The Three-Dimensional Foot, Part 3

Pages: 19-22
Year: 2018
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 46 – Nº 1

Volume: 46


Elitism has become a dirty word, and it is a pity. Elitism is reprehensible only when it is snobbish and exclusive. The best sort of elitism tries to expand the élite by encouraging more and more people to join it.”

Richard Dawkins (2015)



This article has three parts. I put them together in one article because they dovetail with each other.

The first section is a general reflection on pain in Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI). I don’t think we can write about foot work without some honest communication about pain.

The second section is a reflection specifically on the foot cramping that can arise when the body – and specifically the feet – change, but now in the context of growing and ethically maintaining a consistent client base. Short version: my exercises aren’t for everybody.

The third section is an addition to my previous lists of specific foot exercises (Boblett 2014, 2015b).



Recovery is not always a painless process, whether in the foot or elsewhere. I have noticed that my best talk-therapists are often the ones who make me squirm. Why is this? We all know about the disconnect between various levels of the human brain. In my other article in this issue (see page 35), I used the brain as an example of how our cobbled-together system of old and new structures can produce conflicts. Our reptilian brains, our limbic systems, and our neocortices all argue with each other. These committee meetings can be contentious. They can break down. Some voices are banished to silence. The process of bringing the whole argument back into consciousness is often – painful.

Same with the foot. I always warn my clients: “What’s the first thing a foot does when it wakes up? Often, it complains!” I confess – this warning is not always effective. Sometimes clients freak out anyway. But most of the time, my clients understand that the emergence of new symptoms isn’t a cause for alarm, but rather that hitherto silent parts of the body are waking up.

Again, why is this? I have written before about a simple difference between the metatarsals of a dog and those of a human: cut in cross-section, the metatarsals of a dog look relatively squared-off; ours are round in cross-section (Boblett 2015a). In other words, our metatarsals are designed to rotate, whereas a dog’s aren’t. But the tissues between our rounded metatarsals are often so fixed and, more important, the nerves so deadened, that a return to healthy rotation can really hurt!

If the client is receptive, and addressing   it verbally at the time seems appropriate, I might use the analogy of a frustrated bureaucrat sitting in a branch office somewhere. For decades, she has submitted reports about a serious problem in her area. Because of some glitch, the head office has ignored her. Finally, she gets a call: “We haven’t heard from you for a long time! How are you?” The caller needn’t be surprised if the worker launches into a tirade: “How am I? You want a @#$%^&* list?!”

I take the time for this (depending on the client and the timing), not just to cover my own derrière, but to reinforce trust with honesty. Prospective clients often ask: “Does Rolfing SI hurt?” I have good success with an honest answer. I express my willingness to vary my touch depending on feedback. But I find that further prevaricating either 1) puts people off, or 2) gets me clients I don’t really want. More important, I take this opportunity to explain pain between sessions as well. But above all, acknowledging pain is a way  of screening out clients who wouldn’t be a good fit.

The necessity of screening clients leads into my next section.

Foot Work and Developing a Client Base

I want to make a point about all my suggestions, previous and future: they aren’t for everyone. I don’t just mean that they aren’t for all clients. They’re not for every Rolfer. Let me explain: my clients’ feet cramp a lot. They cramp during manual work. They cramp during movement exercises. They cramp in my office. They cramp between visits. I can minimize this. I can’t stop it entirely. My own feet cramp as well. Sometimes they cramp when I’m demonstrating exercises. Not exactly good advertising.

Why is this? Like other parts of the body, but perhaps a bit more, our feet are full  of nerves and muscles that don’t know what to do. They are asleep, but they are powerful. Waking up these neural pathways sometimes brings a strong response. It hurts. Worse than the pain, there’s a loss of control. It’s scary.

How do I deal with this? I start with trust. Open communication is part of this. So is managing expectations. But underlying these things is a series of choices on my part, going back to the beginning of my practice fifteen years ago. Ultimately, dealing honestly with foot cramping is about consistency in my own choice of clients, consistency between what I do and the kinds of clients I serve. I urge you to consider this carefully in deciding whether to use many of my ideas in your own practice. Are you prepared to deal with cramping, among many other such issues?

My own clients fit a specific demographic. As my practice matures, my demographic is more restricted, not less. My clients are active, not sedentary. They are educated, very few lacking a baccalaureate. A large percentage of them have advanced degrees. Many are in biotech. Many are health professionals. I always have some nurses, chiropractors, medical doctors, hospital administrators, and biotech entrepreneurs in my pipeline. Some of my clients are professional or semiprofessional athletes. The rest are weekend warriors. Happily for me, there is no shortage of such people in San Diego.

So my focus tends to be on keeping active bodies active. I do not avoid clients in their 80s and 90s; I welcome them. As I enter my mid-sixties, conscious aging is a vested interest of mine. But in my advertising, my networking, even my choice of location,   I focus on some kinds of issues to the conscious exclusion of others. This does not mean that I avoid clients with serious health issues, as long as Rolfing SI is not specifically contraindicated. But even here I must make honest choices based on my own areas of training, or lack thereof. I have worked successfully on mobility issues on clients with polio, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and rheumatoid arthritis. I am less successful with achieving Rolfing SI goals with clients who are also dealing with anorexia, addiction, or sexual trauma.

So I ask you to reflect on this in the context of your own work. Every Rolfer is a specialist. I can’t imagine the difficulty of being the only practitioner in an isolated area. For the rest of us, the option of referring to colleagues is an essential part of ethical practice. Just as there is no shortage of people in San Diego who can benefit from my approach, there is no shortage of Rolfers who can work with issues I know less about.

Specific Exercises

With the above caveats, it’s time to get specific. In previous articles (Boblett 2014, 2015b), I assigned different exercises to different foot typologies. In contrast, the exercises in this article are useful for all foot types, at least in our shoe-wearing culture. But be warned: I would never assign just these exercises to any client. I combine them with other kinds of work.

The first exercise, Evoking Gravity in Foot Work, is more general than most of my exercises, and it has a story behind it. When Ed Maupin first freed my metatarsals in 2003, my first experience in walking was euphoric – but that was in Ed’s carpeted office! Then I took those new feet outside in the real world, and walking around my neighborhood carrying a heavy load of groceries, I suddenly felt as if I’d stepped on a nail. I staggered home and sat down. But wriggling my toes and rotating my ankles only made things worse. Eventually I realized that taking my feet out of gravity would only prolong my suffering. Instead, I slipped off my shoes. They were kung-fu shoes, but they were still too protective for what I had in mind. In my stocking feet,   I went back outside and walked all the way around the block on the pavement. Admittedly, I wasn’t carrying groceries, but gravity quickly soothed my feet, as I somehow intuited it would. It was as if a learning process had to be completed for the cramping in my feet to let go.

Now I do a version of this in my office when clients on the table experience foot-cramping. Sometimes I have them stand up or do gait work, but much more commonly I have them press their soles into the palms of my hands. This doesn’t always work, but often enough it serves as a first-response tool.

The next exercises all have illustrative photos, so for readers’ ease in trying these exercises, I have put the detailed exercise descriptions in the image captions. Here I will give general comments.

Figure 1 shows Namaste with Feet. This exercise has two levels, Basic (steps A and B in the photos), while Advanced adds step C. I never show the Advanced form until the client has mastered the Basic, which I define as holding the pose in step B for a count of forty with at least the big toe and second toe touching. I find that the Basic form of the exercise gets the transverse arch to rotate in a way that I can’t otherwise achieve, while the Advanced is superlative for mobilizing the navicular.

Namaste with Feet is a good guide for future manual work, since it stresses the areas that need work. Get client feedback on where the stretch and/or tension is felt. In the Basic version, various clients have reported tension in gastrocnemius, peroneals, tibiali (both anterior and posterior), navicular, the triangle between the first and second metatarsals, and tissues around the lateral metatarsals.

As clients move into the Advanced version, again, client feedback on the location of tension is important. Stress will often move to the navicular, especially when the navicular is stuck up. Progress in the Advanced exercise is measured in two often contradictory ways. First and more obvious is the amount of movement in the arc of plantar-flexing and pointing. But second – and less easy to keep track of – is the number of toes that remain in contact. I am willing to see a client explore both kinds of progress, but I prefer not to see the arc of movement dominate the sensation of toes touching.

Figure 1: Namaste with Feet. Start with the Basic version, which is steps A and B only.

A – The client lies supine, heels hanging off the edge of the table. It is important that the feet do not hang off too far, as there’s considerable extra work involved in keeping the legs straight when even part of the lower leg is left hanging.

B – The client puts his knees together, with the backs of the knees flat on the table (in clients with strong lateral femoral rotation, this will involve activation of the glute muscles), and no arching of the back. The client then rotates the outer edges of the feet down, and brings the big toes together, as well as the rest of the toes if possible. The goal is to have at least the first and second toes touching and to work up to holding the pose for a count of forty before adding step C, which takes the exercise to the Advanced version.

C (Advanced) – Point and plantar-flex the feet without losing the contact between the first and second toes. It’s important to emphasize that a tiny micromovement with the toes touching is better than a larger movement that pulls the toes apart. Among other things, this will be a chance to wake up sensation in the toe pads, which is often a new idea for clients.

Next, I present two exercises for freeing big toes: Big Toe Up, Other Toes Down (shown in Figure 2) and Big Toe Down, Other Toes Up (shown in Figure 3). Breaking up a monolithic toe box means breaking up the habit of toes to flex or extend as a unit. I have referred to this elsewhere  as ‘the tyranny of the big toe’. I am indebted to Nikki Corona for her help in developing the following two exercises, which I find useful in freeing feet from the illusion that toes must always follow each other.

When I compare these two exercises, I am struck by how different my clients’ feet are in expressing these two movements. Some clients will find the first exercise easy and the second difficult. Some will experience the opposite. Some show opposite patterns in the two feet. How can we use these observations in the assessment of foot patterns? I confess I haven’t tried to figure this out. Try it and tell me.

Figure 2: Big Toe Up, Other Toes Down. This exercise is done in gravity. It is best done on a surface that is not hard, and where there is something for the client to lean on for support. Ask the client to balance on one foot, then extend the big toe and flex the other toes of his other foot and gently presses it into the ‘floor’ surface as shown in the photo. Pain in the toenails is often a problem, which can sometimes be solved with a softer surface. Good measures of success are:

  • how many phalanges of the second and third toes touch the floor, and 2) how little space there is between the juncture of the first two toes and the floor.

Figure 3: Big Toe Down, Other Toes Up. The setup is as with the previous exercise

  • the client stands on one foot, usually leaning on something, and gently presses the other foot into a surface that is not hard. The difference from the previous exercise is that the toe pattern is reversed
  • the big toe is flexed while the other toes are extended. Progress is harder to measure according to the number of phalanges on floor, since a plantar-

flexed big toe very rarely fully plants more than one of its phalanges on the ‘floor’.

  • Here, the second measure is better: the distance from the juncture of the first two toes to the floor

Figure 4: Sidelying Foot Pronation.

A – The client lies on his side with the top leg bent up and the bottom leg straight.

B & C – Keeping the ankle of the extended leg at a 90º angle, the client rotates his toes into pronation, until the big toe touches the table, without plantar flexing the foot (shown in close-up in C). The temptation to point the foot will be strong, but will render the exercise useless.

The final exercise is Sidelying Foot Pronation, which can address stuck-up navicular, stuck-down cuboid, and fibular restrictions. Clients report tension at the navicular, the peroneal nerve, tibialis anterior and posterior, and the head of the fibula. As with the previous exercises, you can learn a lot about where to do manual work from what the client reports about tension.


As with my previous work, I welcome feedback. In this article, I have combined general ideas with specific suggestions in an unprecedented way. If you disagree with my ideas about pain or screening of clients, I hope that it won’t put you off my exercises – provided they fit your client base.

Michael Boblett works in San Diego, California. He has been a Certified Rolfer since 2003 and a Certified Advanced Rolfer since 2008. Michael is a retired Unitarian minister. His advanced degrees (MA, MDiv, and DMin) are from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. At seminary, he focused on the anthropology of religion, with experiential training under Michael Harner, author of The Way of the Shaman. Michael runs marathons and hikes up mountains wearing Vibram® Five Fingers. His website is www.rolfer.biz.


Boblett, M. 2015a Nov. “The Three- Dimensional Animal: Changing Views of Bipedalism and Its Limitations.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 43(3):28-31.

Boblett, M. 2015b Nov. “The Three- Dimensional Foot, Part 2: Evoking Pattern- Consistent Competency.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 43(3):55-57.

Boblett, M. 2014 Dec. “ The Three- Dimensional Foot: The Role of the Toes and Metatarsals in a Typology of Transverse- Arch Rotations.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute® 42(2):33-38.

Dawkins, R. 2015. Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science. NewYork: Transworld Publishers, Ltd.The Three-Dimensional Foot, Part 3[:]

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