Why hold the big toe in yoga poses?

What makes the big toes so special that we're driven to take hold of them? Jennilee investigates...

Holding the big toe in Anantasana Vishnus couch

Although we might not always give them the attention they deserve, our big toes play a big role in our asana practice! They help us balance in standing poses, we keep them engaged and active in seated poses and in some poses they are even our Drishti. But why do we hold them? One possibility could be our meridians... 

Meridians

In traditional Chinese Medicine there are 12 Principal Meridians in the body which Qi (or Chi) flows through, much like Prana flows through our yogic Nadis (energy pathways). 

There are six meridians which begin or end in the hand and run through the arm. Three Yin: lung, heart and pericardium, and 3 Yang: large intestine, small intestine and triple burner.
In the lower body there are another six meridians beginning or ending in the foot and running through the legs (and beyond). Again these are 3 Yin: spleen, kidney and liver, and 3 Yang: stomach, bladder and gallbladder. The liver and spleen meridians both start in the big toe - more on that later!

When a meridian (much like a Nadi) gets blocked or impinged, qi cannot flow, stagnation occurs, and the health of the organ and the human is compromised. Just as adversely, qi can be flowing too fast through a meridian and this also causes the health of the organ and human to suffer. 
Healing modalities such as acupuncture and acupressure unblock and/or regulate the flow of qi by tapping into certain spots along the meridians (acupuncture or acupressure points). Qigong (Chi Gung) is another healing modality for the regulation of qi, using breath, soft movement and meditation to keep the flow of qi at its most optimum.

The two meridians of note when it comes to the big toes are the liver and spleen meridians.

Liver Meridian 

The route of the liver meridian: starts at the inside (lateral) edge of the big toe, runs on top of the foot, front of ankle, inner calf and thigh to pubic area, into the stomach, liver and gallbladder. Eventually, it connects with the lung meridian, the throat, the eyes, and crown of the head. Signs of imbalance in the liver meridian include pain in lower back and abdominal area, mental disturbances. Also, frequent/unreasonable anger and frustration.

Spleen Meridian 

The route of the spleen meridian: starts at the outside (medial) edge of the big toe, inside of the foot, ankle and shin. It runs just in front of the liver meridian up the inner thigh and the enters abdominal cavity, connecting to the spleen and stomach. One branch then goes up chest to throat to tongue, while the other branch connects to the heart meridian in the heart. Signs of Imbalance in the spleen meridian are stomach problems, bloating, and flatulence. Also, frequent/ unreasonable worry and anxiety.

 

The big-toe hold and yoga poses

The liver and spleen meridians both start in the big toe. So when we wrap our thumb and first two fingers around our big toe in postures, we yogis also have the ability to stimulate and balance our spleen and liver meridians.
These poses include Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Big Toe Hold), Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Standing Hand-to-Big-Toe Hold) and Prasarita Padottanasana D (Wide-legged Forward Bend).

Or we can add a big toe hold to poses such as Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) or Anantasana (Vishnu’s Couch) like in the main image.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B

Playing with big toe holds in transitions

One of my favorite dynamic and challenging transitions is the transition between big toe hold in Vasisthasana through Lunge to Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana.

  • Starting off in Vasisthasana holding the right big toe with right thumb and fingers.
  • Exhale, rotate downwards and step the right foot to the top of the mat still holding the big toe, landing in a lunge with the right foot forward.
  • Release the right big toe hold and place your hand on your hip. Press down through that right front foot as you step the left foot forwards and up into Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (leg forward variation) on an inhale. Take hold of the left big toe as you transition into it.
  • Then, an exhale will bring you slowly back down to a standing forward fold. 
  • Release the big toe once the foot is lowered and step the left foot back to a lunge.
  • Plant the left hand down and come onto the outer edge of the left foot to find Vasisthasana once again with the big toe hold (on the right foot) on an inhale. 
  • Repeat this 3-5 times each side (with a smile!)...the last time on each side finding the fullest expression of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (leg to the side).

Explore in class!

Fun with big toe holds - 30 mins / Hatha

Join Jennilee in her recent passion of adding big toe holds to many of her favourite yoga postures. Exploring the energetics of the big toe meridians (liver and spleen) while in these poses with floor and standing postures in this sweet, playful practice.

Yin Yoga classes targeting the meridians

Different Yin Yoga poses also stimulate these meridians. If you are an EkhartYoga member try out these classes from José de Groot. Each one targets a specific meridian pair.

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