Waking Up Your Piggies: Big Toe Mobility Key to Balance
This little piggy went to … yoga?
You probably don’t think much about your toes unless you stub one or are getting a pedicure for sandal season. However, when you lose mobility in your toes and feet, you lose the foundation of your balance. Balance is an essential part of walking and moving through the world, and your big toe plays a starring role.
Understanding the role of the big toe points out why you should include toe mobility exercises in your yoga routine. Here’s a brief primer on the anatomy of your big toe as well as three yoga exercises you can do to wake up and strengthen your all-important big toes.
Your Big Toe Carries the Greatest Load
When you are walking normally, your whole foot is never flat on the ground. Each time you take a step, your foot rolls forward, shifting your body weight onto the ball of your foot as you prepare to push off into your next step, and for most people, this means your big toe bears the load of your weight. Considering how many steps you take in a day, it’s no wonder people often experience pain in this toe.
The big toe, or hallux, is four times bigger than your other toes allowing it to have extra stability and power. Despite being the biggest toe on the foot, the big toe consists of only two bones or phalanges (your other toes have three bones each).
When the big toe becomes stiff or misaligned, it can lead to all kinds of pain and problems traveling right up the kinetic chain of the body, resulting in knee, hip, and lower back pain.
Pain in the Big Toe
Pain in the big toe is common and usually starts in middle age. Like the knee, hip, and shoulder joints, the cartilage in the largest of the big toe joints, called the metatarsophalangeal joint (MTP), can start to wear out or break down. The MTP forms the mound on the bottom of your foot at the base of the big toe. Its function is to bend and grip the ground and to accommodate foot flexibility when walking.
Wear and tear on this joint can occur as a result of poor alignment, past injuries (even a bad toe stub can irritate the cartilage), and age. Over time this can lead to inflammation, arthritis, and/or bone spurs in the joint.
One of the most common problems with big toes is bunions. Known as hallux valgus, a bunion is a bulging bump on the outside of the base of the big toe. Bunions often run in families and are more common in women than men. In some cases bunions are painless, but more often they are associated with:
- Swelling, redness or soreness around the big toe joint
- Corns or calluses — these often develop where the first and second toes rub against each other
- Ongoing pain or pain that comes and goes
- Limited movement of the big toe
Yoga for Your Toes
These three yoga exercises will help to “wake up” the muscles of the feet, ankles, and calves that play a role in the mobility of the big toe. You’ll need a chair and a tennis ball.
1- Foot Massage
Tightness in the sole of the foot causes the toes to become cramped, so start by warming up the soles of the feet and toes with this yummy foot massage.
Sitting in a chair or on the floor, use your thumbs or roll a tennis ball along the sole of your foot. Start at the base of the big toe and move down the length of your foot, including the inner arch. Work back up along the little toe side of the foot and anywhere else where the bottom of your foot feels tight.
Next, starting with your little toe, wiggle and twirl each toe first clockwise and then counterclockwise several times. Gently pull the toe to lengthen it before releasing and moving on the next toe. If using a tennis ball, bring the bottom of your heel to rest on the floor with the ball of your foot on the tennis ball. Allow your toes to relax over the ball for several breaths. Then lift and spread your toes wide, keeping the ball of your foot on the ball. Repeat 3-4 times.
Finally, use the knuckles of one hand to briskly rub up and down the sole of your foot or roll your foot over the ball for 1 minute. Pause before repeating with the opposite foot.
2- Toe Handshake
It can be difficult (if not impossible) to work with your toes if they are stuck together. This next exercise creates some space between the toes (much like toe separators do) so they can begin to regain some of their mobility.
Sitting with your left ankle crossed over your right knee, bring your right palm to the sole of your left foot. Starting with the little toe and your pinkie finger, interweave the fingers of your right hand through the spaces between your left toes, using your left hand to help you separate your toes. If your toes are really tight and/or sensitive, aim to bring your fingers only to the first joint. Your left hand can rest on your ankle for stability. Stay here for five long, deep breaths.
Next, use your hand to gently bend the toes forward and back three to four times. Pause for a breath. Then circle your ankle three times in each direction. As this becomes more comfortable and you’re able to bring your fingers towards the base of the toes, you can also try alternating between squeezing and widening your toes with your fingers.
When done, untangle your hand from your toes, change the crossing of your legs, and repeat the toe handshake on the right. This may sound like a game of Twister, so if you are having trouble following along, click here to watch my how-to video.
3- Mountain-Chair Pose Flow
With the feet warmed up, this two-pose mini sequence serves to strengthen the muscles and tendons of the big toes along with the arches and calves.
Stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana) facing the back of the chair with feet hip distance apart. On an inhale, lift and spread the toes of both feet wide. Repeat twice more, aiming to maintain space between the toes as they rest on the ground.
Establish a firm base by pressing into the three corners of each foot: the metatarsal or mound of the little toe followed by the center of the heel and finally the mound of the big toe. Maintaining all three points, gently lift your arches, lengthening through the crown of your head for two breaths.
Next, inhale your arms overhead as you lift the heels off the floor. Keep pressing down through the big toe for balance. If using the chair for balance support, lift one arm while holding the chair with the other.
On an exhale, lower both heels to the floor, bending the knees and reaching the arms forward into Chair Pose (Utkatasana). With your next breath, straighten the knees, lifting both the heels and arms. As you exhale, lower the heels to the floor, bringing your arms by your sides. Repeat the sequence 2-4 more times, aiming to pause and stay in each pose for 1-2 counts.
For added foot strengthening, try keeping the heels lifted as you bend the knees into Chair Pose. Very challenging!