"What are you going to do about shoes this winter?"
That is the question many folks in my classes and online have been discussing in recent weeks. If you live in a milder climate, this is not a big deal as there are numerous minimal shoe options that will get you through a cooler time of year. (Hell, if I still lived in AZ, i'd be stocking up on different colors of Converse and calling it a day.) But if you live in a cold climate, minimal winter shoes and boots present a real challenge.
For those of you who may not know much about minimal shoes, they have specific characteristics:
I wrote an earlier blog post about transitioning to minimal shoes. In it, I listed safe ways to increase your foot strength and mobility. I have a list of minimal shoe companies under Resources. They are mostly ordered online (though Altra running shoes can found in local running stores and at REI, and Merrell makes a zero-drop running shoe you can sometimes find at REI as well).
Winter boots have their own set of specific characteristics:
After spending the better part of the past year barefoot or in minimal shoes, I have really noticed a change in how I use my body. As Fall approached, I tried on my old shoes and boots and cleared out most of them. Even the smallest of heels made me feel how tipped forward I was (and used to be all the time without noticing). They were very stiff or they had high arch supports that no longer were necessary, and in fact prevented my now-mobile feet from being able to move. In short, they now made my feet hurt. They had to go.
I kept my snow boots for now because Minnesota, but the heel (about 3/4" higher than the toe) really bothers me. I can feel how it pulls me out of alignment and away from using the back of my legs and my gluts to stand and walk. But they're warm and they keep my feet dry. And I have to walk the dog all winter so ...
Meanwhile I started looking for minimal boots for winter. (Google it. Lots of stuff comes up.)
At the top of my list are Steger Mukluks. They are made in Ely, MN and are rated to -20 degrees F. They have good grip and are minimal. They are also expensive ($180 - 300) .
Manitobah Mukluks are another good option, truly made for cold temperatures and snow. And right up there for price ($150 - 350).
So are SoftStar Phoenix boots. They meet every requirement for both minimal shoes and good winter boots. And they will set you back $250.
Vivobarefoot has good winterproof boots. Not inexpensive either ($150 - 250). I do know that if your feet are wide, this brand can be tight at the toebox and may not work so well for you.
Camper isn't a minimal shoe brand overall, but their Peu line is. Again, pricey, but stylish, ankle boots. Only one pair that is truly winterproof and, of course, $240.
I am not quite ready to spend money like this on winter boots. I know that these are all incredibly well made, will last several winters, and are really good for my feet and body. But given that I have to order them online, pay for shipping, and hope they work for me, I'm not ready to cough up that kind of money on a pair that may or may not fit..
What to do in the meantime?
For starters, there are many days here that are cold but dry. For those days, I saved up $115 and I bought myself some Lems Boulder Boots. (I think Camper Peu ankle boots would do nicely for this type of use as well.) They are minimal boots that are warm and comfortable with a bit of padding inside. I bought them in canvas, but wish I'd bought the leather pair simply because they'd soften up more with use. (Fair warning, I don't use the top two holes for the laces, nor does my friend, Sue, who wears her Lems for hiking. They are a bit stiff at the top of the shaft and uncomfortable against the back of my leg --- another reason the leather might be nicer.) I wore these boots on a pretty bitter day, 24 degrees and windy, walking over cold ground for a couple miles and my feet stayed toasty. That's saying something since my feet are NEVER warm. I tried a waterproofing spray hoping that would turn them into winter boots, but no go. The seam around the toe still leaked walking several miles through wet grass, and the tread was not very good when I wore them in light snow. They are great boots for colder days, well worth the expense, but not for the snow and slush that's coming my way.
I need new boots, so I'm looking at what is curretnly out there and on sale or not too expensive. The sturdy boots at REI or at the department stores are too stiff for me, and most of them lift up at the toe. (Walk into REI and check out the display wall of hiking and winter boots. All the toes turn up! That is not what feet should do at rest.) I'm the one you see in shoe departments bending and twisting the boots, seeing if the arch support is removable.
What it really comes down to is where am I willing to compromise. I cannot do a heel anymore, and I need warmth and traction. So I am planning to sacrifice flexibility. There are lots of Ugg knock-offs that are flat or nearly flat and have toe room and warmth. They don't curve up at the toe. But they don't bend much at all. Which means I'll be doing a LOT of rolling my foot on a ball this winter.
You might decide a little bit of heel is okay if it gives you flexibility. In which case, lots of calf stretching for you this winter. Just notice what limitation you're creating, and figure out how to move to counter that. And you might choose fashion over function completely. In which case, please roll your feet on a ball, walk on a folded blanket, calf stretch, use toe spreaders, do everything you can to undo the shaping of your foot by the boot you choose.
One last thought to keep in mind, even minimal shoe companies have sales. The sales right now are for shoes, but in January or February, the boots you've been eyeing just might go on sale. (I remember seeing sales on Vivobarefoot boots last Spring, but I was busy getting sandals at the time.)
Here's to the day I can get a really good pair of minimal winter boots. Until then, what am I going to do about shoes this winter? I'm going to do my best. As will you.
When I tell people they need to move more, most people get stuck on how to fit another half-hour run or bike ride into their week. Running, zumba, cycling, swimming, yes, those all count as movement, but they really fit into a smaller category of movement we call exercise. You may love your run or your time on a bike, and yes, exercise is beneficial and feels good, but the ways in which you move your body during exercise are pretty limited. Even in a yoga or dance class, the movements practiced, while certainly more varied than what you do when running or cycling, are only a fraction of what the body can do, only a fraction of what your body needs, and only a fraction of your time spent moving in a day. How you move the other 23 hours matters even more than how often you exercise. (See article The Futility of the Workout-Sit Cycle)
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?
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on yoga, art, parenting, dogs. You know, life.