Coming home after a weekend retreat is a good reminder of all the ways it's hard to get on the mat in daily life. Mondays have four clients, two classes, one school pick-up, lots of driving, plus laundry and dog walks. I spent some time tonight after all that with a little wall dancing courtesy of @movementfluency (Instagram) and her #unprops challenge which led me to some flowing, calming, ground work.
A long drive home today, unloading, unpacking, laundry, spending time with my son home from college, meeting one of his best friends, and dinner with my in-laws. I still have work to do to prep for this week and catch up from last week. So my hands are getting to work it out: in the car, sitting and visiting, at dinner, and during computer breaks.
Lots of short videos from colleagues for inspiration led to a lot of ground work. Then a lot of standing poses as prep for teaching two workshops. Last, I gave myself the opportunity to take a class, wherein I realized yet again it's time for me to own the title Master Teacher.
I have been feeling creatively stuck when it comes to getting on my mat, and it has recently prevented me from doing so more often than I care to admit. This morning, I discovered a small figurine of mine was broken. It was a representation of Sarasvati that I had received as a gift. Sarasvati is a the Indian goddess of music, passion, and protector of creative energy. And she was broken. Actually, she was still in one piece but she had come apart from her base and from the beautiful, broken lattice work she sat in front of. I was surprised how sad I was to discover her there, on her back amongst the collection of stones and personal and spiritual tokens I've been given or have collected over the years.
As someone who loves to use metaphor for a doorway into healing, I immediately made the connection to my feeling of being stuck creatively in my body. And here was Sarasvati, broken free of her base. Clearly, it is time for me to break free from a personal movement practice that felt lacking in creativity.
With that in mind, and with a couple suggestions to refine the experience, I am declaring myself on a 40-day movement challenge. I need accountability so I'm declaring it publicly including here on my blog. Every day, for 40 days, I intend to explore on my mat. Sometimes that will be a long practice led by a teacher or movement specialist I follow. Sometimes, it will be an exploration of a body part or a pose or a limitation I'm working through.
What does it mean for you, dear reader?
It means a daily three-sentence blog post. I will share them here on my website, and on Instagram (@healingandbalance). I don't know how that restricted form will color what I share, but I will share it daily from now until November 20th. (There will still be regular, longer format, Deep Thoughts kinds of posts here and there.)
Now that you know the why and wherefore ...
... Day One
Think back to childhood. Remember who you were then. Playtime Yoga!
My children started off their educational lives in a Waldorf school. Educating head, heart, and hands is at the center of everything they do there. Music and rhythm are used to teach math, knitting to teach reading, using the whole body to form letters as they learn the alphabet, reverence for all kinds of transitions and occasions. I'm a big fan. I could go on, but that's not the actual topic of this post.
I recently had a Skype session with my friend, Patty, who, among other things, taught handwork at my children's Waldorf school in Michigan. Our session was about foot health. I mentioned just how many muscles are in the feet (25% of your muscles are below your ankles) and why it's so important to move all those muscles more than we do. Because Patty's always making art with her hands (knitting, felting, sculpting, painting), I mentioned that there about as many muscles from the wrist to the fingers. Fifty percent of your muscles are in your hands and feet!
I then went on to explain how using those muscles more is what pumps blood out of those parts and back to your heart. Yep. It's not your heart vacuuming the blood back up from your extremities. It's muscles being pushed and pulled via movement that presses on the multitude of arterioles, the teeny tiny blood vessels in your muscles. That pressure pushes blood back to the heart. It also helps remove cellular waste from the area. So we're talking lymphatic health AND heart health, all by moving your hand and fingers, feet and toes in more ways.
Patty loved this information because, of course, she knows all kinds of benefits that come from using your hands. Handwork is so important to your mental, spiritual, and physical health. This particular bit of of heart health education was a fun addition to all her knowledge.
You know how if you're doing something that requires long periods of time spent with your hands in one position (typing, chopping, knitting, name your activity), you'll stop and periodically shake your hands out? Moving them deliberately and slowly is a better way to address that stiffness and soreness, and promote healing and balance.
Next time you're at your computer for hours (or working on knitting that sweater or fixing the deck or painting a bedroom), take a movement break. Try holding your hands in front of you, palms up. Slowly, moving all your fingers at the same time, curl your fingers in until you make a fist. Slowly uncurl them and spread the fingers wide. It should take several seconds to curl them in and several seconds to uncurl them. Make sure to keep your hand in line with your wrist; don't bend at the wrist. Repeat this process 5 - 10 times. Turn your hands so the palms face each other and do the same thing 5 - 10 times. Now turn your hands to face palms toward the floor. Repeat the same movement 5 - 10 times. Your fingers, hands and forearms will be warm from the increased muscle use and increased circulation. And I'll bet you'll return to your work for longer than you might have if you'd just stopped to quickly shake out your hands.
I'm including a video I made some time ago that has a couple more ideas for ways to engage your fingers, hands, and forearms. Give it a go.
Do it for your hands.
And for your heart.
In recent years, I've begun teaching more and more about foot health and the problems of most shoes we wear. One of the most common topics of concern is arch support. Whether it's flat feet, high arches, plantar fasciitis, or some other foot malady, "good arch support" seems to be the answer. But what if it's not?
Don't get me wrong, arch supports may be absolutely necessary in your world right now, but they most likely aren't necessary for the long term.
[Note from The Management: I am NOT advocating throwing away your supportive shoes and custom orthotics. Read on for my complete thoughts on the matter.]
If you break your foot, you will likely have it put in a cast. The cast is there to keep your foot immobilized while the bones heal. When your foot has healed and the cast is removed, your foot will be weak, the muscles atrophied, the joints stiff. Do you therefore put your foot back in a cast because it's weak and stiff? Of course not. You start physical therapy and work to restore mobility and strength to your foot.
Plantar fasciitis, collapsed arches, high arches and the like are certainly not a broken foot, but they can cause considerable pain and they most certainly are accompanied by weak muscles and tight joints. (Just a reminder, there are 33 joints in each foot. THIRTY-THREE! And they need to function fro your feet to be healthy.) Your orthopedist may well recommend "good," stiff, supportive shoes while you are in acute pain. You may be given arch supports to put in your current shoes. Either way, you are putting your foot in a cast. Arch support may not look like the cast you have for a broken foot, but it does the same thing. It splints your foot so the joints and muscles can't move fully while the inflammation goes down and the pain lessens. But once the pain has receded, do you really need to use them for the rest of your life? That is the common answer most orthopedists give: wear these forever; never go barefoot again; never buy shoes without good, solid arch support.
Why do we readily work to regain strength and mobility after wearing a plaster cast or boot, but we don't even consider physical therapy after wearing orthotics or stiff shoes?
(I don't have an answer to that question. I'd love to discuss it with some orthopedists some time.)
Having worked with numerous students and clients over the years, I have watched as feet become stronger doing simple restorative work on a daily basis. I do NOT tell those students to get rid of their arch supports (supportive shoes or orthotics). What happens instead is that over many months of foot restorative work, my students start to notice that the stiff shoes, the external support starts to interfere with the function of the feet. They start to wear the orthotics less or rediscover shoes with less support.
This does not happen quickly.
Let me repeat that: THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN QUICKLY.
I used to wear Converse a lot in my 20s. In my 30s, I started buying "good supportive shoes" and wearing them more often. I gradually found I couldn't wear the Converse anymore without my feet hurting. I thought this was a natural part of aging, needing better support in my shoes. But it was actually the stiff, supportive shoes that were causing the problem. As my feet no longer had to work to support themselves, they stopped being able to.
Two years ago, shortly before I turned 50, I started doing truly restorative work for my feet, their joints, muscles, arches. After about six months, I was back in Converse and could walk several miles in them with no problem. Six months of daily work on feet that weren't in any kind of daily pain, though I did have the occasional bout of plantar fasciitis. Six months for feet that are not in shoes when I teach or when I'm at home. Six months from a pretty strong starting point. Six. Months.
If your starting point is always wearing shoes, always wearing orthotics, already in pain, think well beyond six months. You are looking at a year or more, at a MINIMUM. Wear the orthotics. Wear the shoes you have. But if you really want healthier feet, you need to work to make them stronger and more mobile. You need to do the work BEFORE you change the external support, and for as long as you intend to have healthy feet.
I did a whole series of videos about a year ago called Sit Less Move More Foot Week. (I've linked to the first video in the series. There are four in total.) They are a good resource for general restorative work you can do for your feet. They are also a good source of info about shoes and some of the problems with what we think of as good shoes. If you're truly serious about your foot health (which directly leads to overall health), I'd love to meet with you, in person or online, to help you create a practice for your particular foot issues.
So ... do you need arch supports? If you're using them currently, yes, stick with them. But consider that with better function of your feet, you might not need them forever. Start where you are. Begin to move your feet more as you are able. And in time, those feet will move more for you.
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.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.