Yes, toe yoga is a thing (and you should probably start doing it daily)

With all the running, walking and missed physio appointments, the pandemic has taken its toll on our feet. But lots of problems, from bunions to plantar fasciitis, can be improved with 10 minutes of toe yoga, as writer Jennifer Barton has been finding out.

I’ve always had foot ache, thanks to years of training as a classical ballerina. Endless toe injuries, pain in the ball of my foot and sore Achilles tendons were as much an accompaniment to twice-daily classes as the swell of a dramatic piano score.

My dancing days are well behind me, but my foot pain has now taken centre stage. I blame the pandemic. I may be one of approximately 10 million women in the UK with bunions, but it’s only in recent months that the one on my left foot has been so excruciating that I feel intense pain whenever I try to exercise or wrestle my foot into any shoes that aren’t trainers. Worse still, it throbs when I don’t do much of anything at all. 

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It turns out that in addition to collective anguish and anxiety, the pandemic has been wreaking havoc on the feet of women everywhere. Research from Sole Bliss found that 66% of women felt their feet had ‘spread’ in recent months, causing pain and difficulty wearing high heels – a phenomenon referred to in the US as ‘Flintstone feet’. 

Plantar fasciitis, a common cause of heel pain due to inflammation in the bottom of the feet (and prevalent among runners in particular), has been another increasingly common complaint in recent months.

“People have been at home for months and their feet have got weaker during lockdown,” explains foot and ankle physio Jane Baker, who works in rehabilitation clinic Physio Remedies. Baker is seeing more people than pre-pandemic, and not just for ankle sprains and stress fractures associated with increased activity. Clients are coming to her in pain, with worsening bunions, hammertoes and metatarsalgia (inflammation in the ball of the foot).

As someone who’s had such bad bunion issues recently that I’ve even contemplated surgery (the stuff of nightmares in terms of cost, invasiveness and rehab afterwards), I need to sort my foot issues out so I can keep working out daily. If I can’t exercise, my mental health is in tatters. Which is why I’ve been trying out toe yoga (also known as ‘toega’). 

What is toe yoga and how can it help ease foot pain?

Toe yoga is real – even if you haven’t heard of it yet. It’s been used by physios for years as an umbrella term encapsulating the exercises and poses you can do to engage your feet. Barefoot trainer brand Vivo Barefoot is big on toe yoga as a way of establishing the connection between mind and feet, which often starts by paying feet a bit more attention. And taking off a layer or two. 

“We encourage people to take their shoes off,” Baker tells Stylist. ”(We ask them to) touch their feet, massage their feet, move their toes and really try to improve that sensory input into the foot so that the motor output can function better.”

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Until my feet started annoying me recently, I used to stuff them into increasingly larger-sized footwear and avoid thinking about them (easy to do when you’ve had a lifetime’s worth of people telling you that your feet are ‘hideous’). But it’s a pretty sad way to treat the body parts propping up everything else.

“If you’ve got strong, functional feet, it’s going to have a massively positive impact on how the rest of your body performs, not just in your everyday life but in your sporting life as well,” explains Baker.

Foot problems can affect every sport, whether you’re a runner with a big toe that won’t bend or you’re a weightlifter with limited ankle mobility that impacts your squatting position. 

Baker recommends that I spend up to five minutes a day focusing on my feet. Exercises include rolling my foot over a tennis ball, massaging, and balancing on a flat foot, on one leg (Baker does it while brushing her teeth).

“If you can’t balance on one leg, that’s going to have an impact on how you function, your energy consumption, how you relate to the world, everything. If you can’t balance on one leg, how are you doing a single leg RDL, a single leg squat? It translates into so much.” 

How to choose which exercises are right for your problem

There are plenty of foot strengthening and toe yoga exercises, but not all of them are suitable for every issue. There’s one I keep seeing where people pick up a tissue with their toes. According to Baker, it’s a no-no for me and anyone with bunion issues, as it will strengthen the extrinsic muscles instead of the intrinsic ones which support the arch.

Some exercises will work for most feet, like ball rolling, massaging and toe splaying, where you press down with the outer four toes and lift the big toe, then do the opposite, to create width in the foot. Baker says that for specific issues, each person should be assessed individually. In fact, with 26 bones, over 30 joints and four layers of intrinsic muscles in each one, it’s not just important that each pair of feet gets its own assessment, but also each foot.

While these exercises can have preventative benefits, if there’s any pain, call a professional so you don’t end up injured, or try to overcompensate with another part of your body.

Is toe yoga a part of actual yoga?

Interestingly, toe yoga isn’t really a ‘thing’ in most yoga classes, but plenty of yoga poses can benefit your feet. You will often hear teachers talking about building awareness through the feet (Yoga with Adriene’s 30-minute Yoga For The Feet video has well over 1.3 million views on YouTube).

“One of the things that has become much more popular during the past 20 months because of the pandemic is really paying attention to grounding,” explains Zakiya Bishton, yoga teacher and founder of Mindwalk Yoga, who specialises in yoga therapy for anxiety, trauma and insomnia. 

“In mountain pose, for example, whether you’re standing or seated, you need to really pay attention to the soles of your feet, really pressing down into the soles of your feet.”

Bishton believes recentring ourselves and connecting to solid ground can have an impact that goes well beyond our foot and body health through to our minds.

“Grounding into your feet, tuning back into the sensation of ‘what does it feel like when I pay attention to the soles of my feet being against the floor?’, can really help with anxiety. It helps with everything: the way you walk, the way you carry yourself, and not just in a yoga class when you might be doing a balancing pose or warrior pose. It can help with everyday life.”

The thing about yoga is you don’t have to be on your feet to start looking after them. Coco Fletcher, yoga teacher and founder of south-west London studio Willow, explains that happy baby pose – which I’ve always considered chillout time – can help with alignment and bunions (you can massage them in this pose).

“Lay on your back, take your two peace fingers around your toes and bring your legs up towards the sky as if your feet might walk on the ceiling, keeping hold of your toes (you can have a big bend in your knees),” Fletcher instructs. “If that feels OK, you can start to take your legs out wider. This will help open up the hips too; stretch through the back of the legs and gently massage the lower back on the floor.”

5 toe yoga moves to try today, as prescribed by the experts

I’ve been doing toe yoga exercises for the past several weeks, and I can’t imagine ever stopping. They’re so easy to integrate into my daily life (and that’s not even when I’m working out) and I’m convinced that my feet are stronger, more flexible and more stable than they were. Crucially, they’re also less painful.

While the bunion issue isn’t solved, it’s improving. I give them a lot of attention and massages, and as a result, they don’t cause excruciating pain so I can still workout daily. If you’re in need of some foot TLC, here are five toe yoga moves to try, as prescribed by the experts.

Toe stretch, for plantar fasciitis relief (from Coco Fletcher, Willow London)

A yoga asana/pose I like to include in all of my Flow classes is a toe stretch. We don’t tend to typically stretch out our feet enough, so it can feel pretty extreme to begin with, but start slow and and build up to a couple of minutes held here (bonus points for closing down your eyes and using the time to focus on the breath).

  1. Sit on your heels and then bring your weight forward onto your knees.
  2. Slowly tuck all of your toes and then sit back, bringing your weight back onto the balls of your feet.
  3. Stay in this for one-to-three minutes. 

If you struggle with knee pain, be mindful of this pose (possibly tuck a blanket under your knees for extra cushioning or between the hips and heels to elevate you a little more).

Another great pose for plantar fasciitis and for stretching out your calves is to come into a high lunge and slowly lower your heel to the earth to stretch through the back of the calf.

Toe strengthening exercise at your desk (from Zakiya Bishton, Mindwalk Yoga)

  1. If you’re sitting down, move onto the ball of your foot so you’re lifting your heel, almost like you’re in a pair of high heels
  2. You can lift your toes up and then place them down onto the floor. 
  3. All you have to do is sit in a chair, pretending to wear a pair of high heels and then release. Remember to breathe.

If you want to try doing that standing then it becomes about balance. It can help to come up onto the toes like you’re wearing a pair of stilettos. And then release the heels down. You’re strengthening the ankles, you’re stretching out the front side of the foot, you’re also stretching the toes. 

Toe yoga toe splay exercise for bunions (from Jane Baker)

  1. Press down with your outer four toes and lift your big toes.
  2. Then press down with your big toes and lift your outer four toes. 

You’ll see the toe splay. What we’re trying to create is width in the foot so that we’ve got a tripod from the heel, little toe to big toe that gives stability through the foot.

Seated toe exercise (from Bishton)

  1. Sit on your bum with bent knees and soles of the feet on the floor.
  2. With your hands, lift each toe, stretch and then ground into the toes. 

Gradually, you can do that without your hands if you find that all of the four toes besides the big toe move together. That’s a way to bring some awareness, flexibility and strength as well.

Pedaling and stretching (from Fletcher)

Stretching out your calves and lower back will be key to counteracting any sort of foot injury. We have to treat the body as a whole, rather than focusing on just one small thing.

From downward facing dog, pedaling out the feet is amazing for stretching through the feet and calves. Try rolling over onto the tops of your toes/front of your foot and stretching the front of your feet as the front of our feet don’t tend to get a lot of love and it can be a really satisfying stretch. Downward facing dog, probably the most well known yoga asana, is also excellent for stretching out the Achilles.

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Images: Getty 

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