Ankles

"Yes, Feldenkrais® ATM will do wonders for your ankles, and you’ll get no better education than that. That is like driving a Rolls Royce. What I am trying to give you here is like pulling your car out of the ditch!” -SH


Ankles

I’ve often thought if we were all smarter about ankles, how many less troubles we’d have. So many conditions begin with the feet and ankles, and when we ignore them, we can spend a lifetime trying to fix neck pain, or back pain, with little success.

Keeping ankles healthy is radically different than what people usually do and understand. It is a hard sell. For more instruction and details please see my YouTube Channel, and also my upcoming book on hip and knees, and also many articles on this website.

If you cannot trust standing on one ankle (or foot) at a time, you don’t have good balance. Can you close your eyes and stand on one foot, while waving the other leg around in the air? I have done such exercises twice daily for many decades. At age 69, I can easily tie one shoe, while standing on the other foot, without leaning on anything for support. I have had to work hard to stay at that level. The back and hips cannot decompress without trustworthy ankles. The shoulders can never be happy, either. And our poor neck will always feel unsupported, and overworked trying to manage the weight of the head as we walk, sit and stand unless the ankles can be fully trusted. Remember, it is easy to stand and have “good balance” on two legs. The real test is:


How well can you stand and balance on ONE leg?

Without competent ankles you’ll never get rid of low-grade chronic anxiety, since this is tied into lack of stable, intelligent perceived skeletal support. That begins with the feet and ankles. Or as Moshe Feldenkrais might have said, the eighth cranial nerve is fully myelinated at birth; the baby has an inherent sensitivity to loud noises and fear of falling (both are from the 8th cranial nerve), and this is the foundation of all later anxiety and fear-based syndromes like fear of falling and not feeling supported.

You want to lessen your anxiety level? Work on your balance and work on your ankles. This is a little known but very important somatic truth.  But the worst thing about incompetent ankles is that our eyes become hyper-vigilant in looking down and around us as we walk, assessing and our immediate surroundings.  This is because of fear of falling.  It becomes a neurotic preoccupation of nearly every elderly person I see in the USA.  In my opinion, the average western person, after age 12 or so, has alarmingly weak and incompetent feet and ankles. Of course there are the usual exceptions: athletes, dancers, yoga students, some performing artists, Feldenkrais® students, etc. What we want are supple, strong, intelligent ankles that let the eyes be free; such eyes are seen in young children at play, as they dance and hop and run about. They are not concerned about balance at all; they fully trust their ankles.

Yes, Feldenkrais® ATM will do wonders for your ankles, and you’ll get no better education than that. That is like driving a Rolls Royce. What I am trying to give you here is like pulling your car out of the ditch! We have to begin with first things first. That way you can at least begin a process of gradual re-education of your feet and ankles. Most people today have such distorted perceptions about feet and ankles! For instance, they think that form-fitted, German-made leather sandals are the best because "they feel so good and they fit so precisely.” So, what can be bad about that? This is my answer:

It is the very worst type of shoe or sandals you could ever wear, except besides, perhaps, extreme high heels. If there is a better way to get incompetent ankles I don’t know what it is.  Since they are form-fitted, there is no intrinsic movement of the foot bones or muscles in standing and walking – everything is immobilized! Such sandals are like casts for the feet. How can the feet interact with the changing terrain? Feet are meant to do that. With flat sandals, even with hard soles, at least there is SOME intrinsic movement of foot bones and muscles possible.  We have gotten SO far from what is Natural, we don’t even sense such a thing as stupid and harmful and indulgent with our body-sense, as any wild (or domestic, for that matter) animal could do. Just try putting form fitting leather “shoes” with hard soles on a dog or cat and see what you get.  

 

So, what can you do for your ankles now? Follow some of these exercises to immediately bring them strength, suppleness and flexibility. 


For Strength of Ankles: simply stand on both legs and rise up on your toes. Your calves and ankles have just lifted your entire body weight. Repeat this ten times. Do this as often as you can. It is a portable and ever-available way to exercise (the entire body weight being lifted) inconspicuously, anytime you are standing. If you want to quickly start getting the benefits from weight bearing exercise, here is how to begin. After some months of this, graduate to one-foot body lifts. Just now I did 100 repetitions of raising the body with my left foot; my left calf was just slightly starting to cramp at that point. I could probably have done 200 left foot raises. There was no strain. I had my right toes on the floor just to help me balance. After you reach 100 (or at least 50 reps) then start ankle jumps. You jump on both feet just as if you were jumping rope. Slowly work up to a minute or more, and then graduate to one foot jumping (or hopping). I can jump (or hop about the room) on either foot for at least 30 seconds, eyes closed, no support. Ankle jumping is as good or better than a rebounder for the lymphatic system, and it cost no money at all. I do 108 ankle jumps (jumping high as possible) every morning as part of my morning routine.

If You Are a Runner, please Google Born to Run Coaching, and you’ll learn why the world class runners know that the knee lift is the essential thing to know about running, and this requires strong ankles and lots of endurance. It is a little bit like jumping from the ankles as you run; there must be a spring to the ankles. If you have dead, weak ankles, there is no way for you to be a good runner. Read the book Born to Run, it will teach you why barefoot is best, why arch supports and heel cushions are not only useless but harmful, and how the shoe companies we have grown to love and trust (Nike, Adidas, New Balance etc.) have ZERO science (at least when the book was published) to back up their claims that their shoes prevent injury or help you run faster. The true science has shown the more expensive the running shoe, the more the injury. It is all in the book.

The Best Shoe Is No Shoe at all, or a flat bottom shoe with no heel cushion and no arch support. Only in such a shoe, such as a flat sandal, or cheap deck shoes, can there be proper biomechanics of the bones of the foot in standing and walking. This is also explained in Born To Run.

For Intelligent Ankles, do like little kids do; they walk with toes in, toes out, on the inside edges of the feet, on the outside edges, on their toes, on their heels, and they will do that while walking forward or backwards or sideways, and also while jumping or hopping (more rarely) or dancing playfully. Little kids somehow instinctively know, that to have functional ankles – as Nature is prompting them – they must fully explore all the possible ways to use their ankles, in every possible situation, both barefoot and with shoes on, so they can fully trust their ankles, and not keep obsessing about balance, like nearly every older adult we see in America. Just 5 minutes a week of this would give your ankles an IQ boost from 80 to 120.

Wake Up Ankles and Feet that Have Been Too Many Years in Tight Shoes.  Feet are meant to take pressure, strong and focused pressure, on different areas of the feet. Without this, feet and ankles get lazy and stupid – wearing shoes for a lifetime, which is nothing but a “cast” for the foot, and never doing anything intelligent for your ankles, will guarantee poor balance as you age. You will need a cane. You’ll be afraid of falling and breaking a hip (for VERY good reason, because lazy ankles CANNOT be trusted). Your old age will not be buoyant and happy; rather it will be miserable and painful – all your joints will be painful and compressed. This is inevitable when we are afraid of falling. I just read one study showing that a “bounce in the walk” is an indicator of a more positive psychological makeup. Such a bounce comes from the ankles.  

Invent many ways to stimulate the bottom of your feet: Rub your feet often. Walk on rocks. Get foot reflexology sessions. Buy a couple of foot rollers. Put a tennis ball or two in a sock (then tie the sock) and keep it under your desk, roll your foot on the ball (the sock keeps the balls from rolling away). Place a standard yellow highlighter on the floor under your desk; it makes a good foot roller. Use an empty Classic glass Coke bottle as a foot roller. Sit (as I did for years in my private practice) on hard, flat-topped wooden stools, and rub your feet along the side braces while working. You may be curious, as I was, how do the Taramahara Indians in Mexico (who run for days at a time in flat sandals) train their children to be runners? The answer is: they teach them to play kickball, in dry scrubby, rocky, hilly pine forests, with a 4 inch round wooden ball, while wearing sandals. Just imagine, if you can, the strength and flexibility and endurance this would give your ankles: down into riverbeds, up a steep slope, over the bank of a rocky trail, etc. They will play this game for many hours running. That’s one extreme way to create competent ankles.

Buying Shoes. Cheap, flat-soled shoes are the best. Again, read Born To Run for the science behind this. Or you can trust native cultures – they wear flat sandals or moccasins. Or you can trust The Peace Pilgrim, a gentle soul who used to walk across America spreading her message of peace. She said – it is in her book - the only shoe you need is a cheap flat-soled shoe, nothing more than that. How right she was!  The softer the sole the better it is for the feet. No arch supports and no heel cushions. As you’d learn if you read Born To Run, heel cushions increase compression damage, the thicker the heel cushion, and the more the compression damage. And that is from a scientific study. Arch supports under the foot are like supporting an architectural arch with a pillar in the middle of the doorway. It would never happen, it could collapse the whole building. The bones of the foot are constructed in a similar fashion to a doorway arch or passageway. By using arch supports we freeze or interfere with the natural movements of joints from the feet all the way up to (and including) the skull. Avoid them! If you are already many years using arch supports, use common sense; it will take some time (months or years) to wean yourself off of them, and probably you should work with a somatic professional during this process. Of course there are exceptions, as when there is an anatomical leg length difference, and a heel lift and/or arch support has been used for many years.  

Foot Circles. This is a little exercise I teach all my clients. Sit and make a circle with the foot. Or to increase the difficulty, stand up and do this with eyes closed, as you stand on one foot. That’s what I do. Sounds easy, right? Well, no. What most people do at first is make a circle with a tense foot. There was no need to tense any muscle in the foot, the foot muscles have no ability to move the foot in a circle; that power comes from the lower leg. Try again, go slower and make a circle with your foot. Slow it down! See if you can fully relax the toes, the arches, everything in the foot – so the foot is “empty” and “passive” and “floppy”.  You learn to sense and move a foot without tensing it; this translates to a more quiet way of standing where your feet are not unnecessarily, unconsciously tense. If I could give you only one exercise this would be the one.  Most every client I have ever seen, the moment the foot takes weight (in walking, or in shifting weight in standing) the foot will tense and the toes will grip, for NO good reason. Most people, when they even THINK about their feet, they tense their feet. This little drill shows our nervous system a different and far better “way to be” with out feet.

Foot Massage. It is an ancient practice and you should get them as often as you can. Reflexology is good too. Self-acupressure on the foot is a wonderful practice; practically any book on acupressure will give you many hints.

Foot Baths. Heavy metals and other toxins sink to the feet; that is why they often stink. The pores of the feet are the largest in the body, to help get rid of such waste. Especially if you have had chemo, or exposure to toxins, do foot baths regularly. It will help the feet wake up, heal help the nerves heal, and wake up a keener awareness of sensation in the feet. If you pick up any ancient European herbal book, you’ll see pictures of footbaths being taken.  

Walking and Standing, Eyes Closed, at Least Ten Seconds a Day.  This is so important it should be in flashing neon lights. If you don’t do just a little of this, your tendency will be to always depend more and more on visual input for good balance as you grow older. When you challenge yourself, now and then, even for a second or two, to stand and balance with eyes closed, or better yet on one foot at a time, you re-awaken the inherent kinesthetic sensing power inside your body that knows how to balance without visual input (like any blind person could teach us). It is very important not to lose touch with this ability. You can fully learn this at any age. If you went blind at age 80, you’d learn it QUICK! Don’t ignore this one. In a somatic sense, old age is very much about staring vigilant eyes, fear of falling, and body-compressive lockdown with numerous painful situations going in (in that context). This simple practice can avoid this syndrome, or at least delay it for a decade or two. The benefit you get for time spent, on this one, is out of all proportion. Ten seconds a week could give you ten years better balance as you age.

Standing Shifting Weight in Standing. This is well explained elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it here, except to emphasize that it is perhaps the best way to keep your ankles healthy and competent as you age. Anytime you stand, slowly shift weight to one foot, and stand tall, stand relaxed, breathe easy, and soften all the joints slightly, especially soften the feet as they take weight, look around. Close your eyes for a brief moment, without a sense of panic. Can you do this? Keep mentoring yourself like this every time you are standing, to bring either ankle up to the standard of being fully trustworthy, alone, without the help of the other foot.

Write Your Name Before Getting Out of Bed With Your Big Toes. This is a variation of “Foot Circles” that some people find easier to incorporate into their schedules. Remember; don’t tense the foot as you move the foot. This alone will practically guarantee good balance as you age. I have seen this.

Practice Falling Against the Wall Eyes Open or Closed. Catch yourself with your hands, like doing a push-up against the wall. Be sure to do this safely! If you have any doubts do not do this. Do this at different distances, with one or two legs standing, with hips twisted or not, etc., create many variations. We want to confront the moment of panic, when we fall, and learn to relax into it, and be confident that we can catch ourselves. In Feldenkrais ATM you’d learn how to not only fall against the wall that way (which is easy and safe to do alone) but you’d learn to actually fall to the ground and catch yourself. Don’t try this alone, without an ATM teacher nearby to coach you! This kind of work unfreezes the ankles, hips and all other joints in moments of panic so that we have a better chance not to be injured as we fall; if the sense of panic goes unchecked it will increase our tension and the possibility of a serious fall and subsequent injury.


For those who’d like to increase their understanding of the ankles, I’ve included the following list that will probably be of interest to somatic teachers:

 

Sub-Talar Joint IS the Ankle Bone.  The Roman soldiers were taught to run, walk, fight and stand “from the talus bone”. This bone has a joint called the sub-talar joint, which interacts with the heel bone. THIS is where the body reads the balance in standing. There are more nerve endings in the sub-talar joint than on the entire bottom of the feet. Yet, most people don’t even know they have such a joint in the heel area, below the ankles bones. Once I educate people as to how to feel this joint, and mobilize it, it automatically and instantly upgrades their balance, their athletic competence, their speed and accuracy in standing and walking or running activities. There is a lot to say here and more than we can cover here.

Push Off from a point between the big toe and the second toe. That is the “power point” where we have power to push off or jump with our whole body, with power. But when we walk, we should land the foot on the outside and roll inwards. This is difficult to do in shoes, which encourage clomping on heels and rolling to ball of feet. But we were not designed to walk like that. For more on this see my YouTube Channel.

Understand the Fibula. In Feldenkrais we call it “the balance bone” and it is meant to slide and glide up and down and also slightly rotate, just like the radius bone does in the forearm. This bone needs to be sensed and we need to feel it moving or gliding up as we mobilize the foot into eversion. Know that the soleus muscle attaches to the top of the fibula and when we sprain an ankle, the soleus goes into deep spasm, keeping the fibula jammed down. Any good massage therapist will be able to release your soleus for you. It will be especially tight and painful at the area adjacent to the head of the fibula. 

Native American Walk. This is best learned barefoot. Take a step forward with one foot and land that foot on the ball of the foot, just under the little toe. As the foot takes weight, as you move forward, the foot rolls diagonally to the left side of the heel. This engages all the arches and bones and muscles of the feet. I run this way barefoot. It feels wonderful.

Over-Ride of Ankles and Knees. When we are walking downhill, say, as the foot is planted, there is still forward momentum of the tibia which shears forward on the talus and other bones. This shearing becomes chronic and the misalignment is very common, and often an ankle will not heal, until over-ride is fixed. This is done by exaggerating the pattern (takes 150 or 200 pounds of pressure) and waiting for a release. If you can find a local Ortho-Bionomy® Practitioner, probably they’d know how to do this for you.

Untreated Old Ankle Sprain What do now. Never leave it untreated! The whole body stays tight and torqued when this is the case. My experience has been that chiropractors and PTs and massage therapists all can help you rehabilitate an untreated old sprained ankle. Yes you were right, you could function “OK” without getting the sprained ankle treated. But it is such a common thing, and so easy to treat, and the benefits are so substantial, you should not delay another day.  Failing that AT LEAST start to practice eversion of the foot since that is the main movement you lost when you turned your ankle. That means practicing walking on the INSIDE of your feet, not so much the outside (which is like spraining the foot and ankle). Get massage or somehow release the soleus muscle, which jams the fibula down (and stays locked like that for decades sometimes) when an ankle is sprained. But again, better to find professional help.

Running Barefoot. You can Google this. You can buy sock-type shoes to run in. Please check this out if you are a runner.   

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin  www.mybodycanlearn.com