Awareness of Ankle Joints: Sensing Dynamic Relationships

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Ankle Joints, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about sensing dynamic relationships by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also listen to the June 4th telecourse with Debbie Rosas and David Samson.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

As sensation scientists, it's critical for us to research the ankle joints, a part of our anatomy that's in partnership with the feet. No foot works without an ankle joint, so keeping the ankles healthy and well is one of the most important things you can do to have an active life at any age!

Like all joints in the body, ankle joints love movement and space. Any joint's main job is to make moving in a body both easy and functional. If any of your joints become compromised, your whole body and life will too. While you may be able to get by living and moving with a bothersome wrist or shoulder joint, this is not the case when it comes to your ankle joints. Their health and well-being is instrumental to being able to move and live a functional life. So how do we keep our ankles joints healthy?

Take an interest in learning about your ankle joints–their design and purpose. Most of us know more about our cellphones than we know about our bodies. Ankle joints are key to creating powerful, balanced, stable and mobile movement. Their relaxed readiness provides us with a dynamic foundation and base for moving the whole body.

Get to know your ankle joints by moving and sensing them. Pay attention to the pain and pleasure signals you receive. Notice and pay attention to the "voices" of your ankles; they will talk to you. Reduce the impact you place on them by learning to lead with your heel, by shifting body weight, and by using your ankle joint the way it is designed to be used: without forcing and in harmony with your feet.

Joanie Brooks, Nia Trainer, says:

A great way to explore and understand the design and function of a body part is to act as if it's not functioning correctly. Take a moment to act as if your ankles are frozen, and walk through the room. When I do this I feel a bit like Frankenstein, and boy does it make my knees, hips and lower back feel uncomfortable! Now, walk through the room with your ankle joints activated and imagine your ankles are tiny coil springs. Sense the freedom and lightness in your walk, as well as the natural orchestration that transpires between your feet and ankles, and throughout your entire body. 

Our ankles work harmoniously with our feet and legs to provide a dynamic foundation for our entire body, allowing us to move with grace and ease! Your ankle is a small joint about the size of a walnut. By design, it can withstand twice your body weight when you walk and up to eight times your body weight when you run. By acting as a shock absorber that protects you from contact with all types of earthly surfaces, this tiny, sturdy joint supports you throughout your day as you walk, stand, dance, skip and bend.

Let’s examine our ankles. The tibia and fibula, known as your shinbones, and the talus and calcaneus bones of your feet, form your ankle joint. The lower end of your tibia forms the medial malleolus, which is the inside bump of your ankle. Go ahead and touch it! The lower end of your fibula forms the outer bump of your ankle, the lateral malleolus. These two bones make a solid "arch" in which the talus sits, and provides the “hinge-like” up-and-down movement of your ankle joint. The talus sits on the calcaneus, and the connection between these bones allows your foot to roll from side to side. This dynamic relationship among bones also allows you to rotate your ankle in circles.

Ligaments on each side of your ankle provide stability by strapping the outside of the ankle to the inner portion of the ankle. Tendons attach the muscles of your leg to your foot, wrapping around the ankle from the front and from behind, helping to stabilize and mobilize your base.

I am fascinated by the way woodworkers and craftsmen have replicated and used the design of the ankle joint to create stable and study furniture and buildings for thousands of years. The simple and strong design is used when adjoining pieces connect at an angle of 90 degrees. Ankle means angle, and it too is used to create a stable and strong human structure by joining our feet to our legs.

Joanie’s tips for healthy and happy ankles:

  • Walk barefoot as much as you can. This allows your feet and ankles to move in a natural range of motion, and keeps the muscles and ligaments in your ankles strong, flexible and mobile. Plus it just feels good!
  • While sitting at your desk or watching TV, point and flex your toes or circle your ankles. Try to draw your name with your toes. This moves your ankle through different ranges of motion, allowing for a more dynamic use of the surrounding muscles. 
  • When standing in line at the grocery store or while making dinner, stand on one leg, alternating between the left and right leg. In Nia we call this a Cat Stance. This improves coordination and strength of the muscles that support your ankle, and helps prevent ankle spraining. As you are standing, sense your ankles to gain or maintain your balance.
  • Listen to your body. If you experience any ankle pain during your activity, stop or tweak what you are doing. By listening to your body, you are present in the moment and less likely to injure yourself. In Nia we call this awareness!
  • Walk on the balls of your feet as you are doing chores or talking on the phone. This will strengthen the back part of your ankles and your calves. In Nia we call this, "Dancing through life."
  • Take a Nia class. In class we are barefoot and play with eight foot moves that condition our ankles. In Nia we call this joy!

Resources: eOrthopod, The Nia Technique, Wikipedia.

Julie Wylie, Nia Trainer, says:

Navigating life’s twists and turns, for me, begins with navigating the hills and valleys of Charlotte, NC. It’s fall of 2008, I’m three days into an exciting, ten-day Nia training, and my knees are “killing” me. How could this be? Awakening on day four, consciously preparing to wait patiently for an answer, I ask my body: “Knees, what do you need from me to feel better?”

On my way to dinner that night, while ascending a stepped path of smooth river stones, the answer came to me in a wave of pleasure that rushed up my shin bones and fountained as relief at my knees. Aware that I’d just pushed off the ball of my foot, I noticed the front of my ankle hung wide open, like a gaping mouth. As a result, my entire lower leg felt loose, relaxed and pain-free as it prepared to take the next step up.

So how does the ankle function in relationship to its available potential? Imagine holding the long ends of a gate hinge at a right angle to each other, as if one piece of metal represented your foot and the other your lower leg. Moving the foot away from the lower leg opens the front of the ankle joint and closes the back of the ankle joint. Moving the foot towards the shin bones opens the back of the ankle joint and closes the front. The ankle joint operates as a hinge.

Joints in general act as space-keepers between bones. Visualize two pencils, each representing a bone, taped end to end with scotch tape that represents ligaments. The space in between functions as a joint. The ankle joint itself is composed of the talus, braced on either side by the two lower leg bones. Andrea Olsen, author of BodyStories, suggests picturing an ice cube swinging between ice tongs. Take this moment to slide your arms down either side of your lower leg toward your ankle. Locate the bony protrusions on the inside and outside of your ankle. Now you are exploring, through touch, the outermost edges of the hinge portion of your ankle joint.

Interestingly, the ankle is also a region that includes the heel bone and several tarsal bones found around the highest points of your foot. Olsen says they "allow [for] circular movement with maximum stability and a minimum of musculature....” Whether on grass or rocks, boats or uncertain terrain, the talus acts as a mediator between several bones, including the inner shin bone and the heel bone. Constantly informing the body for stability, the talus holds space for irregular bone surfaces in the ankle region to move in response to balancing needs.

Research indicates a rise in the number and severity of ankle injuries. According to, approximately 25,000 people in the U.S. injure their ankles daily, and about 1 million people visit emergency rooms each year with ankle injuries like rollovers, twists, fractures and breaks.

For you and the health of your ankles, follow these fun and functional fitness tips:

  • Circle your foot and ankle bones clockwise and counter clockwise to mobilize, relax and lubricate the joint.
  • Buy The Nia Technique and reference chapter four to do the following: 1) Practice Squish Walk to improve strength and flexibility 2) Practice Duck Walk to improve your ability to stop and start in a stress-free way and 3) Practice Rock Around The Clock to improve agility regardless of locomotion speed.
  • Finally, slip your arm bones back down your leg bones to the point where you began the exploration of your ankles. Massage the soft tissues of your ankle region. Pay homage to your talus as a cornerstone that waits to give rise to your magnificence while simultaneously resides as the pinnacle of your foundation.

Resources: Some details for this article were inspired by and gathered from BodyStories by Andrea Olsen, Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery by Eric Franklin, and The Nia Technique by Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas.

Jill Factor, Nia Trainer, says:

Last month's continuing education article featured the amazing anatomy of the feet. As Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas says, “No other part of the body touches the earth throughout the day like the feet do. One of the most sensitive parts of the body, our feet are not only designed to support us from the ground up, but also to speak to us through the voice of sensation to help us move safely, comfortably and efficiently. Feet create a foundation for your whole body. When your feet are healthy, you have a base you can count on to do everything you want to do. With a solid base beneath you, you can relax, let loose, and move and live more fully.”

Have you ever considered what gives the foot its ability to move safely, comfortably and efficiently? What supports freedom, relaxation and the sensation of ease in the foot? Well, the foot never works alone; it is always supported by its partner, the ankle joint. The ankle joint is where the foot and leg meet. It is made up of the ends of your two shinbones, the tibia, the fibula and the talus (which is the largest bone in the foot). The ligaments and muscular attachments that connect the bones of the tibia and fibula to the bones of your feet give the ankle its stability. The joint surface of all bones in the ankle are covered with articular cartilage, which is a flexible, connective tissue. This type of cartilage is not as hard and rigid as bone yet is stiffer and less flexible than muscle.

There are four basic ankle joint movements. Plantar flexion is when the toes are pointed forward. Dorsi flexion is when the toes are lifted upward off the ground. Inversion is when the toes are pointed inward and eversion is when the toes are pointed outward. The ankle joint allows the foot to circle, flex, rise and extend. The ankle joint also absorbs shock and allows the foot to lead with the heel and to rise onto the ball (the padding right below the toes). The ankle joint allows the foot to stand, walk, run and dance. The ankle joint is as vital to the foot as the wrist is to the hand.

Nia invites you to be a sensation scientist, to become aware of the voices of the body, which are sensations of pleasure and pain. This type of awareness increases your body literacy and Senory IQ, giving you the widsom to make smart choices for your body. 

So when students come to take a Nia class, it's the perfect opportunity for me to guide them to look at the design of their bodies–the way their feet and ankles are designed to move. We experiment with walking on the whole foot, the edge of the foot and the ball of the foot. I notice when I walk on my whole foot, my body senses tension in my knees, hips and spine. Energy stops right below my feet, and my walk feels more like a march. If I allow my heal to lead the step instead, I feel a sense of ease through my whole body as I roll through the arch, toward my toes. I sense energy moving from below, support from behind, and a sense of being guided foward. When I practice Heal Lead, I am honoring the design of my body and the partnership of my foot and ankle.

Ways you can nuture a healthy and collaborative relationship between your foot and the ankle joint:

  • Lay on your back with your feet to the sky. Imagine your big toe as a writing instrument, and use your right ankle and then your left ankle to trace the letters of the alphabet from A-Z. Then use both ankles at the same time.
  • Keep your ankles pliable and strong by rising up onto the balls of your feet, as if reaching for a high shelf. Then slowly lower your heels down. Repeat this exercise 10 times each day by integrating it into your daily life (like when you brush your teeth).
  • Practice the following Nia moves: Duck Walk, Squish Walk, Toes In, Toes Out and Toes Parallel.
  • Rub your feet and ankles to improve circulation.
  • Rumble, hop, squat, jump and allow your feet to shake and flop.
  • Spend time barefoot. Pay attention to the voice of sensation. Create a relationship with your foot and ankle. Allow that knowlege to guide your every step.