Yoga basics class began with seven adults sitting cross-legged on their mats, gently massaging their feet with both hands. It was silent until one woman stopped to let out a long sigh.
“This feels good,” she said. “My feet are so sore!”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” a man said.
I watched a cheerful older woman weave her fingers between her toes. “I feel like a little baby playing with my feet,” she giggled.
In this class, before students rise up and explore standing poses, we ask them to sit down and reconnect with their feet. They press their fingers into the four stabilizing corners of the feet, trace the three arches and explore the myriad of delicate bones, tendons and muscles that work in concert to absorb shock and hold the body upright throughout the day. By taking playful measures to release tension in the feet and toes, many students feel younger and discover—like infants—what it’s like to experience a part of the body in a new way.
Our feet ground us to the earth in a literal way; but when we have a strong connection to the earth, we become more aware of everything with which we co-exist. One could say that yoga students—in seeking union with everything around them—practice barefoot to experience that connection as directly as possible. In class, we also invoke this connection by chanting the Sanskrit mantra lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu, which my teachers have translated to “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to the happiness and to the freedom for all.”
As strongly as they support us, our feet—sensitive and receptive—are often the first parts of the body to experience this profound connection. I think of the times I’ve stood barefoot in the park and felt the cool grass rise between my toes. This sensation results not only in a deeper appreciation of the grass, but of the park—of all parks—and of nature and my ability to connect directly with it in practical and profound ways.
In one of my favorite photographs of my teacher, David Life, we see the bottoms of his feet in close detail as he folds forward in pascimottanasana. His soles are calloused and toughened, which reminds me to consider the feet in another light—perhaps a more virtuous one. The bottoms of the feet represent movement along a path or, more specifically, a spiritual journey. I believe this is why devotees bow to their teachers’ feet, kiss their toes, or sprinkle flower petals on the ground in front of them. The first time I saw this was one July several years ago, when I attended programs celebrating the South Indian saint Amma’s visit to New York. When she entered the room, several of her devotees walked ahead of her, sprinkling rose petals along the walkway.
Many students recognize their teachers as individuals who have traversed long, spiritual distances to realize themselves and share teachings with others. Their feet—imperfect, bare, honest—reflect their journeys.
With the photo of my teacher’s feet in mind, I reflect back on the basics class and realize that we all have the opportunity to go back to the start, to rediscover our foundations and celebrate and honor what our feet do for us—physically and spiritually—as we progress. They ground us. They keep us stable and connected, not only to the earth and all things around us, but to ourselves. They provide the sacred foundation upon which we carry out our lives.
Ever since that day at Amma’s program, I keep a small photo of her in my wallet. The photo doesn’t show her sweet, smiling face, but her two tiny feet covered with small piles of pink rose petals. While her smile will stay forever in my mind, it’s her feet I want to remember: the small, delicate, ever-steady parts of the body that so knowingly uphold us on our paths, especially when we need faith that we started—and we’re still heading—in the right direction.