An anatomical figure in Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana), being aware of their big toes

Yoga Anatomy: How Your Big Toes Can Strengthen Your Practice

Ray Long, MD, FRCSC
Updated: 
March 04, 2020

Have you ever noticed how your pelvis seems to drift backward in standing forward bends, especially Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)? Sometimes you get an assist from a teacher who pushes your pelvis forward from the sacrum to align your hips and leg bones back over your ankles. Oftentimes, however, when they remove this assist, your pelvis drifts back again.

 

Anatomical figure in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana), being aware of the correct position of their big toes

  (Figure 1 Pressing the big toes into the mat in Uttanasana.)

 

If you’ve had this experience, here’s a cue you can use (for yourself and your students) to align the pelvis and the bones of the lower extremities perpendicular to the floor:

  1. As always, warm up with Surya Namaskaras (Sun Salutations).

  2. Then take Uttanasana. Engage the quadriceps to straighten the knees. This aids to release the hamstrings through reciprocal inhibition and helps to align the bones that form the knee joint.

  3. Now press the fleshy part of your big toes firmly into the mat. Feel how this brings the pelvis forward and the legs upright—the desired position of the pose.

Aligning Your Bones in Yoga

This is an example of balancing opposites in yoga. When you flex forward, the pelvis will naturally drift back a bit to counterbalance the weight of the trunk so that you don’t fall over. This angles the bones of the legs away from perpendicular to the floor. Ideally, you want these bones aligned so that their long axes are perpendicular to the floor—which has several beneficial effects.

First, bones have tensile strength that is similar to cast iron and compressive strength similar to reinforced concrete. “Stacking” the bones so that gravity is directed down through the long axis allows you to use this passive bone strength rather than active muscular force to maintain the pose.

Second, aligning the bones in this manner more optimally spreads the joint reaction forces evenly across the cartilage of the knee. If you are tilting the leg bones back, these forces are more concentrated at the front of the joint.

Why Does This Work? Physics ...

The knees, ankles, and toes operate differently from the hips and trunk. Flexing these joints moves the extremity toward the back plane of the body, whereas flexing the hips moves the extremity toward the front plane of the body.

How Can the Small Bones of the Big Toes Accomplish This? Physics ...

The contractile force of these smaller muscles is magnified by the long lever arm of the leg. The big toes act as a fulcrum to propel the pelvis relatively forward and bring the leg bones upright. Put another way, the pelvis has to come forward to counterbalance the force of the big toe flexors. 

Here’s the Anatomy ...

 

An anatomical diagram of the flexors hallucis longus and brevis of the big toe

 (Figure 2 The flexors hallucis longus and brevis of the big toe.)

 

The flexor hallucis longus originates from the lower two thirds of the back of the fibula and the interosseous membrane between the tibia and fibula. It inserts onto the base of the distal phalanx of the big toe. This means that it crosses multiple joints, including the ankle, subtalar, and metatarsophalangeal joints—i.e., it is a polyarticular muscle. Accordingly, it can act to flex any of the joints it crosses.

The flexor hallucis brevis originates from the medial and intermediate cuneiform bones and a ligament that runs between the calcaneous and cuboid bones. It then divides into a medial and lateral head. These insert onto the base of the proximal phalanx of the big toe via the medial and lateral sesamoid bones, respectively. (The sesamoid bones are mobile structures embedded in the ligaments). The flexor hallucis brevis acts to flex the metatarsophalangeal joint of the big toe and also supports the longitudinal arch of the foot.

Use Your Big Toes in Other Yoga Poses

An anatomical figure in Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana), being aware of their big toes

 (Figure 3 Using this technique in Ardha Chandrasana.)

 

Try this technique in one-legged asanas like Ardha Chandrasana. This is another example of the “portability” of scientific principles between the asanas. Combine this tip with the cue for balancing opposites in the foot and ankle.  Finally, augment the diaphragm by activating the accessory muscles to breathe deeply in your practice.

 

More yoga practice tips, this time in a course from YogaUOnline and Anita Boser - Youthful Spine, Youthful Body: The Role of Fluidity in Healthy Aging.

Read more from Dr. Ray Long on yoga anatomy & practice tips - Lengthening the Torso in Forward Bends.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.

 

YogaUOnline contributor Ray Long, MDAuthor Ray Long MD FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.

 

YogaUOnline contributor Chris Macivor3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.