I often talk to my classes about taking what your learn on the mat off the mat. This has layers of meaning.
1) Discovering a movement pattern that is leading to/feeding an imbalance.
If you pay attention on the mat, you just might discover habitual movement patterns that are preventing you from recovering from an injury, causing an injury, or are creating an imbalance that may in time cause an injury. This information can be used in your outside of class time. Once you know that you externally rotate one foot, you might well spot that rotation in how you walk or how you stand when you are waiting in a line. And you just might be able to make changes to your physical habits that go beyond what you do in class.
2) Discovering an approach to your practice that may be reflected in other areas of your life.
Do you push hard through pain? Do you constantly readjust your pose? Do you move gradually toward a challenging pose? Do you poo-poo "gentler" work? Do you compare yourself to others? How much do you want to bet that you do that in other aspects of your life? (I personally wouldn't bet against that if I were you.) It's simple: If you are busy watching what everyone else is doing on the mat, you are probably doing the same in other spheres of your life. If you are pushing past your physical limits on the mat, overriding pain warnings, you probably take on too much and neglect your health off the mat as well. It is worth noting your approach in class and seeing where that same approach is showing up in the other arenas.
3) Cultivating self-awareness of one kind fosters self-awareness of other kinds
As you become more honest with yourself on the mat, don't be surprised if that spills over into your entire life. I'm not saying practicing yoga/alignment/movement will solve all your problems. It won't. But becoming clear about a fear you have or a catching a limiting way of talking about yourself can give you opportunities to change what no longer serves you on and off the mat.
Changing what no longer serves you.
That's the whole point of getting on the mat, isn't it?
"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.
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.
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 driven 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.
September. I love this time of year. It always feels like an opportunity to renew and reinvent myself. School starts and with it comes all the new notebooks and pens that still excite me with their promise of a fresh start.
These are quickly followed by Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish High Holidays include a period of 10 days of reflection on the past year. During this time, you are supposed to seek forgiveness from those you have wronged. By becoming aware of how you may have hurt another, acknowledging your part in the difficulties you may have experienced with someone, and asking their pardon, you are repenting in order that your name be inscribed in the Book of Life. And you begin a new year, intent to do better.
My yoga practice is similar, although I do not grant myself one specific period in which to look back at my previous actions. Rather, every time I am on the mat, I am met with the results of my years of dancing in a body that wasn't built to do what I asked of it. I am aware of the multitude of injuries I sustained that have limited my movement or changed it entirely. I cannot remain blind to the truth of my constitution (tight joints, short tendons, poor endurance, poor circulation, short fuse). All of my history is present in every forward fold, every Virabhadrasana, every Savasana.
I look to the repetition of practice and meditation to find peace and understanding and acceptance. You see, reinventing cannot happen without awareness of what you are carrying. Only when you see your habits, your patterns, can you begin to see which ones are still helping you and which ones no longer serve a purpose as you take your next steps. If all I do is mourn my loss of ability to move in a certain way, I am trapped in the past. And if my response is to blame all that dancing and wish I had never done it, well, that is a wish that cannot come true. And honestly, I don't wish I had never danced. Something in me needed that form of expression. Some part of me had to follow that passion and it led me to incredible adventures and an accumulation of friends and experiences that I am so lucky to call my life.
But I cannot move forward toward a more healthy, respectful treatment of my body if I hold on to memories and continue to dishonor my body. I ask its forgiveness as I learn how to move the body I have now. The missing cartilage and bone erosion in my right ankle. The inflexible spine, and tight hips. The sacrum injured during childbirth ... twice.
When driving on a road, if you come upon a lake, you do not drive into it. You leave the car, and find a boat. The car is not suddenly bad, nor is the boat a more superior mode of transportation. One is simply no longer appropriate. This is how I see my practice of learning about my body and figuring out what to use next on the path forward. I cannot blame or long for what got me to this place. I can see my past as something to set aside as I learn new ways of moving on.
The Jewish High Holidays begin this evening with Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year. In this year 5774, I will keep learning on the mat about my personal challenges. But I will take these next ten days to look just as closely at my life off the mat. My interactions with the people in my world. My past behaviors that are no longer necessary in my future. I hope you can find time in your life to just sit with who you are. Honor what has brought you to this place in your life. And be willing to let go to move forward.
Roger Eischens always asked us to figure out what we couldn't feel and then we'd know where the work was. To figure out what I can't feel, I usually have to start by taking inventory of what I can feel: Where is my weight on my feet? Which muscles are engaged? And so on.
The next step, once you recognize that areas of your body aren't being stimulated, is to change the pose to start waking up what's sleeping. Changing the pose is often the hardest aspect of yoga for many students. When we're in a pose, we want to look like the rest of the class, like the teacher, like a magazine photo of somebody else doing that same pose. But if my shoulders lock up and I can't engage my arms in an overly flexible Downward Dog, maybe I need to back out of the pose to where my arms remain engaged and the shoulders don't lock.
And now, ego gets involved. We really want to do what every one else is doing. But the point of yoga is to practice with integrity, using our own imperfect bodies as the medium toward finding balance. Teachers will tell you to listen to yourself, but no one wants to go the wall to have the stability they need to do a more grounded tree pose, not if the rest of the class is standing and balancing in the middle of their mats. I watch students struggle to bend deeper in a fold, even as they have lost all extension of the spine and later tell me their back hurts. Doing what serves your body can be humbling, and humility is not what many people are looking for when they approach the mat.
This idea of looking at yourself closely and critically, and then making the changes you need to make is one of those on-the-mat/off-the-mat yoga teachings. Recently a friend asked me (apropos of my teaching) what I would do if I had five bazillion dollars at my fingertips. I didn't have an answer for her which surprised me. The next day, I heard myself say to a class "Figure out what you can't feel, and you know where the work is." I made what at first seemed like a strange connection to my friend's question. I couldn't answer my friend because I hadn't given that question any thought. I couldn't feel for an answer because I had none. And THAT, dear reader, is where my work is.
I've spent the past two and a half years just trying to create anything resembling a teaching career after uprooting myself (and family) to a new state. Struggling to make ends meet, I took on other work. My husband had a second job. The kids went without most extras, and I was grateful for in-laws who took them school supply shopping or I don't know how we'd have provided that either. Now, with my husband in a better job (no longer jobs), and with my teaching finally picking up to the point that I finally quit my barista job, we have achieved the goal of functioning economically. Not great, but not scrambling from paycheck to paycheck. And I realize I don't have idea one about what the next step will be for my teaching.
But since last Wednesday, I'm bringing it into focus and I know a few things:
• More classes for not much more money isn't the ticket.
• Workshops (local and out-of-state) require serious planning and research, and I now have time to devote to that.
• Teaching teachers is something about which I'm passionate.
• I am way behind the learning curve in using technology to expand my reach.
It is time to change the pose, and I can't approach it like anyone else. I'm not anyone else and I come at this from where I am today, not from where my mentor is, nor where my friends are. It is humbling to recognize where I've fallen behind, where I'm limited. But it gives me direction.
So, Suzanne, if you asked me that today, my answer is still vague, but I know that one thing I'd do with that five bazillion dollars is hire professionals, purchase equipment (laptop with a webcam, lighting), rent studio space or create it at home, all with the purpose of using the internet to teach and reach a wider audience. Another is to commit more resources to my workshops. And lastly, there are numerous avenues where I could be teaching teachers here in MN that I have yet to explore, and I hope to participate in some of them very soon.
It's a start. And a good one.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.