Fallen arches, salsa dancing and yoga standing postures

Scott and I enjoyed a 38-hour stay in Toronto this past weekend to catch one day of the Canada Salsa Congress. We got a taste of Zouk, watched mesmerizing dance groups such as Yamulee perform, and danced till 3 a.m. (with me in a — I kid you not — pink-sequined dress).

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about what I learned about feet — specifically, mine (though I hope maybe you’ll discover something about your feet as well).

One of the sponsors of the event was DanceFeet, a Toronto-based custom orthotics operation co-founded by a chiropractor who also happens to be a salsa dancer. I did the free assessment — stepped on the pressure pad they had out, reviewed a computerized map of my steps and did some balancing squat tests.

Prognosis? I have fallen arches. Aka flatfeet. Aka issues with the medial longitudinal arches of my feet.

This didn’t surprise me, since one of my sisters has arch issues. It was actually a relief, because it was the best explanation so far about why I have so much pain when I wear heels.

The one-legged squat test got me thinking beyond salsa on 2 and bachata (please note that we do not look like this when we try bachata — for one thing, we are both wearing shirts), and into the realm of yoga, breath and bandhas: Flatfeet + utthita hasta padangusthasana = Imbalance!

Yes, you need breath. And bandhas. And focus. But sometimes, there’s a straightforward structural issue that requires consideration as well. I just found this thread in which one ashtangi is asking for advice about this:

I have had some problems doing certain standing poses for a while now. I always figured that I wasn’t fully using my bandhas/core strength and that was why I was having trouble. The other day my instructor comes over to me in utthita hasta padangusthasana. She said to ground my big toe and use the arch of my foot to gain balance. The problem is I don’t have an arch.

Today during my practice, I took my Dansko shoes (with arch support) and tried to do the pose with one shoe on, AND IT WORKED. I was able to balance and bring my leg out to the side, look over my shoulder and not lose balance.

During the assessment I took over the weekend, I was told to stand on one of DanceFeet’s custom orthotics to do a one-legged squat — and, like the experience this person had, it felt much more stable to me. Yesterday during my practice, I did an experiment and tried folding over the edge of my rug and placing that under the inner arch (or lack thereof, I guess) of my foot in order to achieve a similar effect. The posture felt slightly more stable, but there have to be better solutions, right?

Bandha Yoga offers this breakdown of the foot, and discusses how you can use your toes and certain muscles to deepen and strengthen arches.

Thank you, salsa dancing, for leading me to this insight. I’m still in investigation mode with this information and want to know if anyone else has worked through fallen arch issues in standing poses. Do you have any advice you can share?

(P.S. — In the short time we were in Toronto, I managed to sneak out long enough to take a led class at Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto. It was much needed. I picked up David Robson’s Learn to Float DVD while I was there, and I have a feeling I will be offering it up during a giveaway contest this holiday. 😉 )

(Photo credit: Top: “Dancing Feet” by Jonathan Chen via Flickr Creative Commons. Second image: Via BandhaYoga.com.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Whose drumbeat do you move to?

Whose drumbeat do you move to? How do you keep a steady rhythm in your yoga practice and in your life?

Watching David Robson’s new, outstanding Learn to Float instructional video (review below) has me thinking about drumbeats, rhythm, cadence and steadiness — from salsa dancing and Ashtanga yoga to daily life and life trajectories.

The salsa beat

In kinetic and chaotic environments, it can be a challenge to achieve the focus needed to discern the right rhythm. When my boyfriend and I started salsa dancing lessons earlier this year, one of the hardest skills to pick up was how to hear the underlying beat pattern that was keeping pace of the song amidst the cacophony of all the other instruments. It’s easy to think you’re following the right beat — until it starts to speed up, or it drops altogether, signaling that you had your attention in the wrong place.

I see this a lot in new students who are on the mat but allow most of their focus to go toward flitting about the room on all the distractions around them — who is doing that challenging pose they can’t get into yet? Who’s come down into balasana (child’s pose)? Who just walked back into the room after a trip to the bathroom? I think of the jumping ball you get on a karaoke screen when I think about the level of attention we’re talking about in cases like these. A consistent practice helps eye-darters begin to settle in, and it helps them start to become more attune to the fluctuations of their own body and their own breath.

Now, after you discern the pattern, do you know which beat is primary? Once I started having an easier time recognizing the right rhythm in a salsa song, I learned that there was another factor to consider — which beat is emphasized. There are  two competing schools in modern salsa dancing — salsa on 1 (the kind we do) and salsa on 2, prevalent in New York. Changing which beat to emphasize can change your whole experience of the dance.

The Ashtanga breath

The salsa on 1 vs. salsa on 2 distinction reminds me a bit about the different schools of thought when it comes to vinyasa breaths. When do you inhale and when do you exhale in a sequence? In the Ashtanga system, when you’re in down dog and need to float forward to return to the top of the mat, it’s on an inhale. That just fundamentally makes sense to me, because you’re riding the wave of your breath to help you get from point A to point B as lightly and as effortlessly as possible. (As a side note, some ashtangis keep the bandhas engaged but “jump empty” to the top of the mat, taking the inhale to lift the head before coming into ashtau, folding forward. I’ve tried that out for some time and like that approach as well. Something about moving “empty” speaks to me. But this is probably a topic for another blog post.)

In the power yoga system I was taught, you exhale from down dog to return to the top of the mat (the verbal cue would be: “from down dog, inhale press, exhale step or float to the top of your mat”). I am less enamored of this way of floating, because I feel that it goes against the grain of how I contextualize the role of the breath. I think exhaling to the top encourages more of a strength-and-momentum-based, rather than a breath-and-bandha-based, approach to moving. (That said, I am a bilingual yogi — I can speak both Ashtanga and power :). When I teach a power yoga or vinyasa flow class, I teach with the verbal cue to exhale to the top of the mat.)

No matter where you fall on the inhale and exhale debate, perhaps the most important thing is that your breaths are consistent and are keeping a steady pace for the practice.

Moving at the speed of life

Ultimately, what does steadiness in our practice give us? It’s hard to be independent if we need someone else to keep time for us. I’ve always worked in deadline-driven jobs, so I know what it’s like to live, to some extent, on someone else’s clock. But even within that pressure cooker, you can find your own rhythm so that you don’t lose your own sense of grounding — or worse, so you don’t lose your sense of self altogether. Finding this space of being even-keel is one of my life struggles. I know I will be working on my level of reactivity till the day I die. But the more I find a steady beat on the mat, the more practice I’ll have in discerning the internal beat pattern that moves my spirit on some fundamental level — and the more likely I’ll be able to stay attuned to that pattern when I’m off the mat.

The Learn to Float instructional video

I wrote about the release of Learn to Float earlier this week, and was looking forward to having the time to finally stream it and practice along. (Watch a snippet if you haven’t already.) Ashtanga.com was right in calling this production “mesmerizing.”

I think beginning and advanced ashtangis alike should download the video, stat. For less than the cost of a typical drop-in yoga class — the streaming video is $9.99 CAD (about $9.52 USD currently) — you get a 45-minute video that’s beautifully produced and keenly focused.

David tells you he is going to break down how to find the graceful floating found in the surya namaskaras (sun salutations). To get there, David discusses the importance of the technique behind tristanum, which he describes as “the union of three places of attention” — asana (posture), dristri (gaze) and breath (even, sounded breathing).

He gives an excellent explanation of, and breakdown for, mula bandha and uddiyana bandha and suggests two rules that will help keep you focused, which helps with floating:

  • Movement always follows breath.
  • Your vinyasa should be a straight line.

He does a fantastic job of laying out steps of safety — including how to make sure you’re not overworking the tops of the shoulders and thus risking injury.

David begins to demonstrate surya namaskara A with this instruction:

Ekam, inhale, lift the arms, hands touch with the end of the breath, dvi, exhale, speed the movement up, hands on the floor, trini, inhale, slow down, lift the head, chaturi, step or hop back, chaturanga dandasana, pancha, inhale, slow down into upward dog…

Meanwhile, there’s a steady drumbeat provided by percussionist Mathew Stephens that marks one beat per second, with each inhale lasting four beats and each exhale lasting four breaths.

David makes a point to say that the drumbeat is just a prop — when you practice on your own, your breath may be a slower or faster. He says:

What matters is that you’re feeling what it’s like to breathe evenly, and to pace the movements evenly with the breath.

This is where this video truly excels, in my opinion — in distilling the essence of the practice and setting a steady pace that can deepen the meditative level of these movements that are strung together. Not only do the beats play the role of a metronome for the practice — they prevent you from cheating in poses you don’t like. I know my tendency is to take longer breaths in poses I like, such as tiriang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana (three-limbed forward bend), and shorter breaths in postures I have aversions to, such as utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe).

I started my last two practices with the sun salutations included in the final “practice” segment of Learn to Float, and then continued with the rest of my series trying to keep that same rhythm. It was so grounding, and a bit primal at the same time — just me, my breath and the steadiness of this external drumbeat that reflected the steadiness my internal heartbeat.

(Photo credit: Flickr photostream photo of a Taiko drummer by Mayu ;p via Flickr Creative Commons. By the way, if you’ve never been to a Taiko show, go! It’s amazing stuff, and you have to see it live.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

These shoes weren’t made for walking, but what’s a yogi to do

Heels, baby

Let’s get this out of the way: I <3 yoga and I <3 high heels. Not in that $1,900 Manolo Blahnik/Sex in the City way, and not in the fashion-over-function Victoria Beckham way.

For me, it’s a now and then kind of thing, and we’re maybe talking about a pair of $40 brown patent leather shoes for work or a $70 pair of 3.5-inch heels from Aldo for dancing. From Chicago to Miami to London, I’ve done that post-dancing limp — you know the one, where you eventually decide it’s worth the risk to go barefoot on a city sidewalk (there are some nasty things you can step on in those situations) rather than endure that pain any longer.

And those are the reasonable, kind heels that are my correct size. I am guilty of falling for unreasonable, cruel heels that are just a tad too small — because they, well, sort of fit, and my size isn’t available, and they too cute to leave behind on that sales rack. I have a couple of these types of shoes categorized by time and surface: the two-hour-on-a-dancefloor-but-stay-away-from-concrete shoes, the-wear-all-day-as-long-as-I-don’t-have-meetings-to-travel-to shoes.

And if experience isn’t enough, the statistics should be. Consider figures that you can find quoted everywhere online that claim one-inch heels can increase the pressure on your feet by about 22 percent, two-inch heels up to 57 percent, and three-inches heels up to 76 percent.

I thought about this earlier this week, when I made a terrible calculation about the extent of required walking for one of my work meetings. With 3.5-inch heels, I ended up joining a meeting that involved walking around for a site assessment. That evening when I did my Ashtanga primary series practice, I had a little muscle spasm when I crossed my feet for bhujapindasana (arm pressure posture).

My favorite pose for relieving pain from high heels is janu sirsasana C. I am in the minority, as far as I can tell. This cartoon seems to reflect how a great many yogis seems to feel about this pose. But there is no other pose I practice in which I feel this level of relief for my feet.

In his book Ashtanga Yoga: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Dynamic Yoga, John Scott describes janu C this way:

Correct placement of the heel in this asana is dependent on the range of hip rotation you have and the length of your Achilles tendon, and so it may take time to achieve. Take care with this asana to protect your knee.

For the most part, though, I try to wear supportive shoes. And when I go salsa dancing these days, I bring a long a pair of ballet-flats-to-go that I wear to and from the dance venue.

Will my will power ever overcome my penchant for high heels? Not any time soon. Thank goodness I have yoga to help with all the things I voluntarily unnecessarily do.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What my salsa teacher wants my hips to do

Featured

Salsa dress

My hips were not cooperating during my salsa lesson today. My instructor reminded me that my hips need to be set back from the center line — to a point where I feel like I am sticking my butt way out. I’ve spent so much time working with yoga instructors on finding a neutral space in my pelvic girdle that this adjustment feels tremendously exaggerated, awkward and basically awful.

But this is salsa, and it looks fantastic.

My boyfriend and I love salsa dancing. We had our first impromptu salsa lesson in, of all places, a winery in Traverse City. We paid a visit to the very cool Left Foot Charley tasting room (if you haven’t been, you should) on a night that happened to feature a great latin band. There were competitive dancers there who were moving so beautifully together. They clearly sensed that we were itching to move to that music too, but had no idea where to start. So they came over and pretty much forced us up and gave us our first “quick-quick-slow” lesson. I was wearing a pair of beat-up Vans that one of my sisters had given me, and my boyfriend was wearing hiking boots.

We figured if we could manage to dance that night while essentially wearing blocks on our feet — and enjoy it that much — we should get into this salsa thing.

Since then, we’ve been to a few salsa nights here and there, and we spent New Year’s Eve dancing at the Global Pachanga held at the JW Marriott in Grand Rapids. While we had a fantastic time doing our thing, it seemed everyone around us glided over that dance floor differently. That’s a lot of people who know what they’re doing, and they must have made the effort to learn somehow. So I made my commitment then and there that I would learn to move like that.

Making the transition from looking like you’re trying to salsa and looking like you’ve spent your whole life dancing this way starts, like so many things, with the hips.

“You know, it’s like if you’re running, you wouldn’t run like this,” my teacher said, pushing his pelvis forward and doing a mock run.

“I don’t run,” I interrupted. “But I see what you’re saying.”

“Ah, yes, I remember you told me that last time that you don’t run.” (I really don’t like running, and hope to never have to do it again for as long as I live.)

Yoga is only concerned with the body’s structure, and what’s going on with the alignment of bones and joints. Every now and then I need to tell my yoga students — especially students who are new to the mat — that they don’t need to look around to see how everyone else is doing it. That it doesn’t matter what they look like, because what matters is propriceptive awareness — gaining an understanding of how to set the body in space by feeling it.

How the body looks obviously matters in any type of dance. In salsa, when the hips slide back and that back leg straightens, you’ve won half the battle because you look the part. It goes against the grain for me to place my hips somewhere because it looks better that way, but it’s a fun challenge to switch gears that way.

My one and only resolution this year is to learn how to salsa — not how to move my feet, but how to get my body to mirror the exhilaration of what I already feel when there’s latin music playing and I’m on the dance floor.

And I learned today that with salsa, as with so many things, you won’t make progress until you start to become awareness of what your hips are doing with every movement.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.