I've been talking to my classes (and anyone else who gets me started) about minimal shoes. The more I learn about alignment and its relationship to overall health, the more I return to the feet and how important it is that feet be strong and mobile. Foot health is not a new topic for me. I've been getting classes and clients to roll their feet on super balls for about 15 years. I've been talking about the problems with flip-flops for at least that long as well. Recently, I've learned more about shoes that are designed for optimal foot health. They're call minimal shoes, and yes, you should want them.
BUT you may not be ready for them yet. Consider this a primer on what a minimal shoes are and how to transition toward them.
First of all, what are minimal shoes?
Minimal shoes meet certain criteria:
So many people tell me they need stiffer shoes or better arch support because their feet hurt without them. I thought the same thing. I gave up my beloved Converse years ago assuming I was just too old, that my feet needed more support as I aged. The truth is, like any other body part, if you don't use your feet to their fullest, they weaken. Feet have 33 joints in them (each). Yet our stiff shoes and flat, level walking surfaces mean we use very few of those joints. As feet get more mobile, the muscles and bones work as they should to support themselves. The arch no longer needs help to maintain itself. Depending on the kinds of shoes you've been wearing and how old you are, re-developing this mobility can take months or years. I gave up high heels years ago and have spent quite a bit of my time barefoot every day for most of my life. It took me about six months to make the transition. My feet no longer hurt wearing Converse (yay!) and I have minimal shoes that I love, that I can walk miles in. If you've been in stiff-soled shoes with a heel, if you spend most of your time walking on hard tile floors, this transition might take much longer.
All my talk of minimal shoes needs some qualification and some explanation as to how you begin transitioning. Don't go out and buy the most minimal shoe right away. Don't buy anything new for now. And don't try everything at once. Make one change that you can live with. When you're ready, try another. The following are some of the easiest ways to start:
If you are starting to think about making changes for your feet (which I highly encourage that you do), please go gently. Contact me for movements and exercises that you can add into your day. Those feet you've been standing and walking on need time to relearn their natural state. You may not have enough pads left in your feet to go to the thinnest soles. You may have nerve damage or conditions such as diabetes that will always require a bit more cushion. You may work or live where there is no choice but to be on hard, flat surfaces. (Trust me, you'll want more padding if you live in NYC.)
Without buying any new shoes, you can start making better choices for your feet. Check out your closet and see what you've been wearing and if you have better options. (You probably do.) If you do start buying new shoes, have fun. As a shoe-loving woman myself, it hasn't been easy parting with some of my favorite (unhealthy) shoes. But now, I have a whole new set of criteria. And a good reason to get new shoes. Next time you see me, check out my cool minimal shoes. They're pretty much all I wear. My whole body is happy.
Think of it this way: you're not transitioning to minimal shoes, you're transitioning to healthier, stronger feet.
Note 1: I link to several minimal shoe companies on the Resources page on this website. I personally have Otz and Unshoes now, to go with my Converse. EarthRunners, Softstar, and Lems are on my wishlist.
Note 2: For information on how feet impact your overall health, you'll just have to wait for the next blog post.
Yeah, those are my feet. That's my pale MN skin. Those are my toes, slightly arthritic from too many years of dancing in high heels. Not to mention living in cowboy boots for most of my 20s. What is it I'm doing here? I'm trying to restore movement to my feet, walking on a sandbag, and then going up on my toes while adjusting to the sand shifting under my feet. Can this really make a difference? Um ... yes, it can. We spend so much of our time in shoes that restrict movement in our feet, walking on artificially flat surfaces, our bodies have lost some of their natural ability to function. (See arthritic toes.) Much of what we consider normal physical responses to aging (tighter joints, loss of height, loss of mobility) isn't actually natural. These losses have more to do with how we use (or don't use) our bodies daily.
[Abrupt segue here. Stay with me.]
You might have noticed that the name on my website, FaceBook page, and Instagram account have all changed to Healing and Balance. No longer Yoga for Healing and Balance. I spent much time deliberating about this. I'm not going to stop teaching yoga by any means. But I am currently studying the body and gaining a new, deeper understanding of how important other kinds of movement are for our overall health. I am finding myself happily encouraged as the teachings I have shared for two decades are affirmed by folks who know more waaaay more than I do about biomechanics and natural movement. I am also discovering that what I have been teaching is so much more than simply bones and muscles and joints, oh my. Healing and Balance feels all-encompassing and more appropriate for where my current studies are taking me.
I'm doing a good bit of educating myself in this new arena and I cannot wait to be able to share it widely. For now, I am trying to practice what I'm learning, understand it both physically and intellectually. I am watching my own body change and, in turn, watching my ideas about what I need for my health change as well.
In the meantime, while my brain is happily exploding, go fold up a blanket if you don't have a sandbag. Walk on it in your bare feet. Move your toes. Try balancing there. Move around for a few minutes up there. You could even follow along on this low-quality video of mine. Then stand on the floor and notice how your feet feel.
Change is good.
I've been talking to my classes and workshops a lot about this idea that we feed our imbalances. This is not a new concept. I first heard Roger Eischens talk about it in 1998. It comes up again and again. I know I've talked about it before. Repeatedly. But when you're ready to hear something, it doesn't matter how many times it has been said before.
So here I am with many, many students asking me what I mean by "we feed our imbalances" whenever I bring it up lately.
You recognize this truth in other aspects of life more easily. If you have an addiction, you will feed the addiction (addiction being an imbalance taken to its most dangerous and extreme). An alcoholic will crave more alcohol. A less dangerous example, but still unhealthy: if you crave sugar, you will eat more sugar which will set you up for a blood sugar crash which you will want to fix by eating more sugar. Feeding the imbalance. Literally.
The easiest physical example of this is when a student wants to "stretch out" their tight shoulders. Most folks with tight shoulders will then reach their arms forward, rounding their upper back and pulling their shoulder blades apart. That is an exaggeration of the shape of their upper back is already in from hunching forward over desks, computers, in cars, etc. Or they'll pull one arm across their chest using the other arm for leverage. Given that most folks already have shoulder blades that are pulled too wide apart across the back, this only takes the upper back further out of balance. o truly balance out the upper body, they'd need to open the collar bones, reaching their arms behind them. But on the rare occasion when I see someone actually do that, they immediately follow it with a stretching forward motion. Because leaving the chest open is so unfamiliar, they will return themselves to their imbalance. They feed the imbalance.
We choose yoga poses to practice on the mat based on how familiar they feel in the body. Most of us pick the poses and the practice that is easiest, the things we already can do. Not that anyone should hurt themselves, but in order to bring balance in to the body, you have to wake up that which is asleep. You have to get out of the familiar. And then try to stay in that new and unfamiliar place.
There are a multitude of examples of feeding the imbalance in your practice on the mat. If you feel unsteady, do you choose a narrower stance rather than a wider one in Wide Angle Forward Fold (Prasaritta Padotanasana)? Placing the feet wider actually makes it easier to balance. Flying through poses in a vinyasa class mimics a life lived from appointment to meeting to meeting to appointment. Finding it hard to get moving and then choosing to only practice a very slow yoga practice hardly puts you out of your comfort zone.
Again, I don't recommend throwing yourself into a practice for which you're not prepared. A very busy, quick-moving person needs to work toward slowing down gradually, adding a few more held poses here and there and learning to find peace in that stillness. The slow mover shouldn't force themselves into a hot vinyasa class but should add a few postures with briefer holding, more movement a bit at a time. And of course, pushing yourself into poses you're not ready for can cause injury. You have to figure out what muscles are overworked and slowly build strength in the muscles that haven't been working. And waking up those under-utilized muscles will be work.
So, allowing for any safety qualifier, are you feeding your imbalance?
Are you only doing what you already do?
When you find yourself in unfamiliar territory do you quickly "right yourself" putting yourself back into your comfortable imbalanced form?
This is how you work toward balance in your body and in your life. Our culture may say to find out what you do best and do more of it. But if you want balance, you need to start waking up the other parts of yourself.
I've been practicing yoga regularly since 1990. I started teaching it in 1996. All that experience leads folks to think I'm somehow more evolved, more flexible, calmer, stronger, healthier than everyone else. An enormous number of those assumptions come to me by way of the words: "You must be ..." Once in a while, it starts with "I bet you can ..." or "I bet you never ...," but it's the same misconception about yoga teachers being above mere mortals. At least this yoga teacher. I'd like to set the record straight.
1) You must practice a lot.
Actually, once you start teaching, finding time to practice gets harder. Teaching class is NOT the same as practicing yoga. Add my family (husband, two children, a dog, four turtles) to teaching yoga for a living, and my daily yoga practice might be noticing how my feet hit the ground as I walk the dog, or watching if/how I'm breathing while making dinner, or paying attention to the volleyball game/swim meet/ultimate frisbee game I've just driven a child to. I count a week where I actually get on the mat two or three times to be a banner week. (Since I consider yoga to be more than being on the mat, I do practice a lot. But that's not what most folks mean.)
2) I bet you can do all those fancy arm balances and pretzel poses.
I'm actually not very flexible and mostly work hard in very simple poses. I came to yoga to heal a lot of injuries from a career as a dancer. I had no business being a dancer with the short tendons and tight ligaments I have, and there were lots of injuries. These days I accept my limited mobility (worsened by all that dance I shouldn't have been doing) and I know that sitting in full lotus is in the faaaar distant future, if at all. And that I am not a bad person for not being able to sit that way. I admit I do love me a handstand (nothing fancier though --- my wrists don't bend past 90º), but that ability doesn't make me a better person any more than not sitting in lotus should lower my worth.
3) Your voice is so calming. You must live so peacefully.
When I am teaching class, the goal is to instruct, not aggravate. It is my job. Ask my children about my voice when I get cut off in traffic. (Yeah, sometimes I wish the offender peace and hope they get wherever they're going safely, but sometimes I yell at the a$$hat.) I do have a temper. Always have. And I have high standards for myself an others. And I have a family with whom I laugh, fight, cheer on, love, get annoyed. I'm certainly calmer than I would have been without 24 years of yoga, but I'm not sure that means I'm calm and peaceful.
4) You must be so relaxed.
Let me return to the husband, two children, dog, four turtles, and full-time teaching schedule. I should explain that teaching full-time means being my own personal assistant: booking workshops, creating marketing materials, maintaining a media presence (this blog, my YouTube channel, FaceBook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn, a newsletter, the constant linking of sites). And because my schedule has odd hours, it is often up to me to do the shopping and cooking and laundry. Yeah, I'm relaxed. All the time. Uh-huh. I'm also sarcastic.
5) You seem so happy. You must never get upset.
I definitely look for the positive and try not to hold on to worries. But I am also human. Living in the present and finding silver linings doesn't mean there is never any suffering. Bad things happen. I try not to add to my own suffering by creating worries and problems. Sometimes I fail miserably and cause grief to myself and others. The yoga practice then becomes forgiving myself and others. It's hard work. And not very happy at times.
6) I bet you never eat junk food. You must be so healthy.
"Healthy" is different for different stages of life. My children were raised early on with home-baked bread, organic everything. But I got through my first pregnancy with a weekly BK Broiler (Burger King no longer makes it). You'd have thought twice about trying to stop me; it was a craving beyond belief. While I'm trying to heal my eczema with a wheat-free/dairy-free diet right now, I consider a sea salt brownie one of the best things ever invented. The freezer is stocked with frozen pizzas for the kids on busy days with practices, meets, concerts, nights when I teach, one parent out of town, etc. Yep, I eat junk sometimes and I feed it to my family, too. Right now, our schedules are so complicated, I just hope everyone gets enough calories. Not healthy, but honest about my limits to provide. It's in our choices that we define healthy. I am trying to balance this better. But I am also working to accept this stage of our lives and know it won't kill us. (Okay, maybe it will contribute to ill health later, but so will arguing over these issues day in and day out. Choices.)
So as you can see, I am pretty much like everyone else. I haven't achieved some level of inner peace beyond the norm. I happen to know more about the workings of the hip joint or shoulder girdle than someone who doesn't teach yoga (or practice medicine). I am aware of my presence and energy in ways I never used to be. And I have some resources for peace and healing that you might not yet know. But, hey, I'm a yoga teacher. I can teach you all about it. And then you, too, can be more aware of just how human you are. And next time someone tells you they teach yoga, don't feel weird about the candy bar in your bag or the argument you didn't handle well. It's a journey. For all of us.
A few weeks back, I responded to a blog about "three exercises to do for back pain relief." There was no information about what kind of back pain would be helped by these exercises. As I read it, it was also clear that some back pain might even be aggravated by this work. So I commented saying as much.
Next thing I knew, I'd been invited to be a guest blogger. My piece was published today by Dr. Stefano Sinicropi, MD, and you can link to it here.
Every once in a while, I am brought so swiftly into the present by a moment. It can be a moment of great joy (a wedding or a birth) or great sadness (the loss of a dear friend). It can be a moment of quiet stillness (the sunrise shimmering over new snow). Or a time of celebration (when my son sets a personal best at a swim meet). But sometimes, it is as simple as a piece of wrought-iron.
Yogadate 2005, Detroit and vicinity
I am stuck in terrible traffic on the way to teach my first class at the Detroit Zen Center in Hamtramck (and yes, I spelled that right). I had really been looking forward to this addition to my schedule, but after having gone 1 mile in 20 minutes, I call the Zen Center to tell them I will not be there to start on time. Should I still come? Or should we cancel? "No, no, come. We'll wait for you."
They've told me not to worry about the time, but it is my FIRST CLASS there and I am not happy about being so late. When I finally arrive, it takes me a while to find parking, and then a while longer to figure out where to enter the grounds. A beautiful, tall wooden fence surrounds the outside of the old building and I find the gate. I am loaded down with a bag of yoga blocks, my mat, my bag, and I am still feeling pressure to somehow turn back the clock since it is now 30 minutes past when class should have begun. I set things down so I can open the gate and BAM!
The gate is framed by wrought-iron and there is a shin-high bar across the opening. I know it is shin-high because I just slammed my shin into it. Much cursing ensues, and I pick up my stuff and start moving slowly into the garden. Who knows what other traps lay in wait for me? I pay close attention as I walk a narrow brick pathway, careful not to snag something on the prickly thorns of the raspberry bushes, making sure I don't accidentally trample a flower or vine. At last, I get to the door.
My cautious walk through the garden has slowed down my racing heart. Yes, they had waited for me. One of the residents, Yasodhara (previously known as Hillary and later to become Myung Ju) with her shaved head and warm radiant smile, greets me and shows me where to put my shoes. She brings me into the beautiful hall where a roomful of buddhists sit on yoga mats. We start class. A very short class, but class nonetheless.
Afterward, I sit with Sunim, the monk who founded the Detroit Zen Center, and Yasodhara, and I retell my story about rushing to get here and then being called to task by that wrought-iron frame. "Once I hit my shin on it, I knew I had to pay attention," I said. Yasodhara laughed and said, "That's what we call it: the Pay Attention Bar."
Yogadate 2104, Minneapolis and environs
I've been rushing around trying to take care of too many people's schedules including my own. Too much schlepping, coordinating, cooking meals that I don't even eat because I cook then leave to teach. My sitting practice has waned with the cold weather and the crazy hours. I don't even have the long meditative walk with the dog because I will freeze if we're outside for more than 4 minutes.
I am heading downstairs to bring Q-tips to the lower level bathroom, and BAM! I find myself on my back several steps down from the landing where I just was. Q-tips are everywhere. My shin is banged and my elbow hurts from smacking the wrought-iron hand rail.
It's the Pay Attention Bar all over again. I have to slow down for the next several days as my aches appear (I puzzle over certain bruised areas, never knowing how I possibly hit my shin). I have to teach differently, and move more gently. And in slowing down, I not only get more accomplished, I become aware of my surroundings and am truly present for more of my day.
I would like to say I live in the moment every day. But for now, that is a goal, not a reality. The experience of slowing down and becoming more aware, well, I could certainly use more of that. I just hope that I don't have to experience bone-against-wrought-iron again anytime soon.
Maybe I can just pay attention ... without the Pay Attention Bar.
Students in yoga classes generally want to succeed. They want to try and do what is being taught. And culturally, we accept that in a group setting, we should do what the group does. But sometimes, trying to do what the group does is not in the best interest of the student or the teacher. Recently, I have discovered folks were holding poses that caused them great discomfort. This is a safety issue that frequently stems from trying to be a good student.
If you are that "good student," if you really want to please the teacher, here are a few thoughts. (Caveat: My Eischens Yoga classes often appeal to those with injury or limitations. I also encourage an informal environment in my classes. Some of the opinions presented here might not be pleasing to a teacher of another kind of class.)
Ways to Please the Teacher Before Class
Ways to Please the Teacher During Class
Ways to Please the Teacher After Class
So the next time, you are in class and you think you shouldn't be in a particular pose, stop doing it. Ask questions. Get help. Find other better ways to work. If a teacher doesn't respect you respecting your limits, find one who does. The annoyed teacher will probably be happy to not have you in class; the teacher who knows how to work with your issues will be glad to have you; and you will happily find your way to better health and self-care.
Your yoga is supposed to be YOUR yoga. So always, always remember, do as the teacher says ... except when you don't.
I hit 5' 6 1/2" sometime in high school. I grew late, with the boys. When I was a performer, we listed height and weight on our resumes. That 1/2" looked clunky on paper so I edged my height upward to 5'7" on paper. It wasn't true but my resume looked cleaner and no one ever put their honest weight either so it seemed minor.
On numerous occasions over the past decade, a student has come in to class after a recent physical and told me that they were 3/4", an inch, even 1 1/2" taller. The common factor for all of these folks was taking Eischens Yoga. Is it possible that yoga made them grow taller? Shoe sizes often change for folks as they begin working unrestricted by shoes or socks, and their foot bones start to spread more fully on the floor. But actual change in height? Why not? Over time, gravity and poor use of the muscles around the joints contributes to the compression of the skeleton, and with it the loss of height we expect with age. The practice of Eischens Yoga asks that we use the muscles in a more balanced way so as to better support the skeleton, and to allow energy to flow through the body. It also creates space between the joints. We see it often in classes after transformation work, someone who is visibly taller or has more space between their head and their shoulders.
I no longer am surprised by these moments in class or by the post-doctor appointment announcement. I love the joy in someone's face and voice as they tell me about their newfound height and that they "haven't been this tall since high school."
I have been pretty proud to retain my height all this time, even as my friends and peers are starting to lose height. I figured that was as good as it got, me not shrinking. Recently, I had my first physical in a couple years. I have been working on the mat over this same period of time on finally getting space between my pelvis and thigh bones. And you know what? I am now officially 5' 7". In my late 40s, I grew half an inch. Maybe that lie on my resume wasn't a lie, but a prophesy?
It seems like I've been saying this a lot lately: "Yoga classes are general. You are specific."
When General Is Good
When you first start doing yoga, you do what the instructor says to the best of your ability because you don't know anything else to do. The poses have great benefits. You've been told it'll be good for you by a magazine article, or a health professional, or a friend or family member who loves yoga. But moving your body in all these new directions is foreign so you trust in the instructor. You put your hands here, lift your leg like this, turn your toes that way, extend your spine. You keep coming back to class and the poses become more familiar. You start to pay attention to your breath. You realize you can balance better. You feel great after getting off the mat. In those first few weeks or months, just moving will have benefit. That is the general part. Yoga asana have general benefits and you begin to experience some of them. This pose is energizing. That one is calming. This one helps me breathe better.
And When It's Not
But saying a particular pose always has benefits is like saying almonds are good for everyone. It is absolutely true that almonds have protein and good fats and are high in calcium. But if you are highly allergic to almonds, they can kill you. That may be a bit extreme, but a yoga pose that is supposed to bring more dynamic energy into your being isn't worth it if it also pinches a nerve in your back each time you do it. This is when it is important to leave off working in a general way and become specific. You need to learn how you are not like everyone else so that you can learn to move more fully within your body.
The Lie of Listening
Yoga instructors tell students to "listen to your body and stop when you need to." Having taught for over 17 years, I can tell you that most people don't have any sense of how to listen to their bodies. It's not their fault. We ignore or numb ourselves to sensations of pain or discomfort for years because, as a culture, we have breathed in the limiting mindset of "No pain, no gain/Suck it up/Push through the difficulty." And now, suddenly, a new yoga student is expected to listen to their body and stop when needed. Riiiiight. When the yoga instructor encourages you to move into a modification of a pose, you're thinking, "Screw that! I'm doing the real pose," not understanding that the modification is not only a real pose, but may be the best pose for you. When he or she says to "come out when you need to," you're holding your breath and thinking, "I. Can. Hold. This."
How on earth are you supposed to learn to listen to yourself?
It Starts With A Question
As you wait for your next class to begin, observe how your body is different from your neighbor on the next mat. I don't mean in the sense of envy or critical comparison. Are you similar in muscular development? Are you the same height, weight, build? Are you comparably limber? Or stiff? Probably not. You also may have injuries that are not in common; life experiences you do not share. When you begin to practice, take stock of a few specific aspects of your body. How tall do you feel? What is your energy level like at the beginning? Is it easy to breathe? As class continues, take a few moments here and there to stop and see if anything you noted at the beginning of class is different. And is that difference a positive or negative change?
It is through self-awareness that you will be able to practice less generally and more specifically. It is in noticing how different parts of the practice affect you that you will begin to cultivate self-awareness.
Permission To Be Specific
This past week, I took a class. An old ankle injury has been bothering me as the weather turned colder. We started in Tadasana. I felt collapsed in my right ankle and in my right hip. I tried the first standing poses which usually feed my legs and make my whole body wake up. Not today, they didn't. So as the class moved into more standing poses, I laid down on my back and starting working in Supine Mountain (Supta Tadasana) and various other supine poses. I created the same actions I would have used had I been able to find them while standing. I wasn't doing the same poses as the class, but I was doing the same work. Every time the class came back to Tadasana, I stood up and joined them. I felt taller and more stable in my right ankle and hip. Every time I tried to join the class in a standing pose, that stability would disappear, and so I would return again to my supine practice. I was able to join the group in Prone work (Cobra, Locust, etc.), but anything up on my feet was depleting.
It has taken me years of experimenting and asking myself questions before, during, and after practice that led me to practice in class that way. I also knew the instructor understood what I was doing was listening to myself. It wasn't about her instruction or the poses she chose to teach. My body needed something else. Something specific. I needed poses that would benefit my specific injuries that specific day.
Look, it is easier to not pay attention to your own needs, and to stay with the group. It is the path of least resistance. We don't want to be the different one in a class. But if doing a yoga pose causes you discomfort, then not attending to that discomfort means you have stopped doing yoga. In our "Just Do It" culture, it takes more strength and courage to NOT do what the group is doing if that pose is going to cause you pain.
You may be new to yoga, but you've lived in your body your whole life. Start paying attention to what poses make your body feel better, which ones help you breathe more deeply, which ones feed your energy. And next time the class goes into that pose that causes you discomfort (or worse, pain), try doing something else. The class is general; YOU are specific.
Click here to read my latest guest medical blog post.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on yoga, art, parenting, dogs. You know, life.