If you've taken one of my foot clinics, walking clinics, or my yoga classes, you've heard me suggest walking on different surfaces. Get off the hard, flat, smooth surfaces of tile, sidewalk, etc. and walk in the grass, over rocks, in sand. I suggest this for the purpose of increasing foot strength and foot mobility, and for waking up muscles in the legs that don't get used that much.
Here's a way to experience this yourself. Go get a blanket and fold it up so it's fairly thick. Place it on the ground and step on it. Now keep stepping your feet. Try turning around, moving from side to side, just keep walking in place. Do this for two minutes. Go on. Do it. I'll wait.
Did you notice how you began to feel muscles in the sides of your legs waking up, possibly even getting fatigued? Maybe you felt it up near your hips or in your butt. By walking on the blanket, the surface under your feet was less stable. The surface dropped down lower as it received your body weight causing minor adjustments in your feet, ankles, legs, and pelvis. You didn't have to think about adjusting. Your body responded to the subtly shifting blanket unconsciously.
By walking on different surfaces, you create better function in all your muscles and joints. Change your terrain to increase your movement. But did you know there are other benefits?
Yesterday, I got a lesson in one of those other benefits. I joined my husband and sister-in-law to walk a 5K in their hometown. As expected, the route was on pavement. At the beginning, I stayed near my peeps and walked in the street. After a while, I could tell my legs and feet were getting tired of the hard asphalt. By then, the crowd had spread out along the route. I was near a grassy field, so I stepped out of the street and walked in the grass. I enjoyed the relief of the softer ground. I got a naturally occurring foot massage as my foot joints got to adapt to the uneven surface below them. And then I recognized that some of my muscles were now getting to rest as different muscles kicked into use.
Rest! It's not just increasing your movement by walking on varied terrain. It's about downtime for the overworked muscles.
We all know the term repetitive stress, but we usually think of it in terms of work environments that force us into over-used movement patterns. We are so accustomed to the unnatural level and smooth surfaces of our environment, we don't think of walking as an area of repetitive stress.
I encourage you to walk on grass or rocks or sand whenever you find some, or walk on folded blankets (try it during a commercial break while watching TV). Wear more flexible shoes so your feet and ankles can do their job of responding to the subtle changes of surface. If your feet are ready for it, try doing it barefoot. And if you are looking to increase your distance when walking, most definitely find other kinds of terrain to walk on. It will allow your tired leg muscles to rest while you build strength and mobility in your underutilized parts.
I love when challenging questions from a student or client push me to explain better what it is I'm teaching.
Case in point: last weekend, my stepdad, Chuck, was asking me about walking. I've been helping him and my mom with their respective gaits. They both turn out their feet when walking (as do the majority of people you see walking around in the US). My stepdad is trying to rebuild strength in the back of his legs and in his butt muscles. By working on realigning his legs and feet, I can help him fire different muscles when walking than the ones he uses with his turned-out gait.
So here comes the question that I was struggling with at the time (I'm paraphrasing):
"If I work on the new gait and get more strength in the back of my legs, will that improve the strength in my walk when I use my more familiar gait?"
My initial response is that this is the wrong question, but that's not an answer, and I know it. He wants to know and I want to explain.
It is true that sometimes I use one pose or movement to build strength to prepare the body for a different pose or movement. But the question here is specifically about walking, not other poses or movements.
When you rotate the leg bones, it necessitates a change in muscle usage. Rotation of any bone will lengthen some muscles and shorten others. Walking with the feet turned out means the shin bones have rotated externally. In order for the knees to track forward, over time the thigh bones have internally rotated. This "turned out shin/turned in thigh" gait means all your leg muscles are affected by bone rotation. The lengthening/shortening of muscles.produced by the rotations of your leg bones creates a particular pattern of movement. There are lots of variations in this gait, but all these rotations of leg bones push and pull on leg muscles such that the back of the leg is not working.
When you walk with feet in proper alignment, then you have the possibility of waking up those back-of-the-leg muscles. (There are many other factors that may need addressing to achieve this such as ankle flexion, hip extension, etc. Not the topic today.)
Back to my stepdad's question: if he learns this new gait, will he have more power in the back of his legs if he returns to his old gait? No. They have nothing to do with each other. And I finally figured out an analogy to explain it.
Chuck is left-handed. Therefore his left hand is stronger, more coordinated, and more agile than his right. If I get him to start using his right hand in ways similar to the ways he uses his left hand, his right hand will develop more strength, more coordination, and more agility than it already has. His left hand will not be any stronger when he goes back to using it. Working on one hand doesn't increase the strength in the other. They are separate entities.
Translation: working on a new gait does not strengthen the initial gait. Chuck is already really good at walking with his feet turned out. His muscles, the ones called upon when the legs bones rotate, work very efficiently that way as he's been walking that way for decades. The muscles that don't work in that familiar gait will not work in that familiar gait, no matter how much he strengthens them in a new gait. Strengthening his right hand won't affect his left hand.*
*Before anyone calls me out, I know there are times when using one hand CAN teach the other hand, so read this analogy as specific to this question about walking.
~ The Management
Are your shoulders tight? If you're like most everyone I know, the answer is yes. We've created an entire culture that asks of us that we hunch forward for a good portion of our lives: over desks, computers, steering wheels. We hunch forward even when it's not necessary (yes, you CAN chop vegetables without hunching over the kitchen counter). This frequently assumed position is detrimental to our shoulder function.
Try swinging your arms in a circle that extends in front, overhead, and behind you without moving your torso. Most of us find our arms don't really make the backward arc of that circle. Instead, the arms travel out to the sides and only slightly to the back. What is hindering that range of motion? Our habitual misalignment of the upper body. The shoulder blades have begun to pull wider apart, no longer lying flat on the back near the spine. They probably sit at an angle as well, making the collar bones curve forward and the look collapsed.
The solution we hear is "Stand up straight." Well, that is the solution, but not the way most of us have interpreted the instruction. Most people will hear those three words of admonition and promptly pinch our shoulders back, thrust the ribs forward, and lift the chest. While that does give the appearance of being vertical, in that the shoulders and head seem to be stacked correctly, it actually doesn't change the problem, it hides it. It even creates a new problem by tightening back muscles at the place where the ribs thrust forward.
So how does one work on aligning this area correctly? You can start with the feet and build up. (I've covered this in the videos Sit Less Move More - Stacking Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) While that has overall importance, sometimes you want something specific for an area. In Eischens Yoga, we call that Transformational Work. Transformational work is done with a partner (I wrote about this some years ago). But there are other ways to work in a pose if you don't have a partner handy. In today's video, I've got three different ways for you to work in Prone Mountain. (If you don't know Prone Mountain, watch this or even this.)
For fun, check your arm swing. Try Prone Mountain a few times using one of the options given. Then try your arm swing again and see if there is any change.
The more time spent countering all that hunching over, the stronger you will get and the easier it will be to actually stand up straight. And when the shoulder blades and upper body get aligned, you just might notice the other benefits of this work such as improved range of shoulder motion, greater ease in breathing, less tension in the neck and shoulders, and regaining some lost height.
Next time you hear someone say, "Stand up straight," don't think "pinch shoulders, thrust ribs." Think "arms back."
Kneeling and squatting.
Two positions that are missing from the movement vocabulary of a lot of people.
There are numerous reasons why either of the above positions might be inaccessible. Your hips and knees could be the problem areas. So could tight leg muscles. But one particular factor is not having enough range of motion at the ankle. I still struggle with this myself. Notice there are two photos of me squatting. One of them shows my heels off the ground. That's how I squat without assistance. The only way I got my heels down for the bottom right photo was by holding on to the couch for balance.
Why the heck are our ankles so stiff? A good part of that stiffness is from the shoes we wear and from how we use our feet. Or rather don't use our feet. Stiff shoes keep your joints from moving to their fullest range of motion. Having the heel higher than the toes (even most "flat" shoes have a heel) shortens muscles that impact mobility. And walking on flat, smooth surfaces prevents us from exploring the variety of movements that the ankle and foot are capable of making. (And yes, injuries can also be implicated here. I did some serious damage to my ankles decades ago.)
"Who cares if I can't squat or kneel?" I hear you ask. "That is what chairs are for." Well, actually, not using all the range of joint mobility humans are designed for turns out to have overall health consequences. It is hard to miss all the headlines proclaiming that sitting is the new cancer. But it isn't actually just sitting that is the problem. It is not moving that is the problem. And the less you move, the less you CAN move. The ability to get down on the floor and back up with ease (the Sit/Rise test) is a predictor of longevity. Squatting in particular has implications for digestive health as well as hip, knee, and ankle health. Healthier joints = healthier you.
Given all the ways we create tight muscles and joints in the feet and ankles, it occurred to me to show you two simple poses that you can do anywhere. One brings extension to the top of the foot while contracting the muscles in the bottom of the foot and the calves. The other contracts the muscles on the top of the foot and the front of the shin while extending those on the bottom of the foot and the calves. Practicing one pose helps the other, as you'll see in the video. (NOTE: Chair pose is not squatting. If you want to add squatting to your world, you will need to strengthen those gluts in addition to loosening up a variety of joints. A whole other blog post coming soon on the subject. Meanwhile, you can check out this for a bit of squatting help.)
Tight muscles are not strong muscles. They limit your mobility, impinge your joints, and when stressed, they tear. Try these two poses. If your ankles and feet are tight, don't hold these for very long. Go gently. I use the word "Painful" in the video, but really I mean tender or intense. If it is painful to do the Top of the Foot Stretch, try the seated modification I mention. Alternate the poses and see how one pose affects the other. Watch your stiff ankles become a bit more flexible.
I hope this will encourage you to keep your body moving. Ankles are as a good a place to start as any other body part. As you have the ability to move more, move more. Use it or lose it is pretty accurate when it comes to your physical abilities. And improved physical ability leads to Healing and Balance.
"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.
[NOTE from the author: I found this blog post still in draft form. I wrote it nearly four years ago. I didn't change a word before setting it to publish today, 8/11/18.]
I had a midwife in Michigan who became a good friend. She once shared with me that with each of her own births, she learned something important that helped her in her care of other birthing women. After going through a particular procedure during her fourth birth, she vowed never to use that procedure again on another woman in labor. Up until then she'd reassured women of its importance and that it wouldn't be too painful. What she learned in her own labor was that it hurt like hell, and it didn't do much to help labor progress at all.
What does this have to do with yoga? And what does it have to do with me and you? After all, I'm not a midwife, nor do I perform medical procedures. But many of my students and clients come to me with injuries or chronic pain. And I experience both injuries and chronic pain myself. And I find my own experiences have much to teach me.
• Sharing an injury creates empathy.
I have had various foot and ankle pain from years of dance injuries. Sciatica was a lingering dance injury, too. My knee hurt from running. I also had the experiences of my two very different childbirths. Each baby sat very differently in my body creating different complaints during pregnancy. One long labor ended with surgery after pushing for three hours. The other went fast and ended with multiple tears. Two giant babies left me with an SI injury that I still deal with once in a while. Each of those trials has given me insight into similar situations that my students go through. I can understand and commiserate and give hope to others enduring what I've also endured. I can provide comfort from having been there, and knowledge of work that helped me, what was recommended that didn't help me but might work for them, and what I have seen help others.
• Not having injuries in common can lead to judgment
Recently, I've been working with more than a few folks with frozen shoulders. It isn't as though I dismissed their complaints, but I admit it always looked to me that if they would just move their arm, it would loosen up. Now, I am the one watching my own shoulder movement rapidly decrease. I've been working like crazy to keep it mobile, but driving and computer work are faster at limiting my movement than the yoga is at battling the issue. Here I am with a frozen shoulder, and no, it doesn't just move and loosen up. And it hurts like hell if I force it. (And sometimes it hurts like hell from some random reactive movement like losing my balance and throwing my arms out to stop a fall.)
This week, I reassured one woman, who insisted that her shoulder wouldn't have gotten so bad if she'd tried harder to move it. No, it may well have run the same course any way and she doesn't need to feel at fault for not doing more. I listen to myself counseling others to be patient with small changes, even as I learn that frozen shoulders without an initial injury often take 12 - 18 months to heal regardless of treatment. Patience, indeed. All my assumptions about what a frozen shoulder meant have disappeared, and I am brought up short that I have helped anyone at all with this given my previous lack of understanding. I can look at the students who have recovered and see hope for my own progress. (And I can ease up a bit on myself, knowing I have helped others and that this will change for me as well.)
• Not having personal experience of an injury can lead to blame
I had a fantastic therapeutic massage today from someone who afterward implied that I brought on my frozen shoulder myself by not maintaining mobility when it started to hurt. He also wanted to know who told me it was frozen, doubting my diagnosis. This person, so very good at his own work, has no idea what I've been doing to battle this issue. He has no idea who I've seen for assessment (which happens to include my family practitioner, a physical therapist, three massage therapists, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and my own work with clients who have this condition). And yet he felt confident in his assertions that it was created by my lack of movement, that it wasn't even really frozen. So you know what else I'm learning to bring to my students and clients? Don't blame the victim. Don't presume to know. I like to think I haven't done that, but I am much more sensitive to the possibility now than I used to be.
• Shared experience isn't really shared
I would also suggest that even having had an injury yourself doesn't mean you can know another's experience of it. I have had vertigo off and on for a few years. An episode for me usually lasts for 20 - 30 seconds at a time, recurring several times a day for a few weeks, and then it resolves back to normal. I don't get nauseated. I can drive and walk and teach. I never understood why someone would need to be home from work for weeks on end. Until this week when I experienced a roller coaster ride in my head that lasted two minutes. It was so severe, I was nauseated for the rest of the morning and mild dizziness remained for most of the next 36 hours. I drove when I shouldn't have since turning my head from one side to the other only increased the spinning effect. A chiropractor visit got me back to functioning. Three days later, my vertigo returned although not as fiercely (no loop-the-loops, just spinning). Nausea returned with it. It seems to have settled down after the massage. Here I thought I knew what vertigo was because I've had it before. But now I have an entirely new perspective.
Every complaint, every injury or pain is like that. We are individuals. Learn from your own experiences and let that inform your teaching. Let those bits and pieces of knowledge gleaned help you empathize with your students, but don't assume they give you complete understanding. We are all specific, with different pain thresholds, different amounts of reserves, different histories, and different experiences even of the same issue.
Personal experience will inform your teaching. Utilize it. But don't let it be your only guide.
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. To truly balance out the upper body, they'd need to open the chest and extend 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.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.