Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Smart Feet

How cute are these piggies?
Yoga students are eager to move through poses that strengthen their limbs and core and lengthen their spines in back bends and twists. When it comes to balance poses, usually polite students barely suppress groans.

I get it. For years I dreaded balance poses. It's easier to look graceful and accomplished when cycling through a round of sun salutations or warrior poses than it is to balance, or more precisely, to fall in and out of, Tree pose.

I inherited a tendency for bunions. Wearing cute high heels when I worked book conferences on concrete convention center floors exacerbated the problem. I still remember with fondness the pair that did them in. The were floral print, square-taper pumps from Spain. They were so pretty and stylish, teenaged boys would compliment those shoes. The charm wore off when, after a twelve-hour day on my feet at a book fair in St. Louis, I swear my bunions swelled to twice their size. I've worn sensible shoes ever since.

During yoga teacher training, a stern acharya took one look at my feet and said, "You've got some work to do."  I discovered a gem of an article by Doug Keller that offers great and easy therapy for distressed feet. I did the exercises every day and found that not only were standing poses easier but so were the dreaded balances! Where I had once had "stupid feet,"Keller's exercises had helped intelligence move into my feet. It's a long way from the brain to the feet. Just as the spine lengthens and rejuvenates itself in virtually every yoga pose, messages from the brain to the feet extend their reach when you consciously work on it.

There are 28 bones in the foot. The harmony of the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments holding this miraculous structure together can so easily be disrupted.

Foot work is not just for students who have bunions. The feet take a beating over the course of a lifetime, and we mistreat them with the shoes we wear. So I've incorporated what I call Smart Feet exercises into my teaching. My students' favorite--OK, it's my favorite--is toe raises. You practice lifting only the big toes while keeping the other toes on  the floor. Then you raise only the pinky toes while keeping the others pressed to the ground. The bonus round: simultaneously lifting the big toes and pinkies while keeping the middle toes on the floor! I worked on this last move for a month before I could finally do it.

When you try it, you'll find your fingers wanting to conduct what your feet are doing, and that's fine. The fingers are more flexible, more alive with intelligence, because we use them all the time, and they convey it to the feet. Anatomically, the big toe raise is strengthening the anterior muscles of the foot, and the pinky raises strengthen the lateral sides of the foot. All of it adds up to strengthening the feet and making them more flexible. Most people also pronate and supinate.Working with the feet yogically helps resolve these imbalances in weight dispersal, and thereby improves balance.

The shoes you choose to wear also determine how smart your feet are, as I learned the hard way. At the recommendation of teachers at the ashram, I got a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. They look like toe socks with a thin leather sole. Best $75 I ever spent. My feet sing when I wear them. I balance over my arches better, and utilize the soles of my feet more fully and efficiently. Some hardy souls I know use them to run in. But I've determined that my feet are too far gone to use the Five Fingers for running, despite the rehab I've done. I tried it once, and the left sole of my foot hurt for weeks afterward. I'll stick with my C-width Brooks running shoes.

Try the foot exercises and see for yourself how much more supple your feet are in standing poses and balances. Smart feet are always in fashion.

I may have bunions, but at least I don't have hobbit feet.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


My Grandpa Shellenberger would have loved Rush Limbaugh. He was born on Lincoln's birthday in 1898, in Manhattan, Kansas. Nowadays Kansas State has a few people of color there, but back in my grandpa's day most everyone was white.

We were waiting for our food in a restaurant in Sunnyvale, California, where my grandfather lived. Some people at a table near us were speaking Chinese. At another table people were speaking Spanish. There was a family of African-Americans there. Typical day in the San Francisco Bay area. None of this was lost on my grandfather, who said, "Are we still in the United States of America?"

The day after President Obama's re-election, Rush said, "We're outnumbered." Basically, it's the same world view my grandpa was expressing some thirty years ago. What a bleak, uninspiring way of seeing the world.

These lines from George Harrison's song, "Isn't It a Pity," performed by Eric Clapton, sum it up. "Some things take so long/But how do I explain/When not too many people/Can see we're all the same/And because of all their tears/Their eyes can't hope to see/The beauty that surrounds them/Isn't it a pity." We are all the same. We want to be happy. Safe. Loved. Purposeful. The skin we live in, and its color, is insignificant.

Empirically, Grandpa and Rush are right. Whites in this country are going to be outnumbered by Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, African-Americans and other current minorities. But rather than seeing this as something bad, something we have to build literal and metaphorical walls against, I see it as a good thing. I'm glad I grew up in the multicultural San Francisco area. When I was in second grade, Shernmin Chow taught me to eat rice with chopsticks. To this day, I can pick up every grain, thanks to Shernmin. Also, none of my other friends' parents grew kumquats, loquats and Concord grapes in their back yards.

I look forward to a day when a white woman who voted for Obama twice is unremarkable. I'd vote for him again. Or that I voted for Cory Booker or Julian Castro for president. And not because I'm a child, as Rush insultingly said, who likes Santa Claus because he's a giver of gifts I haven't earned, because I'm one of those "takers" ultraconservatives keep complaining about. I voted for Obama because he's proven over the last four years that he is a man of impeccably good character, who has righted the ship of state at a time when it badly listed in storms of war and financial and institutional malfeasance. He cares about people who can't do anything to help him, and he cares about the people who can. President Obama is a leader. Rush and his ilk are flame throwers, who divides the country into percentage points, takers vs. makers, white vs. black, American vs. immigrant. The reason Romney and the Republicans lost the presidency is not because the people who re-elected the president are greedy little children. They lost because they are more interested in enforcing difference than in finding common ground.