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Feet Out or Straight Ahead?

September, 2022

When it comes to foot position, feet parallel is often regarded as the ideal in our present-day culture. Standing with the feet apart, pointing straight ahead, is also seen as the starting point of a normal and healthy gait. Walking then proceeds along two parallel lines, like being on railway tracks. 

Parallel feet standing on road, aerial view
In our culture today, standing with feet pointing straight ahead is regarded as normal, and the best biomechanical option. Unsplash

From a Gokhale Method® perspective, a healthy baseline position for the feet is angled outward 5–15°, or “externally rotated.” Why is there such divergence of opinion—and angle? 

Most people learn and then teach feet straight ahead

Feet straight ahead is the model learned and perpetuated by most professionals who are trained in anatomy, whether they are fitness coaches, yoga teachers, Pilates instructors, physical therapists, podiatrists, family physicians, or surgeons. Training regimens, gait analysis, shoe design, and equipment such as elliptical trainers and step machines are also based on this belief. 

There’s compelling evidence for feet out at an angle 

The Gokhale Method approach to solving back pain and the many other musculoskeletal problems that beset our society is not based on such current assumptions, but on direct observation of biomechanically healthier populations. The Gokhale Method understanding of healthy posture draws on field research among traditional and tribal populations in many parts of the world, where despite differences in culture, age, gender, and occupation, posture remains remarkably consistent—and includes a 5°–15° foot turnout. This same turnout can also be seen in our infants, historical artifacts, and our ancestral images prior to the early twentieth century. 

Woman in Odisha, bare feet outward, close-up from behind 
You can see that the feet of this woman in Odisha, India, angle outward.

Let’s look at some more examples of evidence for feet out. 

Ancestral and antique photographs

Victorian group outside Beauchamp Hotel, UK, mid-nineteenth century, showing foot turnout 
This Victorian photograph decorates a table mat at a country hotel in the UK. The group on the right all clearly show significant external rotation in their legs and feet.

Scottish soldiers, mid-twentieth, showing degrees of foot turnout
These Scottish soldiers from the mid-twentieth century show degrees of foot turnout that would be uncommon today. Pinterest

Contemporary traditional and tribal culture

Indian women in Odisha, India, sweeping the floor, showing foot turnout
These women in tribal Odisha, India, habitually stand and bend with externally rotated legs, which orients the feet outward.


This snippet of video from a market in tribal Odisha, India, shows people walking with feet turned out.

The ancient world

Marble Statue of Serapis, Greece, 2nd Century BCE, showing foot turnout
As ancient Greek statuary became ever more naturalistic, it captured the outward angle of the feet, even lifting one foot to suggest walking or a relaxed, “contrapposto” standing position. Marble Statue of Serapis, from Amorgos, 2nd Century BCE, National Archaeological Museum of Greece, Athens. Wikimedia

Children

Young child standing on beach, showing foot turnout
Children naturally externally rotate their legs from the hip joint, angling the feet out.

Young child carried by father, sitting with pelvis tucked; Young child sitting slumped in stroller, showing feet turned in
Being held in poor positions or sitting in furniture which tucks the pelvis will counter healthy external hip rotation and cause an infant's legs and feet to roll inward.

Extreme outward feet angles

Some dance forms, including those based on traditional posture, have evolved an exaggerated degree of external rotation for artistic effect. Several of the base positions of ballet take natural external rotation to an extreme. Such angles also feature in Indian classical dance. These angles work in people who have been raised with them from early childhood but can be impossible or problematic for modern hips which formed while using Western furniture, including seated toilets. Squatting and sitting cross-legged in childhood encourages healthy hip socket development.

Ballerina, showing foot turnout of 90°, feet close-up
The “first position” in ballet requires considerable external rotation in the hips to turn the feet out at 90 degrees. Wikimedia

Male Indian traditional dancer, showing foot turnout 90°
There are numerous foot gestures in Bharata Natyam, a traditional Indian dance form, which require 90 degrees of outward angle in both feet. Pinterest

Footprints that follow a central line—not parallel tracks

Soft sand is great for capturing footprints, and those of tribal people will clearly show not only the external angle of the feet, but also how the heels touch either side of a central line. John Carter, one of our teachers in the UK, shares a telling tale: 

It was 2010 and I was staying in a beach hotel near a fishing village in southern India. Checking my well-thumbed copy of Esther Gokhale’s book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, it was instantly obvious who had left their footprints in the sand. Local fisherman left kidney bean shaped footprints, with strong indents from the heel and big toe, and landed with the inside of each heel on either side of a central line. Tourist footprints were wider in the center, indicating lower foot arches, and were usually placed along two parallel lines.

I was traveling with my yoga teacher friends and colleagues. We all admired the grace and poise of the locals, how beautifully they stood, walked, bent from the hips, etc. However, this was strikingly different from the posture that my yoga companions had been taught, in line with conventional yoga ideas. I was eager to discuss the differences, but my colleagues, confused by their received wisdom, continued to repeat what they had learned in training, which included sticking with parallel feet. 

Two sets of footprints, Brazil, showing feet out and walking on a central line
Two sets of footprints from Brazil, showing both feet out and walking on a central line. Unsplash

Set of footprints, showing feet straight ahead making parallel tracks
In modern Western culture it is much more common that footprints are straight ahead and run along parallel tracks. Unsplash

Set of boot prints, UK, showing feet out and walking on a central line
A workman stepped in paint… the prints that his boots left on the sidewalk show a healthy angle of turnout, and that he walked on a central line—this combination is relatively rare in industrialized cultures (UK).

Why do feet point straight ahead?

From our anthropological perspective, having feet straight ahead is actually an inward turn from a healthy norm of “external rotation.” This has come about for several reasons:

  • Weakened arches cause the foot to collapse inward (pronation), also rotating the leg inward.
  • Concave “bucket” seating, soft sofas, “sling” style footrests, and other poor furniture all lead to poor posture and a lack of healthy external hip rotation.
  • “Ergonomic” design and anatomical teaching are both based on the false paradigm that feet should be straight ahead.
  • Fashion role models, footwear, clothing, and mistaken ideas about what is healthy perpetuate parallel or even internally rotated feet.

What are the benefits of feet out?

  • Encourages kidney-bean shaped feet with strong arches and healthy function.
  • Brings optimal alignment to the ankle, knee, and hip joints.
  • Facilitates natural pelvic anteversion and a well-supported spine.
  • Facilitates healthy deep bending (hip-hinging) as the pelvis can nestle between the thigh bones.

Workman, Brazil, from behind, feet and legs at outward angle
Feet pointing outward adds stability when maneuvering heavy loads, and, with a wider stance, aligns the legs and hips well for hip-hinging. This man is able to bend deeply to the ground.

If your feet are currently straight ahead, or somewhat internally rotated, and you want to move toward external rotation, we recommend you introduce small degrees of change very gradually to allow the tissues and bones of your feet, legs, and hips time to adjust. We strongly recommend you do this in combination with other postural principles taught in 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, and our Gokhale Method® in-person Foundations and Pop-up courses, and our online Elements course

If you would like guidance on any aspect of your posture, including how best to use your feet, consider scheduling an Initial Consultation, online or in person, with a Gokhale Method teacher.
I’ll also be giving a free online workshop on Thursday September 15, 4:00pm PT, Fix your feet with the Gokhale Method. You can sign up here. I look forward to seeing you there.

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Comments

Great article, I've always felt very uncomfortable trying to do parallel feet.  Another example of outward turned feet in dance is the crab people of Norway  https://youtu.be/I6TJ2VZwvPc :)

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