It’s taken years for me to learn how to spread my toes. What looks like a simple act for most people in my yoga class isn’t simple for me. It has required patience and faith and a kind of stubborn determination that I hadn’t known I possessed to finally push apart the bones, flesh, and nails on the ends of my feet so that my toes could spread.
When I first began practicing yoga, my teacher would ask us to stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and spread our toes as a way of setting a firm foundation. On either side of my mat I would watch other students lift and spread their toes before placing their toes down more firmly into the mat. I could lift my toes. That wasn’t a problem. But spreading my toes was impossible. My little toes simply wouldn’t move in any direction, and my other toes remained stubbornly in place, unwilling to lose contact with each other.
It wasn’t frustrating so much as a minor annoyance. Why couldn’t I be more like the people on the mats next to mine? Why couldn’t my feet be more flexible? Why couldn’t I have been born with toes that moved sideways, not just vertically? I would stare down at my feet and try to send a message to my toes. Move, you guys! C’mon, stop being so stubborn! And I’d wiggle my toes—or I’d try to wiggle them—but only my big toe would wave up and down. The other toes merely sighed and stayed where they were, resting contentedly on the mat.
Year after year I kept trying to spread my toes without much luck. While the spaces between the toes of my friends in yoga class grew wider, the spaces between my toes remained minuscule, microscopic, with barely enough room for a sliver of light to pass. I lifted my toes as instructed in class after class. I tried—I really tried—to spread my toes. But nothing changed. Or at least I couldn’t see any changes.
But changes were taking place without my knowledge. Each time I raised my toes, I unwittingly strengthened muscles that I could neither see nor feel. And then one day, as I lifted and tried to spread my toes, I began to feel something—a twinge of a muscle just above my ankle that extended up my leg, all the way to my knee. I’d never felt that muscle before. And now I could feel it. Had my efforts year after year to spread my toes, even though those efforts had seemed fruitless, led to this twinge, this new-found strength?
In each class we stand in Mountain Pose, and our teacher asks us to set our foundation by lifting and spreading our toes, and I continue to follow his instructions, even though my toes remain reluctant to spread apart. It’s taken years to strengthen the muscles that will help me spread my toes, muscles that I can’t yet feel but which I am sure are there, waiting patiently to be awakened, to blossom into life.
What I’ve come to understand over the years of practicing yoga is that our bodies grow in stages. In time, thanks to our continued patience, faith, and stubborn determination, we learn to use muscles that we didn’t know existed.
And in time our bodies can become more fully who we are meant to be.
Practice Journal: Stand tall in Mountain Pose. Feel your heels and the ball mounds of your feet root into the earth. Lift your toes, and, one by one, spread them apart. Then press each toe firmly into the mat. How does spreading your toes change your pose? How far can you spread your toes? (Does it matter how far you spread them or only that you intend to spread them?) Look down at your toes—and notice the space between your toes—and feel how the muscles in your legs have gained strength. When you’re ready, sit down, open your journal, and begin writing about how spreading your toes—even if you can’t yet spread them—shifted your pose, your attitude, your perspective. Write: 10 min.