On the Edge of a Hurricane

The bamboo is swaying, the rain is blowing sideways and the soaking wet chickens look like a new hybrid species as their feathers are matted to their skin. It’s a wild, bold and beautiful day. The air vibrates with excitement and possibilities. I feel I could stand still and breathe forever. Right now, living on the edge of a hurricane, I am wishing this day would never end.

I have never lived in the tropics before, so this is my first hurricane. Tornadoes and earthquakes are old friends, but hurricanes are new. I know of them only from the stories of the devastation and suffering that they have caused. I am fortunate. The island of Hawaii, more commonly known as the Big Island, has experienced torrential rainfall and flooding, but here in Maui it is merely a big storm.

As I sit in the safety of my covered lanai, my heart goes out to all those who have suffered from the destructive force of a hurricane. But for a few shifts in the winds, I could be experiencing the same thing.

Inhaling the fresh air, mesmerized by the swaying branches, I am reminded of the multifaceted Hebrew word yir’ah. Usually translated as ‘fear,’ this word appears often in the Bible in the phrase yir’at adonai; the fear of God. However, this quick translation does not do it justice. Yir’ah also incorporates a sense of wonder, awe and reverence. It has a depth that I find easier to feel than to define. My teacher, Rabbi David J. Cooper describes yir’ah as, “the intensity we feel when we encounter something of power, and when we fully appreciate the power before us.”*

Being on the edge of this hurricane is definitely a yir’ah moment. It is like standing on the precipice of existence; feeling the vitality of life while being acutely aware of being close to the edge of death. It lasts for a flash and at the same time continues forever.

As I watch yet another squall of driving rain, I ponder the theme of my blog series – “Reflections on Life and Movement.” I am asking myself: When have I experienced yir’ah through movement? I’m not particularly inclined toward extreme physical activities. I’ve never had the desire to bungee jump or free climb. My most vivid memory of yir’ah is from a soccer game with two of my closest friends; a few perfect passes led to a glorious goal where time stood still. I’ve also entered into yir’ah while hiking in Yosemite and singing as part of the Oakland Interfaith Community Choir.

These experiences were all exhilarating but I’d like to share with you one that seems to be an outlier. It occurred in the seated forward bend, Janu Sirsasana. In this pose one folds the torso over a straight leg while the other leg is folded to the side. This position is generally considered to be calming and restorative.

I was practicing this pose on a humid summer evening on the rickety floors of the old Piedmont Yoga Studio. I exhaled fully and my body folded more deeply than ever before. As I felt my heart beat on my thighs, I began to feel as if I were on the precipice of something new, scary and wonderful; a sensation of yir’ah. I felt my body illuminate. It was exhilarating to fold deeper and deeper into the pose. I stopped to listen. I could hear a voice saying, “Test the limits of your flexibility, go further, go deeper; the answers are just a little bit yonder.” I heard another hear voice saying “Don’t go further. Stop right now. It’s dangerous; you might cause yourself harm.”**

I chose to set those voices aside and listen to my breath. I trusted its wisdom. My breath told me to slow down, to spend more time with the exhalation, to observe and just be with the EXPERIENCE of yir’ah. I didn’t need anything else. I ended the practice with a restful savasana. I don’t remember anything particularly extraordinary happening. after that. I think I went home and returned to my routine the next day. However, whenever I visualize myself in that MOMENT, I still feel—in every cell of my body—a sensation of radical amazement.

Today hurricane’s wind feels like the breath of the world. I don’t have control over its breath; I just need to let it flow. I can feel its freshness brush against my skin as I watch the bamboo being whipped side to side. It appears Maui will be safe. The eye of the hurricane will stay west. Sitting safely on my lanai, I have great reverence for the forces of the natural world and look forward to an evening of experiencing the wonder, awe and joy of feeling fully alive.

*Click here for more about Yir’ah by Rabbi David J. Cooper.

**Note: I remember reading a scientific study that suggested that the high people feel from deep stretching is actually a protective response to acute trauma. According to this theory, going into a deep stretch causes tissue tears that lead to an immediate release of adrenaline. This adrenaline release is a mechanism that masks pain so we can quickly flee from a dangerous situation. In a yoga class, instead of directing this protective response to our chance at escape, we experience this spark of energy as momentary euphoria.

Active Challenge or Passive Burden

After spending the day exploring Vancouver in the freezing cold rain, I was so happy to finally be ensconced in a warm and cozy bed. I wiggled my warm toes, exhaled, closed my eyes and smiled in anticipation of good sleep Then I heard it – taP tAP TAP! I rolled over and grumbled. It was already 1:00am. I was exhausted. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need to get up and deal with noise because I was so tired that the sound wouldn’t bother me. I kept trying to convince myself of this through the rest of my fitful night of sleep.

When I woke up the next morning, it was still pouring rain. The tapping sound was driving me crazy. Earplugs would not make a difference. I searched the room for a leak and realized that the irksome tapping sound was coming from outside. I decided to take action. I put on my rubber boots, hat and raincoat and slogged through the rain. I discovered that the roof had no awning and the tapping sound that had kept me up all night was the result of water falling on the edge of an air conditioner that was sticking out of the wall. I trudged back to the room, got some towels and placed them strategically on the air conditioner to dampen the sounds. I thought I had solved the problem and left for the day.

Hours later, I returned exhausted and wet after a another full day in the freezing rain. Once again, I climbed into bed, so happy to be cozy and warm. But then I heard it again taP tAP TAP! I clenched my teeth and growled with frustration.

Even though I was exhausted, I knew I had to get out of bed and do something. I couldn’t handle another fitful night of sleep. I trudged back outside and put out more towels but to my chagrin, it didn’t work. I called the front desk. There was nothing they could do except give me an upstairs room. I squeezed my eye shut and rubbed my temples. What a pain it would be to drag all my stuff up a long staircase in the pouring rain!

And yet, I knew that if I didn’t face the challenge of acting now and moving all my stuff, I would be faced with the burden of hearing that noise all night long.

It didn’t take long to decide what to do. I packed up all my stuff, put my rubber boots on over my flannel pajama pants and hauled my half-packed bags upstairs. Within minutes, I fell into the bed for a blissful full night of sleep.

I share this prosaic story as a way to exemplify a concept I find helpful when I’m faced with doing something I don’t really want to do. I call it Choosing the Active Challenge or Suffering the Passive Burden.

I find this concept especially valuable when I’m feeling lazy or unmotivated.

It goes like this: We all encounter challenges in our life. Sometimes we are challenged by self-determined goals that we strive to achieve. Other challenges are caused by adversity and difficulty beyond our control. While we may not always have control over what comes our way, more often than not, we can choose how we deal with the situation: We can face a challenge head-on or by default choose to live with the consequences of our avoidance. Deciding not to do something is just as much a choice as deciding to take action.

In some situations, we may not even recognize that we are making a choice because our actions often follow a regular pattern. Whether conscious or not, these choices determine the course of our life.

The first night in Vancouver I chose not to act and was left with the passive burden of being exhausted the next day. That second night, I chose the active challenge by stepping into the momentary discomfort of transferring my belongings in the rain and then reaped the benefits of glorious sleep.

This concept of Active Challenge/Passive Burden can be applied to many aspects of our lives including how we live in and with our bodies. For example, we can make the time and effort to mobilize our different parts or we can live with the frustration of stiff joints. Even if we feel unmotivated, we can make the extra effort to go for a walk as a way to increase blood flow, and thus improve our mood or we can stay slouched in front of a screen for the rest of the evening  We can pay attention to how we move in our daily life or we can live with the aches and pains that could have been alleviated by simple postural tweaks.

Each day we are faced with many opportunities to choose the active challenge or passive burden. Being aware of these choices is a first step toward making decisions that support and sustain and vibrant and full life.

Of Luaus, Chairs and White Bread

In 1778 British Naval Captain James Cook came upon a fascinating and beautiful place that he called the Sandwich Islands. The local people called it Hawaii. Soon after that, whalers, missionaries and explorers from the United States and Europe came to the islands and brought many of their cultural ways, including the ubiquitous use of chairs. The drawing above shows a luau honoring French sailors in 1836, just 58 years after the first documented contact that Hawaiians had with Europeans. It illustrates a profound yet commonly overlooked cultural difference: Chair sitting verses floor sitting.

You’ll see in the picture that almost all the people in European dress are seated on chairs and all the people in Hawaiian clothing are sitting on the ground.

I cannot definitively say when the use of chairs became common practice in Hawaii but I am going to guess that most Hawaiians did not own chairs until the 19th century. They didn’t have to. Like many people around the world, traditional Hawaiians did much of their food preparation sitting and squatting. They also socialized while sitting on or close to the ground. They slept on mats that they wove from local trees. They simply didn’t need chairs.

As floor and earth sitters, Hawaiians got up and down the floor multiple times a day. Their natural movements resulted in the development and maintenance of an aligned and robust skeleton which supported a healthy level of agility, flexibility and muscular strength. The physical prowess needed for the deep knee bends and intricate hip movements of hula was a regular part of island life.

These cultural habits provided native Hawaiians with what bio-mechanist Katy Bowman terms Nutritious Movement. Along with advocating for whole-body movement, Bowman has written extensively about the deleterious effects of chair sitting. Her work shows how frequent chair sitting adversely affects the shape of ones bones, as well as the strength of one’s muscles. She convincingly claims that along with decreasing mobility and balance, our habits of chair sitting not only underlie much of the back and neck pain that is rampant today, but is at the root of many diseases related to digestion and pelvic health.

In the 1950s an anthropologist names Gordon W. Hewes estimated that ¼ of the world doesn’t sit in chairs but spends most of their time squatting. He documented the variety of ways that humans sit and stand. You can see a selection of those positions here.

With the advent of industrialization and technology, the percentage of people who don’t sit in chairs is now much smaller.

This makes me think of an analogy: Chairs are like white bread.

Here’s why:

Nutrient-dense whole grain bread was a European staple for centuries. As milling techniques advanced, bakers developed the ability to remove the bran and the germ so they could make bread that was lighter and whiter. Because the effort to do this was costly, white bread was only available to the wealthy and quickly became a status symbol. When white bread finally became more cost effective, it had the reputation for being desirable so everyone started eating it despite it being nutrient deficient. It is only recently that whole grains have become popular because they are now recognized for their nutritional value.* Perhaps more floor sitting is the next step.

Just as people are returning to whole grain bread, I advocate that we spend less time picking out furniture and more time hanging out on the floor. While this bold cultural shift is my ideal vision, I want to acknowledge that just as it takes time to change our taste preferences, it takes time for our bodies to adjust to new movements. Floor sitting may not be accessible to all and/or it may take time to develop but it is something that we can all work toward.

*My grandfather worked for over 40 years at a bakery that made hearty pumpernickel and rye bread. He would bring it home everyday. My aunt chuckles jovially when she reminisces about how silly it was that she used to yearn for soft and fluffy Wonder Bread.

It’s Time to Kiss My Asana!

For the fifth year in a row, I invite you to Kiss My Asana!

The Kiss My Asana Yogathon is an opportunity for me to reflect on why and how I teach movement while raising money for Mind Body Solutions, a Minnesota based institute that is successfully helping people to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body.

As many of you know, I moved to Maui because of my own health issues having to do with chemical sensitivities. I’ve now been here a number of months and the fresh ocean air, along with more outdoor living is helping me tremendously. I am thrilled and grateful to be feeling better. While here, I’ve also had the opportunity to meet many yoga enthusiasts and learn about Native Hawaiian culture and traditions.

As a means to encourage you to “Kiss My Asana,” I’d like to share with you about the Hawaiian concept of mana;  Mana takes many words to explain but only a moment to feel. It is the sensation of life. It is the power of being that is our birthright to experience. Every aspect of existence has mana: Humans, animals, water, plants, rocks and soil. For living beings this manifests as the mana that we are born with–that which we receive from our ancestors–and the mana that we accrue through how we live our lives. The mana of places and objects comes from the story of their creation and by how living creatures interact with them.
How does this relate to Mind Body Solution? MBS provides a channel for each and every person—no matter who they are or what challenges they face—to tap into and increase their mana. At the same time, the mana of MBS as an organization is profound and strong. The moment one walks into the home studio, the feeling is palpable.The knowledge and dedication of the staff and volunteers is phenomenal. For many years now, I have had the honor of teaching and studying at MBS. It is a place where I always feel welcome and is if I’ve come home.

While I am currently an ocean away from many of my students, and far away from Minnesota, I am grateful proud to be able share what I have learned at MBS with me wherever I go.

For the Kiss My Asana Yogathon of 2018, I am dedicating my yoga practice for the next month to keeping all my senses open so that I can take the time to consciously feel the mana in my surroundings. I invite you to participate and support me in this endeavor by practicing yoga and making a donation to MBS. You can donate here through the end of May 2018 or to me directly.

Mahalo and Thank You!

On Adaptation, Nēnē and Us

Photo by Barbara Craig

500,000 years ago some Canadian Geese got a little lost and decided to take a rest stop on the Hawaiian Islands. It was an area with plenty of food, fresh air and no predators so they decided to stay.

As the terrain of the islands was different than what they were used to the geese adapted to their new surroundings. There were few trees in Hawaii so they became ground nesters. There were few lakes to swim in, but a lot of lava to traverse, so the webbing of their feet receded and they developed three toes on each foot—more suitable for walking on jagged terrain. There was an abundance of berries on land so they no longer needed to dive underwater to find food. As a result, their necks shortened and their legs became longer.

After many generations, they were no longer Canadian. They became Nēnē, the state bird of Hawaii.

It took the Nēnē hundreds of thousands of years for their bodies to adapt to their new terrain. Their adaptations led to a thriving population—at least until humans arrived in Hawaii, which is a story for later.

Over many generations, the Canadian Geese’s adaptations resulted in their evolving into a new species. While as far as I know, humans will not evolve into a new species any time soon, some striking human adaptations are now happening in the span of one lifetime.

It used to be that almost all humans could walk barefoot for miles. We could easily squat low on the ground and stand right up again. We could comfortably sit on the ground for hours on end. We could easily see far out into the horizon and then immediately switch our gaze to inspect a baby ant. We could hang from a tree and pull ourselves up into it.

Humans are still born with the potential to do all these things but most of us have lost these abilities because we have adapted to a modern terrain—of our own creation.

As we developed cars and other vehicles we lost our ability to walk long distances. We built cement pathways so that when we do walk, it is only with a limited range of foot and ankle motion. We spend a lot of time sitting in chairs so our spines round, our muscles atrophy, and our backs ache. We spend hours staring at screens and are losing our ability to see beyond the room we are cloistered in. Since we buy our fruit at the grocery store, we don’t need to reach up into trees. Now, many of us can no longer easily lift our arms overhead.

In our quest to make things easier and more comfortable we have created an environment that has ultimately led to more discomfort, pain and disease.

In recent times, rats and mongoose brought to Hawaii by humans have rendered the Nēnē an endangered species.

Today our well-being is endangered but unlike the Nēnē, we are doing it ourselves.

 

Inner Turbulence

On a recent airplane flight I was seated next to an impeccably dressed woman. She wore high-heeled shoes, elegant jewelry, expertly applied make-up and was well coifed. After I sat down, I said, “Hello, How are you?” I know many people don’t like to talk with their seatmates but I think it’s important to acknowledge the existence of a human being with whom I will be sitting in close proximity for a few hours. She glanced at me quickly, barely nodded and then turned back to her iPhone. I immediately felt a frosty tension and remained quiet the rest of the flight.

I was feeling rather disheveled that day. I was wearing a bright pink sweater, had unkempt hair and was sporting my favorite—but not too fashionable—purple zero-drop sneakers with an extra wide toe box. My bag under the seat was large and lumpy. I felt like I was spilling out all over the place. Her cool glance unleashed an old visceral feeling — I felt that I was being judged for my appearance. Something was wrong with me.

I hadn’t felt that way in decades. As the plane climbed to its altitude I observed myself. Why did this feeling resurface so strongly? After a few more minutes, I took a quick look at my seatmate. I noticed that she was sitting rigid in her chair, her jaw was tightly clenched and she was narrowing her eyes.

Tension is a protective mechanism. It is our brain’s reaction to feeling under threat. When we feel threatened, we either run away or constrict and close down in order to protect ourselves. When something is obviously dangerous, a flight or fight reaction does not take us by surprise; if the plane starts shaking mid-air many of us will tightly grip the seat. However, our unconscious mind can also feel threatened by more subtle cues. When we are in the presence of someone who is tense, we may feel vulnerable. Unbeknownst to our conscious mind, our unconscious experiences a warning sign that something isn’t safe. At this moment, old fears and insecurities may reappear.

As I still had a number of hours on the flight, I felt relieved that I had figured this out. My knowledge of the brain helped me recognize that feeling vulnerable and judged was an unconscious response to my seatmate’s pre-existing level of tension. As a teenager growing up in Minnesota I had felt self-conscious about the shape of my body, especially among my Scandinavian friends. I always felt that my body was expanding beyond acceptable boundaries. At that time, I did not have any inkling of how much advertising and other messages affected my sense of self.

When I sat next to this woman on the plane, this old feeling resurfaced because my unconscious mind read the signals wrong and responded to her level of tension by connecting to old neural pathways. She was not judging my disheveled appearance. It wasn’t about me. She carried tension for reasons I did not know.

With this understanding, I felt empathy for my temporary traveling companion. She had clearly wanted to be left alone. Instead of continuing my ruminations, I chose to relax, enjoy the warmth of my cozy sweater and take in the view.

A Well-Intentioned Intrusion

I was recently walking on the Mahana Ridge Trail, a beautiful windy path in Northwest Maui. About a quarter-mile down the trail I saw a family with a young child who was being carried backpack style by the mom. As I’m interested in how people carry their children, I looked a little closer and noticed that the child’s legs were splayed in an extreme external rotation, and the backpack pushed his legs against his mom’s back so that they were immobilized. He looked like a flattened frog. It was clear to me that this was not a good position for a child—or anyone—to be in for anything other than a very short period of time.

I don’t want to write much right now about the biomechanics of the child’s position. For now, I’ll say that it’s not good for a child to be stuck in an extreme and rigid position. Instead, I would like to share with you more about my reaction. I didn’t want to be an intrusive stranger and tell this young family what to do. At the same time, I had been thinking a lot about hip health as I was hiking with my friend who’s mom had just broken her hip two days earlier when she tripped over an electrical cord.

It’s not uncommon for me to see people with habits of movement that I think don’t serve them well. Usually I say nothing. Once in a while I offer a suggestion but this is usually in an environment where I can be certain that the person would appreciate my help.

In this situation, I was less sure. Parents often receive unsolicited advice from others about the best way to take care of their children and I did not want to be intrusive. However, as I continued walking I could not get the image of the young boys smushed legs and immobilized pelvis out of my mind.

We were hiking much faster than they were and quickly lost sight of them. But as I charged up the trail, my head was full of bouncing thoughts. Would it be helpful to tell them something? Would they find me obnoxious and get angry? Would saying something make a difference in this child’s life? How many other people are using what they think are good tools — myself included — without knowing that they are actually causing harm? Was I just afraid of angering or annoying someone? How much is it my responsibility to offer advice?

With my head still full of these ruminations, it was time to turn back. A few minutes later the family came back into our line of vision and I decided to say something.

I received a mixed response. The parents thanked me for my concern but then became defensive. They wanted to be seen as good parents and began to tell me how they have a much better backpack at home that they didn’t bring with them to Hawaii. I quickly realized that they probably did not want to hear my opinion that even high-quality sturdy backpacks designed for kids limit their movement and just because something is advertised as having great ergonomics, doesn’t mean it’s great for a sustained period of time.

I walked away at first feeling a bit of shame. I had intruded on their beautiful hike. However, if I had not said anything I would have felt regret.

I experience shame as a devastating visceral feeling in the moment when it happens. Fortunately, that intensity passes. Regret, however, tends to linger on in my mind, sometimes for years. I’m glad I decided to take the risk and share my thoughts. I have no regrets and the shame has passed. In the past year, I have known many people who have had hip replacement surgery and I also know many people who have broken their hips. I guess this is my way of trying to “fix” something that I really have no control over.

I’ll never know the outcome of this particular situation. At worst the parents were temporarily annoyed, but perhaps I planted a seed. I do know that I will continue to encounter situations like this. My guess is that I will deal with each situation differently but eventually, just like I see patterns in movement, I’ll be able to see patterns in my approach as well as in people’s response to my well-intentioned intrusions.

Not All Walking Is The Same

Walking near a body of water on a warm day exhilarates me. I especially enjoy walking barefoot on grass or sand. I love breathing in the fresh air and feeling my ribs expand and contract.  I treasure the opportunity to gaze off into the horizon and challenge my eyes to look even further.

A few weeks ago, I went for a walk at Baby Beach in Northern Maui. On my way home I saw a sign at a gym advertising a yoga class. After being under the beautiful clear sky and imbibing the fresh open air I was feeling a great sense of vitality. I was excited about the possibility of trying a new class.

I took one step into the gym and my body immediately clenched into a protective mode. The expansiveness I had felt a moment before vanished as my eyes had to narrow to protect themselves from the harsh artificial light. My breath became shallow in response to the toxic scent of offgassing from the thick black mats. When I saw all the movement machines – treadmills, ellipticals and stairwalkers – I just wanted to run away as fast as possible. After stretching my legs on the beach, I couldn’t imagine choosing to put myself on a machine that would force me into a limited range of movement where I couldn’t look up at the sky or even stop to pick up a pebble.

After noting my visceral reaction, I decided that it was important to share my understanding of how walking on a treadmill is a very different experience than walking on stable ground. I understand that not everyone can go for a walk near a beautiful body of water. Not everyone has the option of going for a walk outside at all. I grew up in Minnesota and remember those days when it was so cold that it was dangerous to go outside. If one is living in a concrete jungle or there is a lot of outdoor pollution, I can understand why someone would stay indoors. However, I think it’s good to be informed and have an understanding of how all walking is not the same.

Here are a few simple examples:
To create a base-level healthy gait, one needs to extend one leg backwards and then push off with that foot to propel the leg forward. This pushing off creates a cascade effect throughout the entire body that optimally loads the joints and massages the spine. Treadmills eliminate this all-important movement and instead force us to throw the leg forward and then pull (rather than push-off) it backward in order to stay on the device. This constant flexion of the leg increases tension in the diaphragm and abdomen as well as tightens the front of the thighs all of which can lead to pelvic floor dysfunction.

This flexion of the leg also impacts arm movement.  In a healthy gait the backward swing of the arm happens automatically.  This tones the triceps, opens the chest and helps lymph to flow.  On a treadmill, the forward action becomes the driving movement.  This movement closes down the front of the chest much like our daily habits of keyboarding and driving.

Treadmills also have less visible effects.  As we walk, our brain expects the terrain to change.  When we continue to look at the same spot on a wall or stare at a screen, our brain becomes confused and experiences sensory mismatch; our visual and proprioceptive systems become out of sync with each other. For some this experience is subtle and may go unnoticed. For others it can cause dizziness, nausea and an overall feeling of discomfort.

Thinking back to my gym experience, I began to wonder: Even if someone did not know the disadvantages of treadmill walking why would they choose to put themself on a machine when it was gorgeous outside? In my quest to not be judgmental, I racked my brain for plausible explanations. Perhaps the treadmill walkers want the alone time or like the controlled temperature? Maybe they don’t want to have to think about where they are going or want to avoid waiting at traffic lights?

While there are a small number of people for whom these explanations are accurate, I think the true answer is more insidious. We have become accustomed to walking on machines because we have been told that’s what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to “get exercise.” We are supposed to measure our steps and our heart rate.  And then, if we get the right numbers, we’ll be healthy. It’s hard to think that a treadmill may not be an optimal choice for movement if that contradicts what we’ve been told. I used to walk on them too.

A few weeks after my experience at the gym I was sitting at home and feeling very antsy.  It has been pouring rain for over two weeks straight. I wanted to go for a long walk but was put off by the powerful wind that would blow water sideways onto my face and didn’t want to walk under the fluorescent lights in the mall. I realized that if I wanted to move, it was time to be creative. I found the most spacious indoor place available and cleared away all the furniture except for a table and chair. I spent the next 45 minutes walking around on a twisting path of my own making. As someone for whom movement is essential for my emotional well-being, I was ecstatic to have a new way to take care of myself. The cold and wet days of winter will never be the same.

Stilettogait

During the Hurricane Harvey catastrophe Melania Trump ignited a media firestorm for wearing stiletto heels on her way to Air Force One. Yes, she changed to sneakers when she arrived in Texas but many questioned such a pronounced focus on fashion on a day when she was to visit with people who had lost everything to the floods. When I saw video of the First Lady walking from the White House to the helicopter that would whisk her to Andrews Air Force Base, I immediately lost interest in these theoretical — be they political or feminist — critiques. Instead, I was fascinated by her gait.
Our feet, usually hidden in shoes, are an underappreciated part of our bodies. While only a small percentage of our total body size, they allow us to absorb literally tons of pressure each day and move thousands of miles over a lifetime. With twenty-six bones each, (one-quarter of all the bones in our body), thirty-three joints and over a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments, our feet have the potential to skillfully navigate the most varied of terrains. When we cram a foot into a shoe that squishes the toes and raises the heel, we cut off our body’s natural ability to move with alacrity, freedom and grace.
Not only is the foot itself adversely affected by being immobilized, but a chain reaction is created from toe to head. Whether we are barefoot or in five-inch heels, our bodies constantly seek an innate default: head upright, eyes seeking the horizon. The position of the raised heel forces all the joints above it to compensate in a concerted effort to effect this upright head position. These compensations manifest differently depending upon the individual. Take a look around. A common response is for the pelvis to tilt forward creating a compensatory forward thrust of the ribcage. This in turn forces the neck and head to find a new balance point, creating a suboptimal alignment of the entire spine, which in turn puts undue pressure on individual vertebrae.
Along with whole-body biomechanical changes, the entire nervous system is compromised. Feet contain a large percentage of our mechanotransductors. These nerve endings send messages to our brain to guide our proprioceptive awareness—our understanding of where we are in relation to the space around us. With most of the foot lifted off the ground, the mechanotransductors cannot provide necessary information to the brain about where the body is in space. No matter how empowered a person may feel with some four or five additional inches of height, the brain has a fuzzy grasp of where one is in space. Accordingly, the body subconsciously feels unsafe and each step must be carefully crafted to prevent a fall.
Because of these adaptations, wearing heels requires a gait readjustment. A cursory study of the August 29th video shows that Mrs. Trump, instead of creating forward momentum from the dorsiflexion of the foot and extension of the back leg, utilizes a jerky bend of her knee to propel her lower leg forward. This common response to high heels makes it difficult to engage the usually powerful gluteal muscles that are essential to healthy, sustained movement. When these buttocks muscles are not engaged, there is a resulting side-to-side shift of the pelvis, which, while often admired for its alluring quality, is one of the main causes of gluteal amnesia. It is not uncommon for knee, hip and lower back pain to result.
Having grown up in the United States and absorbed many of our cultural notions of beauty, I appreciate a fashionable pair of shoes. I delight in my pair of sparkly four-inch heels and I bring them out for special occasions. However, I wear them fifteen minutes and then set them aside. I know (and feel) how they adversely affect my body and make sure to stretch my calves before I bust out on the dance floor barefoot.
Some people wear heels to be taller, others to be fashionable. Some, like Melania, can’t give them up — even on a blustery day. A few centuries ago in Europe, it was high fashion for men, not women to wear high heels. Whatever our choice for footwear, whether we choose to teeter on toothpicks or wear a shoe with a minimal differential between heel and toe, it’s important that we know the physiological effects of our fashion choices.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Mrs. Trump literally stumbled into Stilettogate. It’s a harsh spotlight for the First Lady. For the rest of us, it’s a different kind of choice. Stilettogait, or moving with ease, freedom and grace.

Being Home

A few days ago, I celebrated Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year on the island of Maui. As I listened to the familiar words that were being chanted in synagogues around the world, my heart pined for the presence of my loved ones who are one or many oceans away.

The Rabbi’s 16 year-old son participated in the leadership of the service. This in itself was nothing unusual. It’s expected for a rabbi’s son to be well versed in Jewish liturgy. What was unusual is that the Rabbi’s son, having been born in Hawaii and also having indigenous Hawaiian roots on his mother’s side of the family, is as proficient in Hebrew as he is in Hawaiian pidgin. The rabbi himself was born in LA but comes from an old Jerusalem family. This year, the rabbi chose to visit his family in Israel and asked his Israeli-born nephew to serve as the cantorial soloist. As I listened to the ancient Hebrew words being sung by a native Hawaiian and an Israeli-born man of European and Middle Eastern heritage, the anthropologist in me reflected on the transnational nature of modern society and how identities that were once solely place-based have transitioned into something more ethereal. However, as the chanting of familiar tunes continued, this intellectual voice was soon subsumed by a larger, more powerful feeling that rumbled from within my chest: A feeling of “home.”

There are three places in the world where I have lived long enough to know the shortcuts through the side streets, the best places to look out onto the horizon and the gardens with the most fragrant the roses. I can call each of these places “home,” but doing so feels like an incomplete definition.

I used to think home was a place where I knew my way around, knew a lot of people and felt completely grounded, centered and complete. However, once I had travelled and lived in a number of places, I began to think of home as a state of being where I could feel these same sensations without being anchored in my concrete surroundings. But today, as the ancient words stirred my heart I had a different experience. I simultaneously felt a vibrant, unsettled yearning for people and places that were far away, and I felt at home.

A new definition of “home” is taking shape for me. It is no longer a static place. It’s also not a place where the fluctuations of the mind are calm or where everything is safe. Home has now come to mean a state of being where it’s ok to simultaneously feel longing and belonging, where memories flow through me with joy and sadness, where it’s safe to sit with heartwarming feelings as well as discomforting ones. Home has come to mean being present with the wholeness of my being while living in a uncertain, disjointed yet wonderous transnational world.