Article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press (co-authored by Helen Maupin, Candace Propp, Stacy Schroder)
Many of us take our lower legs for granted, without realizing the significant role calf muscles play in circulating blood and oxygen. In yoga, we refer to the calf muscles as the “heart of the legs.” Through contracting and expanding, calf muscles act as a pumping station. Contracted calf muscles compress blood from their veins, forcing an upward flow toward the heart. When these same calf muscles relax, their veins refill with blood from surrounding veins in other muscles and tissue.
Strong and flexible calf muscles support simple daily activities such as walking and climbing stairs, as well as much more complex athletic and dance movements. Inflexible calf muscles, which can be weak or overly tight, inhibit circulation, increase the possibility of rupturing your Achilles Tendon and decrease the range of motion in your ankles. All of this eventually adds up to sore and tired feet, heel pain and foot cramps. To sum up, too little stretching or too little use (strengthening) of the calf muscles creates an imbalance wherein mobility is restricted.
Healthy, pain-free movement requires our networked connection of tendons, ligaments, fascia, muscle and bone to be in balance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the connection between the calf muscles, ankle joints, arches and soles of the feet. Tight calves and heels lead to stiff ankles which can then lead to lower back issues.
Interestingly, a simple flex-point action in the feet effectively stretches the arches and the calves while keeping the heels and ankles happy.
In the yoga poses illustrated below, you will practice flexing and pointing your feet. When flexing the foot, extend out through the heel to stretch the calf, Achilles and arch. The softer you keep the front of your ankle, the greater the stretch. When you point the foot, lengthen along the top of the arch and foot rather than pull the heel back toward you.
Only practice these poses if you do not have a chronic injury in the hips, knees, ankles or lower back. If you do have an injury in one of these areas, please first seek advice from a medical professional.
Action: When flexing your foot, move from the top of the back calf muscles out through the heel. When extending your foot, move from the sides of the calf muscles out through the top of the foot and the toes. For more advanced practitioners, when flexing your foot also keep the front ankle relaxed inward. When extending your foot, feel the muscles under the front of the arch move the toes.
DANDASANA (Stick pose) with Flexion and Extension of feet
Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you. Use enough support under your sit bones so your spine comfortably lifts. Working with one foot at a time, alternately extend and flex each foot using the actions above.
From a standing position, keep your right foot forward and step your left foot well back. Bend your front knee into a right angle, if possible. Place your hands onto height in order to keep your breastbone lifting and your arms straight. Find the action for flexion in both feet.
PARIGHASANA (Gate pose)
Begin in a kneeling position. Have a slant board, foam block or rolled blanket a leg’s-length away. Keep your left hip over your left knee and step your right foot out to the side. Place your foot onto the support and ensure it lines up with your left knee. Your right knee faces up. Find the action for extension in both feet. Bring your left arm overhead and add a side bend.
To discover more actions for healthy feet and calves, see Creating Space: Yoga Actions for Feet & Ankles as well as Creating Space: Yoga Actions for Legs & Knees available in print or e-book.