Editor’s note: The below are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional. Yoga teachers should remain within their scope of practice: This means not attempting to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice to students.
It’s not an uncommon progression of events: One day, you notice pressure or soreness in the heel of your foot. You might find that the discomfort is worse in the morning but that it wanes throughout the day, especially with a little massage, ice, or over-the-counter pain medication. You don’t think too much of it until days or weeks pass and you realize that the intermittent irritation has become an all-day, everyday affair of sharp, stabbing pain. What’s a poor “sole” to do?
Plantar fasciitis, characterized by the unpleasant symptoms just mentioned, is one of the leading causes of foot pain. It occurs when the plantar fascia, thick connective tissue that runs from the heel bone (calcaneus) to the bones at the base of each toe, becomes injured from repetitive strain or excessive load-bearing.
Common Causes and Correlations
The condition is especially common in runners (more so in those who tend to strike with their heel first when striding), in people who stand for long periods of time (because of the constant weight on their feet), and in people with ultra-high or fallen arches (as the plantar fascia plays a key role in supporting the arch of the foot).
People with tight calf and ankle muscles—common in athletes whose sports require running, sprinting, or quick footwork, as well as in high-heel wearers—are also more vulnerable to plantar fasciitis. Shortened muscles in the calf and ankle pull on the heel bone, stretching the plantar fascia, which then tends to remain lengthened, thereby decreasing the amount of load the fascia can comfortably support, making inflammation or micro-tears more likely.
Plantar fasciitis can also stem from imbalances in the hip and gluteus muscles, skeletal misalignments in the pelvis, and weak trunk muscles, which may be a result of injuries or repetitive activities that encourage lopsided actions, such as habitually carrying a child on one hip or shifting more of your weight into one buttock while driving.
Also, during pregnancy and after childbirth, people experience laxity in their ligaments, contributing to the spreading and tilting of the pelvic bones as their body houses and delivers the baby; as bones shift back into place, they may not neatly find their original alignment. Overall, women, more than twice as often as men, report plantar fasciitis. Finally, thanks to the excessive sitting prevalent today, many people have the trifecta of weak glutes and tight hip flexors and hamstrings.
In all of these instances the pelvis may tilt or rotate out of a neutral position. Then, the hips, glutes, low back, and leg muscles attempt to balance any misalignments rather than focus fully on keeping you upright and propelling you forward as you walk, which is what they’re supposed to do. These tasks then tend to get passed off to the muscles and fascia of the calves and feet, which aren’t designed to handle such loads.
In yoga, you may notice your toes digging into the floor or your calves working overtime in balancing postures if your hip, glute, and core muscles are simply not doing their jobs properly. Over time, this can result in calf tightness, foot pronation, and stress on the plantar fascia.
If you experience repetitive bouts of plantar fasciitis, it may be worth consulting a physical therapist or other movement specialist to assess whether imbalances in your pelvis, hips, or glutes are contributing factors.
Finally, all of our connective tissues, including the plantar fascia, lose elasticity as we age. Tight connective tissues are more susceptible to injury, especially if they’re playing a role in supporting our entire upright body!
Yoga and Self-Massage Practices That Can Help
Whether you want to take preventive measures or are currently trying to manage plantar fasciitis, the exercises below can help to strengthen and support your plantar fascia tissue, and may alleviate mild symptoms of plantar fasciitis. As always, check with your healthcare provider first, especially if you think you have plantar fasciitis. Medical conditions such as heel bone spurs or inflammation to the tendon just beneath the plantar fascia can mimic the symptoms of plantar fasciitis, so an accurate diagnosis is necessary to adequately manage your discomfort.
Props: block, tennis ball or massage ball, chair, wall
1. For Your Feet
This exercise can be done whenever you’re just hanging out barefoot: washing dishes, watching TV, brushing your teeth.
Come to standing barefoot in the way that feels most natural to you. Take a look at your feet. What do you notice? For example, do the inner edges of your feet and ankles roll inward (known as pronation) or do you feel more weight on the outer edges of your feet (known as supination)?
Notice the general area of each heel, then the ball of each foot. Do you feel more weight in your heels or in the balls of your feet?
Some of these tendencies, like allowing the inner edges of your feet and ankles to roll inward (pronation), can place a great deal of stress on the plantar fascia by overstretching it. Comparatively, if your feet do not roll inward enough (called excess supination, and common in those with very high arches or tight Achilles tendons), your plantar fascia might remain in a state of contraction. If your feet are in either of these positions often, it leaves the plantar fascia vulnerable to tears or overall loss of strength.
Tadasana (mountain pose) is a simple yet excellent pose for bringing your attention to your feet, especially to the actions of your arches. From standing, align the inner edges of your feet so they’re parallel and approximately hip-width apart. Engage your outer shins and calves, and firm your inner thighs, allowing them to internally rotate, without hyperextending your knees. (If you tend to hyperextend, slightly bend your knees.) Lengthen through the sides of your body as you reach up through the crown of your head. Finally, find your neutral pelvis by checking that your hip points are directed forward and that you are neither thrusting your hips forward or back.
Now, make sure that your shins are parallel to each other as you press down firmly through the outer edges of both feet and big toe mounds, and see if you can focus on maintaining even weight distribution between these two areas. You should feel a slight lift in your arches. As you find yourself standing throughout the day, try to bring this level of awareness and engagement to your feet, especially if you tend to pronate or supinate.
Next, keeping your arches lifted, see if you can scrunch the toes of your right foot and contract your right arch, almost as if you were trying to pick something up with your toes. Hold for a breath or two.
Then relax your toes and lift them away from the floor, while still keeping your outer right heel and right big toe mound firmly rooted into the floor. Notice how far you can lift your toes. See if you can spread them.
Then see if you can place just your pinkie toe down, then your fourth toe, and so on, until just your big toe is lifted. This won’t necessarily be the easiest thing to do; however, it should give you some insight into your big toe mobility! As each subsequent toe lowers, notice if the space between your big toe and the floor decreased, stayed the same, or increased compared with when all five toes were lifted.
Repeat these exercises on the left side.
2. For Your Ankles
Alternatively (or in addition to the above!), you can practice a similar foot and ankle exercise while sitting in a chair. Cross your right ankle over your left knee, and squeeze your toes and arch with your hands for a breath or two. Then spread your toes, and use your right hand to draw your big toe back toward the top of your foot as you try to point the other four toes down toward the sole. Hold for approximately 30 to 45 seconds.
Release, and then interlace the fingers of your left hand with your toes, placing the palm of your hand against the sole of your foot. Press the heel of your left hand firmly against the sole of your right foot. Holding your right heel firmly in your right hand, gently pull the toes into a “point” with your left hand and then push them back toward your ankle. Feel free to do this a few times to get a feel for the action (and it just might feel good for your foot!)
Now, release the toes and let them relax (maybe wiggle them or move your feet around to release any tension you feel). Then, hold on to the same foot in any way that feels comfortable to you and slowly move the ankle in clockwise and counterclockwise circles, stopping anywhere the stretch feels good. Switch feet.
3. For Your Calves
The two major muscles of the calf, the gastrocnemius and soleus, and the Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscles to the calcaneus (heel bone), can pull on the plantar fascia if they are inflexible. For these next exercises, have a tennis or massage ball and a yoga block available.
Start in a seated position on the floor with both legs extended and your palms or fingertips pressing into the floor behind you for support (you can point your fingers in any direction that feels comfortable to you). Bend your left knee and place your left foot flat on the floor. Place the ball under your right calf, about halfway between your heel and your knee. Move your right leg forward and back, rolling your entire calf over the ball, and notice any trigger points (sore, tense spots that develop within muscle where fibers of connective tissue are in spasm or are “caught” against one another).
Applying firm, concentrated pressure to these areas may help relax the trigger points and allow the affected muscle to relax and lengthen, so once you find a trigger point, allow your leg to rest there for about 30 seconds as you take steady, even breaths.
For more intensity, you can cross your left calf over your right shin, so the right calf sinks more heavily into the ball. The pressure against the ball should be firm, but not to the extent that it makes you catch your breath or wince in pain. Find one or two more trigger points and repeat. Then switch legs.
Next, place your block lengthwise against a wall on its lowest setting. Standing arm’s distance from the wall and facing it, lift your arms straight out in front of you to shoulder height and place your hands on the wall, keeping them shoulder width apart. Step your right foot onto the block so that the edge meets the middle of your arch. Step your left foot back about a foot or two, keeping the toes pointing forward. Press into your hands, bending your elbows to bring your body closer to the wall, as you drop your right heel toward the floor until you feel a comfortable stretch (your left heel may lift off the floor, and this may deepen the sensation in your right calf as your weight shifts forward). Hold this stretch for seven to 10 breaths.
Next, move the ball of your right foot to the top left corner of the block and allow your right heel to drop toward the floor again (your foot will be at an angle against the block). The gastrocnemius is split in two parts, with half on the medial and half on the lateral side of the calf, and this action targets the medial half. Hold here for seven to 10 breaths.
Return your foot to the center of the block. Then, direct the ball of your right foot to the top right corner of the block and allow your right heel to drop toward the floor again (targeting the lateral half of the gastrocnemius now). Hold here for seven to 10 breaths.
Finally, return your foot to center again. Bend your right knee, and allow the heel to again drop toward the floor. This moves the stretch away from the gastrocnemius and into the deeper soleus muscle. Hold for seven to 10 breaths and then switch sides.
4. For Your Hips, Glutes, and Core
Slow, controlled hip circles allow you to engage your trunk muscles while simultaneously activating your gluteus maximus and medius. This short sequence also adds a hip flexor stretch into the mix.
Start on hands and knees, engaging your core (a). Press firmly into your hands, and, keeping your right knee bent and right foot flexed, lift your right leg until the bottom of the foot is parallel to the ceiling (b). Keep your abdominals drawn in and spine long (avoid collapsing in the low back), and contract your right glute as if you were trying to stamp your foot on the ceiling. Hug your right thigh into the midline: You should feel a contraction where the top of your hamstrings and right glute meet. Hold here for three full breaths.
Keeping your thigh at hip height, take your right knee out and away from your midline, aiming to bring your inner right thigh parallel to the floor (c). Hold for three breaths.
Then bring your right knee back to center, keeping it lifted. Engaging your abdominals, and allowing your back to round, bring your right knee toward the inside of your right elbow (d). Hold for three full breaths.
Finally, place your right foot on the floor inside your right hand, coming into a “90/90” lunge. Bring your torso to vertical, and try to maintain a 90-degree bend in your back knee, rather than extending it. Your hands can dangle by your sides or rest on your right thigh (e). Lift through the crown of your head to create length in your spine and roll the tops of your shoulders up and back to open your chest. Engage your low belly and begin to tilt your pelvis posteriorly (think of trying to point your tailbone toward the floor, or even slightly forward) until you feel a stretch in the front of your left hip. If you’re struggling to feel sensation here, try sliding your left knee back while maintaining the posterior tilt.
Hold here for five breaths, then return to tabletop and complete this mini-flow on the left side.
Make sure your movements remain slow and controlled throughout the exercise. Complete five rounds of the flow on each side for 10 total reps. When you are done, lie down in savasana and extend your arms overhead. Reach through your arms and legs for a full-body stretch and then relax and release, bringing your arms back alongside you.
A final note . . .
As with all exercises, consistency is key. If you’re vulnerable to plantar fasciitis, try incorporating these antidotes into your routine from one to three times a day. Otherwise, feel free to experiment and see if they support your overall foot, leg, and postural health!
About the author:
Nishita Morris is a health, wellness, and outdoor enthusiast! She completed her graduate (Master of Public Health) and undergraduate (Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion and Behavior; Bachelor of Science in Psychology) education at the University of Georgia. She is also a Certified Health Education Specialist. Her interests include workplace health, the mind-body connection, stress management, and nutrition. In her free time, Nishita enjoys reading, writing, comedy, and doing just about anything outdoors.
Photography: Andrea Killam