You often hear in a yoga practice:

  • Ground down through your big toe mounds
  • Lift up the arches of the feet/tone the belly
  • Broaden the chest
  • Lengthen through the crown of the head

It would be interesting to investigate in your own practice how easily you are able to do these three things, each on its own, and all three simultaneously.  A balanced Yoga practice would involve, among other things, a fine-tuned awareness of these three subtle movements, and the practitioner should aim to move in these three directions with equal amount of effort - simultaneously.

I would argue that these three movements represent energetic pathways that can get blocked by certain kinds of thoughts/mind states.  The big toe mound grounding represents one's ability to send energy down, to quiet the chatter of the mind, to feel stable in poses (and life), and if you are, like a lot of people, too much in your head, always with your thoughts, indulging the inner chatter too much, you would often neglect that important grounding action.  Fear, anxiety, and insomnia are common mind states when grounding is lacking.

The phrase Yoga teachers use, "ground your big toe mounds" is more like a shorthand, and I would go a little further here and say that grounding the entire foot, so that you feel your weight evenly distributed and centered, is what we should be going for.

Some feet pronate, some feet supinate, and we can use this awareness to fine-tune our stance and engage the feet for a greater balance down below. Feet have somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of our nociceptors, which encode and process all stumuli in the nervous system. I love the fact that Yoga is a barefoot modality - we can truly wake up and use our feet, nourishing our nervous system in the process.

The lifting of the arch of the foot, pulling up the inseam of the legs into the lower belly, where hip points move towards each other, represents our ability to draw energy up. Sometimes this energy gets trapped either in the upper body in the chest (more on that below), or in the lower body, in the poorly aligned pelvis. A misaligned pelvis results in an uneven distribution of weight through the legs, often causing uneven wear of the knee and ankle joints, bunions, etc.

So this relationship of DOWN-UP - from the balanced pelvis into the feet and then up again into the core allows us to tap into our sense of self that is powerful, yet in total control of that power. 

And with it naturally comes a broadening of the chest, a sense of spaciousness around the heart. A spacious, yet soft heart center is filled with joy when it is balanced, it is able to give and receive love.  The heart can close in two ways - it can collapse onto itself, or it can become too pushed forward, hardened against the pain of life.  Neither is a stable adaptation.  So, for some of us the broadening needs to happen in the front body, especially if you feel sadness, grief, emotional withdrawal.  Broadening and breathing into the space of the heart can relieve the deeply held emotions.  If the heart has hardened, especially in the back body, the thoracic spine can flatten, pushing the chest forward and telling others to keep their distance, we need to broaden the back heart.  Sometimes this hardening happens as a defense mechanism.  But sometimes it happens as a result of not so much emotional trauma but due to a constant effort to extend the spinal column (dancers, skaters, etc.), and sometimes it happens due to a long-term Yoga practice that has been too focused on backbends and "heart openers."  At some point the person went too far and did not notice it.  This has its own energetic effect and allows the person to feel protected from judging glares of others, yet sometimes they can be perceived as distant, unfeeling, or the opposite, too forward with their emotions, unstable and raw.

A balanced heart center has both - strength in the back, with rhomboids, lats, and cerratus as the support system, and openness in the front with a softness about it, accommodating easy breathing.

And finally, "lengthen through the crown of the head" is a short hand for Jalandhara Bandha, a chin lock that aligns the head and releases tension in the jaw and the face. Follow the link to a detailed description of this important alignment technique.

Our ability to be aware of these energy channels UP, DOWN, and ACROSS and to keep them clear is part of the mental work we need to do to achieve balance in our body and mind.  Next time you practice, evaluate your ability to execute each one of these efforts well, but without overdoing it.  In each pose you do, attend to these four, and see what happens.  Observe if one or two of these are easier for you to remember and to articulate than others.  Is there one that is especially difficult - you always forget, or find it difficult to do, or you may feel frustrated or confused by the whole concept.  And then ask yourself if you have felt grounded, self-assured, and open in the heart lately - are you balanced?