Let me first tell you a short story.
I took ballet lessons as a young girl under my tita and her daughter in the province. For many years, I wore flat ballet shoes in class as I moved from the beginners to the intermediate class. I’d often look at the advance class pirouette around in toe shoes and long for the day that I would graduate to being a toe dancer. Every summer, tita would sit her intermediate students down to check their feet. She’d examine their ankles and toes. You could not get your toe shoes until she gave the thumbs up. One summer, I was one of those students lined up for the check. I did not pass. She told me to wait another year. I was so disappointed! It took another year of dancing, practicing and working my feet before I finally got her nod of approval. Receiving my Capezio toe shoes all the way from New York was probably one of the happiest moments in my life.
Fast forward to the present.
I’ve long noticed how yin yoga classes put great emphasis on the strength of the toes. In a recent yin yoga workshop with Singapore-based Jo Phee, she began our class on the floor with toe rotations. Taking each toe in turn, we slowly turned them clockwise, then counter-clockwise. Those used to the active and dynamic styles of yoga would probably find this very odd for a yoga class. And in Victor Chng’s yin yoga intensives, he’d have us doing “high-heeled shoes” (his description for poses that have you on your toes, bearing the weight of your body). And fair warning — holding those poses for 3 to 5 minutes was not a walk in the park.
Dynamic yoga styles were not this emphatic about toe strength. Sure there were a few asanas that got us up on toes like Tadasana but usually held only for a few counts, never for several minutes.
What got me even more curious was that in our meridian classes, I learned that energy channels either started or ended in the toes. Oh hey, I’m on to something here! I better look at this more closely!
So I started reading up on toes…
Here are a few things I read or realized:
* People who go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals have some of the healthiest toes (straight and evenly spaced). Modern civilization has forced us into lifestyles and fashion trends that make us wear shoes, too high or too tapered, that force our feet and toes into unnatural positions.
* We cannot walk or run without toes. Think about it. As a ballet dancer, I spent a lot of time on my toes. I could hop, walk, and dance on toes. Even those suffering from some form of foot deformity can still be mobile as long as they have toes. Now imagine ourselves without toes. We’d keel over forward, for sure. The weight of our head is enough for us to fall forward with nothing below to keep us balanced and grounded. That is the role of toes.
* Toes help propel us forward. A sprinter knows that because he crouches at the starting line with one knee on the ground, but the other has the toes flexed and often pressing against a metal brake, ready to give the sprinter that initial push when the starter gun goes off.
* Toes are important for proprioception and provides tactile feedback. In this article, proprioception is defined as “your body’s ability to sense the position of its parts, both at rest and during movement.” It also defines tactile feedback as “information your body parts send to your brain about how your surrounding environment, including the ground you walk upon, is affecting your body”. So runners, take care of your toes. They continually send feedback to your brain so that you maintain your balance and accurately position your feet as you negotiate different terrain.
It is not difficult to conclude then, that our state of health is influenced by the toes’ state of health. Now I also understand the importance of strong ankles and toes as a prerequisite to ballet toe shoes. A ballerina could cause greater injury to herself if she went on toes before her feet were ready and strong.
Lately, at home, I’ve shed my house slippers and would walk barefoot as often as I could. It actually feels good. I feel grounded because I feel the floor underneath me. I also know it massages the soles and toes as I walk – something most slippers prevent you from experiencing.
If toes are this crucial for our well-being, then it’s time we paid more attention to keeping them strong and healthy. Here’s a video to start you off on strengthening your toes:
And look, I found this video featuring Toga (yoga for the feet and toes). The last part of this video shows the toe rotations we did in Jo Phee’s class.
Try to catch a yin yoga class. There are so many being offered now around Metro Manila. Chances are, there will be a class where toe exercises will be featured. We cannot underestimate toe power. This tiny body part, with 14 of the smallest bones in the whole human body, are what help keep us up and get us going — and fast!