As farmers working the land, we live in tune with the seasons and the natural world. Often we are more aware of sunlight, daylength, temperatures, and weather forecasts than politics or the current community buzz. Responsible for living things, we are attuned to their needs, but how in tune are you with your own body’s needs?
There are 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 ligaments and muscles in our feet. Feet are a miraculous feat (sorry, couldn’t resist) of physical engineering and yet I’ll bet you don’t think about them until they ache or malfunction. I didn’t.
I abused my feet for years, standing on cement floors processing orders for hours, walking over acres of uneven surfaces, squatting and duck walking while transplanting plugs, and driving hundreds of miles without cruise control. Then one evening at the end of a long walking tour in Prague, I got a stinging sensation in my heel. It felt like I had a thorn in my boot but I didn’t, and before we were near our hotel I was limping. Limping!
Fortunately the next day we had a long train ride so I put my feet up and began to research. I’m not a doctor but it was obvious that I was suffering from plantar fasciitis. I got a crash course in “home remedies” before reaching Budapest, then managed the next two weeks taking ibuprofen, avoiding cobblestones, and resting when possible—thank goodness Europe is full of gorgeous spots for espresso/wine/beer/food.
Once home my recovery began with a small fortune in new footwear (sadly, not cute, but functional and supportive) and a regular routine of foot exercises or toe yoga, aka “toe-ga”. I do these exercises at least once a day to keep my feet in shape and pain-free all through our farm season. Last year I went to Warsaw, Poland to spend the Christmas holiday with our daughter and I did the following routine twice daily. I am happy to report that I logged over 80 miles walking to and from cafés, shops, and restaurants, in and out of museums, castles and towers, up mountains of stairs and miles and miles of cobblestones (Seriously, I love Europe, but enough with the cobblestones already).
To prepare for the farming season just around the corner try this routine every day. In these exercises, like all yoga practice, you are looking for sensation. These exercises may feel awkward or uncomfortable and that is okay. If you experience pain, that is not. Pain is the body’s way of telling you to stop immediately. Sensation, especially sensations of stretch, indicates movement and growth, so be aware of your feet as you work through these simple exercises.
Standing barefoot on a hard, even surface (not cobblestones), with feet directly under your hips, lift the toes of your right foot off the floor and then release down, like your toes are waving. Now lift the toes of your left foot and release down. Do twelve repetitions on each side.
Lifting your right heel up, come onto the ball of your right foot, letting your weight shift to your left leg. Release and lower your right foot to the floor. Shifting your weight, lift your left heel, coming onto the ball of your left foot and then release and repeat the lift on the right side. Do twelve repetitions on each side. If your balance is not good you can hold on to the back of a sturdy chair, counter top or table to secure your balance.
Rock and roll
Stand with your weight evenly between both feet, then roll your weight to the outsides, the pinky toe sides, of your feet. Now roll your weight back to the insides, the big toe sides, of your feet. Repeat this movement twelve times, shifting the weight from the center of your feet, to the outsides, back through center and then to the insides of your feet.
This exercise is especially satisfying on a rubber yoga mat but does the same job on a hard surface. Standing with your feet directly under your hips and your weight evenly distributed, pull the toes of both feet towards your heels, as if you were trying to drag something towards you, like a rug, a towel or a yoga mat. You are looking for a sensation in your arches; they will lift slightly as you activate and strengthen the muscles in the arches. Release and repeat twelve times.
Standing again with your weight evenly distributed and your feet hip width apart, lift the toes of both feet. Now touch your big toes to the floor, then the index toes, then the middle toes, then the ring toes and finally the pinky toes. Repeat this twelve times. Then reverse the exercise, lift all the toes, then touch down the pinky toes, the ring toes, the middle toes, the index toes, and finally the big toes. Do this six times.
Building ankle strength
Walking in and between rows in uneven soil conditions can be taxing. I am always leery about twisting an ankle, especially when carrying a load of sunflowers that throws off my center of gravity or when hauling massive bundles of grass that obscure my sight. To ensure strength in my ankles and surety of footing I do the following exercises.
You will need a chair, a towel and a hard, even floor. Sitting comfortably in the chair, lay a towel lengthwise on the flooring front of your right foot. Now just reach out with the toes of your right foot and pull the towel towards you, using much the same movement used in the arch stretch exercises above. Keep repeating this movement until you have pulled the entire length of towel to you. Repeat five times with each foot.
For the next exercise lay the towel out perpendicular on the right side of your right foot. With your heel on the floor, pivot your foot to the towel, grab it with your toes and drag it as your pivot your foot back to center. Repeat this movement until you have pulled the length of the towel to you. Repeat five times with each foot, moving the towel to the left side when switching to your left foot. When this exercise is easily accomplished you can add a weight, like a heavy book or a can of soup, to the end of the towel, creating drag.
At the very least you should warm up and open your joints before heading out for a long day of farming. As you sit to lace up your boots, extend your feet, rest your heels on the floor, and lifting your toes, clench and unclench them several times. Now point and flex your feet five or six times and then rotate your ankles half a dozen times, clockwise and counterclockwise. Making these simple movements warms the muscles in your feet, lubricates the joints, and moves fluid that accumulates during sleep and inactivity.