by Sierra Wagner
Some of the most commonly practiced and beloved yoga poses put a lot of weight on the ankle joints. As your practice progresses, you might notice that many poses require significant ankle flexibility, too. This article will offer some ways to gain and maintain a healthy range of motion in the ankles. We will take a low-impact approach that is less stressful for sensitive, tight or injured joints. We will also offer plenty of modifications for poses that are typically affected by ankle inflammation, pain, or stiffness – like Warrior One, Child’s pose, and Hero’s pose – so that you can get back to the asanas you love the most.
Let’s Talk Anatomy
Your ankle is an intricate network of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles. This joint is hard-working; built to be strong enough to bear your entire body weight, even when standing on one foot! The Tibia (shinbone) and Fibula make up the ankle joint along with the Talus bone. The Calcaneus (heel bone) is just below, and the five Tarsal bones connect to those. The lower leg muscles connect to the ankle and foot through an intricate network of tendons and other connective tissue called the retinaculum.
What Causes Ankle Pain?
Some of the most common causes of ankle pain and stiffness are osteoarthritis, arthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis, sprain, bursitis, a broken bone, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and gout. Please see your doctor before trying any of these exercises to determine the cause of your pain and what is safe to perform.
Start Slow, Finish Strong
The following warm-ups can help prepare the body for more demanding standing poses. They are most beneficial when practiced daily and especially before your yoga practice.
- While laying on your back, lift the legs to the sky and rotate the ankles in slow, large circles 10x in each direction.
- In Reclining Big Toe Pose, use a strap around the ball of your foot. From a neutral ankle position, invert your foot by turning the inner ankle and big toe mound towards the floor. If the sensation is light you can add more movement to the ankle by drawing down on the side of the strap and touching the big toe mound, gently pulling it towards the ground.
- In Reclining Big Toe Pose use a strap around the far edge of the heel of your foot. From a neutral ankle position, press your heel into the strap and draw your toes towards the floor. Opening up the calves is important since they can be a major hinderance to the movement available in the ankle.
- Kneel with your knees hips-width distance apart and your lower legs on the floor directly behind the knees. Turn your toes under. Slowly sit back, applying weight onto your toes. Find a sustainable amount of pressure and take a few deep belly breaths. If it’s too much, place a bolster under your knees to reduce the intensity. Slowly build up your endurance to sit for longer and longer.
Bring in More Mindfulness
Sometimes just bringing attention to a specific area of the body can assist in the healing process. Use the following exercises to bring a mindful eye to your ankle joint.
- Stand in Mountain Pose and close your eyes. Notice how the weight is resting in your feet. Is it more on the heel or the ball of the foot? Is it rolling to the inside or outside? Are your toes turning inward or outward?
- Standing in Mountain Pose, align your toes with your heels, so the feet are parallel to one another. Ground the weight evenly throughout the four corners of the foot; inner heel and outer heel, big and little toes mounds.
New Versions of the Old Classics
Some of your favorite poses can be tweaked so that they bring strength, flexibility and stability to your ankle joints.
- For Strength: Start in Mountain Pose with your hands on a wall or a chair in front of you. Lift your heels up and place them down a few times, moving with your breath. If you want more challenge, bring your arms overhead (Extended Mountain pose) each time the heels lift. Repeat with your toes turned out and then with your toes turned in.
- For Stability: Place a yoga wedge or a blanket folded up so it is an inch or two high (depending on your mobility) on the far end of your mat. Stand at the opposite end, facing away from the lift, and step one leg back into a Warrior One stance with your heel on the lift. Repeat on the second side. This set-up can also be used for Pyramid pose, Reversed Warrior One, Humble Warrior and other Warrior One variations.
- For Stability and Flexibility: Kneel in Hero’s Pose,which activates plantar flexion. If this is too much pressure on your ankles (you will likely feel the pressure on your feet) then add one to three yoga blocks under your sit-bones.
- For Flexibility: In Child’s Pose use a thin blanket or yoga mat rolled up under your ankles. Have the roll be as high as you need it and practice with it regularly. Over time, as the ankles open, try lowering the height of the lift.
If one of these options isn’t working for you when practicing on your own give it a few chances, making small shifts in the location or height of the prop until you find what works the best for you. If you are not able to find a modification that works, or you just want more personalized instruction, seek out a yoga therapist to help you find the best options for your needs. Happy Practicing!