The feet are a crucial point of foundation in the majority of our yoga postures. Without discernible awareness of our foot connection to the earth, alignment issues can readily cascade through the kinetic chain of joints that interact with our feet.
By mindfully engaging our feet, we can awaken this foundation and bring stability, intelligence, and harmony into the rest of our postures. One such muscle that may facilitate this is the abductor hallucis longus.
The Most Important Foot Muscle
The abductor hallucis longus arises from the medial process of the tuberosity of the calcaneus, from the laciniate ligament, from the plantar aponeurosis, and from the intermuscular septum between it and the flexor digitorium brevis.
The muscle fibres travel along the medial border of the foot to insert on the medial edge of the first phalanx (big toe). Overall, we can visualize this muscle running from the instead edge of the heel to the base of the big toe, and when contracted, it draws the big toe away from the 2nd toe (abduction) and facilitates "toe spread."
The Arch of the Foot
When we engage the abductor hallucis longus and work to abduct the big toe, we can feel the muscular contraction create a supportive bridge into our medial longitudinal arch. This arch, along with the lateral and transverse arches, is a fundamental structure for absorbing shock forces in standing movement patterns (i.e. walking and running).
Sustaining these arches is fundamental also for developing harmonious and purposeful alignment in many of our poses. For example, if the medial arch collapses in Warrior 2, there is a tendency for the forward knee to track inwards, placing imbalances and stress on the knee cap.
The overall structure and support of our arches stems from the combination of bones, ligaments and an array of muscles. The abductor hallucis longus alone is not the primary supportive muscle for the medial arch, but it certainly can enhance the arch’s integrity.
Engaging the Muscle
To learn how to engage the abductor hallicus longus, you can simply start in a seated or standing position like Mountain Pose. Begin with one foot and work to spread the big toe away from the 2nd toe. Once this is achieved, also lightly flex the big toe away from you. Throughout this muscular engagement, take note of the energetic sensation that travels from the base the big toe all the way the inside edge of the heel. Once this energetic ‘connection’ is comfortably and confidently established, visualize areas where this can be readily integrated:
As you settle back into the forward bend, I like to complete the pose with a very slight internal rotation of the upper thighs (to bring more stretch into the inner hamstrings). This internal rotation often carries down into the ankles and feet, thus making some people prone to medial arch collapse. Following the internal thigh rotation, engaging the abductor hallucis longus and toe spread can counter the inner thigh spiral and restore the medial arch.
Inward tracking of the forward knee is a common alignment problem. There are a number of engagement and adjustment techniques (from the hips down the feet) to encourage the knee to flow back into balance and in line with the forward foot.
Contracting the abductor hallucis longus can be an additional application supporting these other alignment cues to help insure that the medial arch retains support and lift, thus assisting with harmony of the forward knee.
As you start playing with toe spreads and targeting the abductor hallucis longus, consider that this is muscle like any other. Ease into engaging this muscle gradually to allow for conditioning and strength adaptations. Explore all the potential applications in standing poses where medial arch support can be enhanced.
Also take advantage of seated poses like Jane Sirsasana (one leg forward bend) and Dandasana (staff pose) where the leg(s) are set forward and the feet and toes are in prime placement to be explored and worked.