Summer (it’s still summer, I insist) is a good time to discuss feet, because they are out and about! It’s all sandals and bare feet around here. Maybe you resent your feet because they are too big, too small, too sweaty or too stinky. Maybe your toes are weird.
It is astonishing how much some of us despise our poor feet, because where would we be without them? Toppled over on the side of the road, most likely! As a nurse, I have seen plenty of diabetics who would give anything to have those suckers back (diseased, non-perfused feet with infection to the bone tend to have to get lopped off – as in, amputated).
It’s important to put aside our beefs with our feet and give them love. In the Veda (ancient Ayurvedic text), the feet are referred to as “organs of action.” They are quite literally our foundation. Our feet carry us where we want to go. They support us.
All over the world, ancient texts, drawings and artifacts show foot massages being used to relieve pain, treat disease, and promote health. Today, children in the villages of India continue an age-old tradition of massaging their parents’ legs and feet as a symbol of service, humility, and love (Yoga International).
I have a particularly poignant memory from when my mom was ill with cancer. I decided I would wash and massage her feet. She didn’t ask me to, and I can’t remember why it occurred to me to do so. It’s not like her feet were dirty. Ayurveda was in my distant future; I had never heard of it. And when I proposed the foot pampering, she was definitely humoring me. But as we went along, she became still. She was in a chair and I was, literally, at her feet. It felt sweetly humbling; it was an act of respect and reverence. Time slowed; I felt intertwined with her. The simple act of caring for her feet soothed us both in a deep and profound way.
We Sure Are Rough on our Tootsies
Foot pain is a very common ailment here in the ‘ol US of A. According to one study, 77% of Americans say they have suffered from foot pain – ouch! I know I have, and nurses everywhere are on a never-ending quest to find the right shoes for their achin’ feet. Once I got out of scrubs, I was wearing all sorts of ridiculousness on my feet, ripping them up and hurting the ligaments. Once, I was wearing such high wedges that I managed to, like, “pull” my big toe. That poor little digit wasn’t right for about 8 months. Now I wear more sensible shoes. I think everyone involved is thankful not to see me lurching and teetering around.
Problems in our feet can affect the rest of the body. Feet work in conjunction with the legs, knees, hips, and back. If there is a foot issue, everything that said foot carries (aka, our entire body) can get outta whack. And, foot problems can lead to muscle tension elsewhere in the body—especially in the neck and shoulders—and contribute to fatigue and irritability. According to the (very glamorous) American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), “Your feet mirror your general health. Such conditions as arthritis, diabetes, nerve and circulatory disorders can show their initial symptoms in the feet—so foot ailments can be your first sign of more serious medical problems.”
The Feet Correspond with the Whole Body/Act as a Map/Indicator of Health or Disease
According to ayurveda, the feet contain reflex points to all the organs and other parts of the body. Ayurvedic physicians know how to treat various ailments by applying pressure and oil to points on the feet that correspond to the messed up body part. Our feet are a mirror for the rest of the body: if you’re having shoulder pain, you can press on the part of your foot that goes with your shoulder and alleviate the discomfort. And a spot of tenderness on your feet might signify an imbalance in another part of your body before you even notice symptoms.
Ayurvedic physicians mapped out reflex points on the feet that correspond to our entire bodies. So Boss!
Big toe: brain. Tip of big toe: pineal gland. Pad of big toe: pituitary gland. Neck of big toe: thyroid. Base of second & third toe: eyes. Base of the third & fourth toe: ears. Cushion at the root of the toes: lungs. Middle of sole: pancreas. Heel: sciatic nerve.
By activating these matching reflex points, ayurvedic foot massage can help heal problems we have in the rest of our body and prevent others from developing. Score.
Emotions Get Stuck in the Feet, For Reals.
Ayurveda views emotions as reactions of a past memory to a present situation. So, when I am being driven crazy by towels (so many towels) on the floor, it’s really a reaction to the disregard for my time shown by people in my past? If we find something majorly triggering us, we may need to look to the past for the “real” culprit. OK, well, I’m still annoyed about the towels.
There are three kinds of negative emotion: vata emotion (fear, anxiety, nervousness); pitta emotion (anger, hate, envy, jealousy); and kapha emotion (attachment, greed, possessiveness, depression). According to ayurveda, when we suppress these emotions, they crystallize in the body and eventually accumulate in the soles of the feet, yikes! The result is that we are literally walking around on our unresolved emotions. This can cause areas of our feet to become tender and painful, and burdens our body with additional stress. An endless cycle is born.
Taking Care of Them Dogs: It’s all about the Foot Massage
Ayurvedic foot massage is as old as Ayurveda itself (5,000 years), and it offers tons of benefits: it nourishes the skin, reduces fungal and bacterial infections (trying not to visualize), and “soothes an agitated mind” (says Dr. Vasant Lad, major Ayurvedic guru). Foot massage can help alleviate anxiety, nervousness, and depression. It may even balance brain chemistry.
So rather than drinking, yelling, self-medicating or the like, we can reduce stress, activate our immune system, and chill the eff out through the simple act of foot massage. “The doors to the body’s inner pharmacy,” says Lad, “are under the bottoms of your feet.” According to Lad, all of the body’s stress accumulates in the connective tissue lining the soles of the feet. Ayurvedic foot massage is said to break up these emotionally related crystals, reduces stress, and relieve foot pain.
Dr. Lad explains:
“Whenever we rub oil on the soles of the feet, the oil permeates the skin and travels through the superficial fascia, the deep fascia, and the oil goes to the neural ending, releasing the secretion of certain neuropeptides. These are the same neuropeptides that are released in the nervous system, and they play an important role in immunological response.”
And people scoff at pedis.
Pedicures at the right place are a wonderful luxury, albeit pricey. I got one and the wonderful pedicurist did so much to my feet and legs. There were hot stones, massage, paraffin wax, hot towels, oh my. I went back less than two weeks later (oops, $$$$), then karma smeared the carefully selected red/orange polish all over my fav work flats. This type of luxury is cost-prohibitive for many of us, at least to do it on the reg.
But we can do wonders for our feet right at home.
Ayurvedic Foot Massage
Alright, so how’s it done? Lets break it down. As for oil usage, vata dosha will like sesame or bhringaraj oil; pitta dosha will do well with coconut or castor oil, and kapha dosha will enjoy nutmeg oil, or mustard oil.
When in doubt, sesame oil will be a crowd favorite; balm for the foot and the soul.
- Beginning with your right foot, gently rub oil in small circular motions from the ankle to the toes; then from the ankle to the heels. Gently rub oil in small circular motions on the soles of the feet.
- Next, press your thumb on the place where the shin meets the top of your foot. Gently, slowly, drag your thumb across the top of your foot to the big toe. Return to the ankle and in the same way drag your thumb toward the second toe. Repeat this motion from the ankle to the third, fourth, and fifth toes. This improves circulation and activates important marma points (a marma point is a junction on the body where two or more types of tissue meet, such as muscles, veins, ligaments, bones or joints on the feet, and they are “vital” areas of the body – they are energy points used for healing).
- Then cross your right ankle over your left knee and cup the side of your right heel in your left hand. Place your right hand on the top of the foot, lace your fingers between your toes, and push the foot inward, outward, and then in a circular motion.
- With your right thumb, apply pressure from the big toe to the heel along the inner border of the foot. Then drag your thumb from the root of your fifth toe to the heel. Make a fist with your right hand and press it against the foot, working it along the sole in a circular motion to activate a variety of energy points.
- Slowly pull each toe away from the foot, as though you are “popping” the joint, to remove stress.
- Then repeat the entire massage on your left foot.
- When you’re finished, soak your feet for five to ten minutes in a bucket filled halfway to the top with warm water and one teaspoon of salt to draw the stress and toxins out of your feet.
For a vata imbalance, concentrate on the soles of the feet. This will calm one down quickly and facilitate a good sleep. Same for pitta imbalance – rub them soles. For a kapha imbalance, especially congestion or a cold, rub on your soles near the cushion at the root of the toes.
Word of Caution: Oiled feet are slippery! If we fall and break our tails, the foot massage will probably be rather moot. Be careful; designate some socks as the oil socks, and put ’em on before getting up. The socks will come in handy to keep your sheets clean and unadorned with oil.