By Jill Miller
Of the approximately 230 joints in the human body, I would argue that the majority of them take a serious beating from our day-to-day habits. But I would wager money that our collective ankles are high up on the list for the most disrespected joint. The irrational footwear choices that humans shackle upon their ankles create all manner of chaos in all other joints that stack atop this wonderful triad of bones. Your ankle is an architectural marvel. All of your body’s weight funnels down into a narrow bridge of bones that sits on top of your feet. If your feet don’t strike and hold the ground in a balanced way, the ankles negotiate their own limited range to help you find your footing.
Yoga is typically taught barefoot…although the many in the footwear industry are now trying to convince you to wear “shoes” on the mat! Don’t buy the hype! Ultimately, this type of footwear puts the squeeze on your feet, and it absolutely has consequences on your body’s ability to sense placement, precision and impeccable articulation of the feet and ankles.
Once you step off your mat and into the streets, yes, it is most sensible to protect your skin from the insults of broken bottles, cold pavement and the unfortunate ick that may be found “out there.” Here is where your shoe choices could make or break your ankle.
Footwear greatly influences the effectiveness of your ankle mobility. Tight foot-boxes found in pointy-toed shoes slam the 33 joints of the foot into their own version of a subway car at rush-hour. These tiny joints lose their ability to move according to their intelligent design which irritates the soft tissues of the foot like the plantar fascia. High-heeled shoes are at top of the foot mangle list. They compress the toe-bones and perch the ankle into a permanently steep grade that distorts the full range of motion in that joint. Over time, this weakens multitudes of muscles while over-shortening others. These compensations affect the entire body, not just in the region of the feet and ankles. The offsets cause a ripple effect into the back, neck and more.
High heels also come with inherent risks of rolling the ankle joint and leading to ankle sprains or strains. But heels are not the only reason we sprain our ankles. It’s easy to make a misstep in your sneakers on slippery pavement, off-road trail running, whipping your legs too quickly out of a tight padmasana (ouch!) or perhaps you’ve had the misfortune of falling down the stairs like I did a few years ago while wearing clogs! Those pesky ankles, they are so easy to roll.
Whether you’re a klutz like me, a Lady Gaga wannabe or a trail-runner, we all need to care and condition our ankles for optimum function. Traditional yoga poses, especially the standing poses, can be phenomenal for helping build ankle strength. But asana is missing some other aspects of ankle strengthening that your lower leg and foot need for total stability and agility.
I happily present to you one of my favorite dynamic stability exercises for the ankles that I call Wheelies in the Parking Lot. I shot this video during my pre-New Year vacation to Kona and spent the day on an empty golf course doing running drills. Add some Wheelies before your workout or yoga practice to prep your ankles for lateral moves and to get your heart-rate going. If you’re a runner, tack some Wheelies at the end of your run to help rebalance all aspects of ankle articulation. Ultimately, it will reinforce the inner and outer ankle muscles and connective tissues so that your ankle has self-stirrup support.
You will look like a cat chasing its own tail, but you will also become as nimble and agile as one. Cats always land on their feet. And you will too.
Jill Miller is the creator of Yoga Tune Up. Having studied Yoga, Dance, and Body Movement for more than 24 years she created the Yoga Tune Up format to help people find and heal trouble areas before debilitating breakdowns occur. Jill teaches workshops and retreats internationally, is a longtime faculty member of the Omega Institute, and has traveled nationally choreographing programs for Discovery Health Channel. The L.A. Times calls her “kinetically arresting”.
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