people never spend extended periods of time barefoot. Not having openness in the toes and having the feet closed in by shoes most of the time can affect balance and posture, says Hollander. Additionally, having the feet closed in can lead to back and neck problems, as well as chronic pain and even hypertension, he adds. Waking up your feet by building yoga toes allows your feet and limbs to better support the entire body, says Hollander, "and when you energize your feet, your whole posture can be more efficient."
Get Yoga Toes
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In order to get your yoga toes, focus on articulating your balance; actively spread your toes and lift your arches when you are in poses where your balance is challenged, says Hollander, as opposed to contracting the toes and the arches. For instance, in Triangle pose, make sure that the back foot is at a right angle, then spread the toes to create an internal loop, pressing the big toe down and spreading it away from the other toes, rather than allowing the toes to curl under. "This creates an internal loop in the foot, which you then have to counter with an external loop from the knee into the hip," says Hollander. Other methods to try include interlacing fingers between the toes or wiggling and spreading the toes.
If you are not practicing yoga at the moment, try a yoga toes product that creates space between the toes. These offer similar benefits to those you would reap from a yoga practice, and are inexpensive. These products can help you achieve awakened toes, but aren't a replacement for the exercise itself. "Yoga is really about waking up the feet, waking up the toes," says Hollander, "and learning to open up the whole foot and the entire body and the different systems of the body, from the muscular to the respiratory and circulatory."
Julie D. Andrews is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her articles have appeared in print or on the websites of "Prevention," "Glamour," "Fitness," "Shape," "Cosmopolitan Latina," "Elle" and "New York Magazine."