Feet & Foundations

Recently I blogged on feet, and how we should be desiring something a bit more profound than a solution to aching feet and bunions, and I thought I’d continue on the foot theme.

When teaching yoga asana, especially in beginners’ classes, I often begin with the feet, standing in mountain pose, getting students to lift their toes, and feel the inner arch lifting, the arch from the ball of the big toe, to the heel, and then to spread their toes and place them softly back on the ground, while keeping that arch lifted.  I then encourage them to become aware of the other two lesser known arches in the foot, from the ball of the big toe, to the ball of the little toe, which some people can become aware of by pressing their toes into the ground; and the arch from the ball of the little toe to the heel. When the foot is working healthily these three arches are like suspension bridges reaching up from the ground and strongly supported by the tripod of the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe.  This lift activates the muscles in the ankle, hugging them gently inwards, and the whole base provides an energetic foundation for the body, lifting up through the legs, thigh muscles hugging in softly, inner thighs and pelvic floor lifting (a soft mula bandha) and energy continuing upwards in a gentle drawing in of the navel (a beginning of uddiyana bandha which translates as flying up), the lifting of the sternum and upper palate (without a corresponding forward thrust, just a movement up the spine) the lifting energy moving right through to the crown of the head.  This lift is supported by the foundation of the feet pressing into the earth.  The better the foundation, the easier the rest of the pose.

Working one foot at a time in a balance pose can really show the importance of this.  My left foot is structurally compromised, and as I wobble and sometimes fall, I use myself as an example that one doesn’t have to be “great” at asanas, to do a useful practice, and that asana practice is not a competitive sport.  In fact my whole left side is less functional than my right, with a multiply twisted left ankle such that the ligaments are over stretched and partially torn; a ripped ACL (the soccer players bane… there goes my soccer career!) diagnosed as requiring surgical repair, though I decided against that and chose long hard physiotherapy and training in walking using extra muscular support (co-contraction of quads and hamstrings); and gradually developing issues with other muscles including shoulder and wrist.  Boring, really, and I have left out many details, but I have a point here, and that is, I wonder how much of these issues have been based on my foot problems?  I concur with the physiotherapist that many of them are due to the lack of a good base.

And the deeper point here is that we all need a base to stand on.  If we don’t find solid ground somewhere, we keep sinking, into despair and nihilism.  Through our lives we start out with the feeling that our base is mother and father, but time proves them, no matter how well meaning, to be fallible.  Then we move onto likewise fallible friends and partners, and to some form of employment which has become more and more obviously impermanent and not to be relied on.  Those societies and times which had family farms that lasted over the generations might have felt they had some sort of solid foundation, at least in the earth they farmed and lived on.  But wars and pestilence come, or at least the fear of them and in the end death takes it all away.  This is the case in every time and every society, even when people may avoid the despair and sense of floating, the anomie that sociologists speak of, that sense of instability and lack of purpose, that becomes more available to those in a less stable society.  And I say available, because the advantage of realizing your so called foundation is sinking, lacking stability, temporary & fallible, is that one can start looking for a real base.

That real base is there to be found, discussed in fact in all the scriptures of the world, but most clearly expounded upon and explained in the Vedic scriptures.  This material world and all things in it are lacking stability, are temporary and fallible.  But we need solidity, eternality and infallibility in our foundation.  It is our natural state to desire this.  It is our natural state to have this, to have stability, to be aware of our eternal nature, and to be protected by an infallible agent.  And as we start the journey of self awareness, the yoga teachings leads us on to a bona fide path, we are able to begin to settle into this base, this spiritual foundation:  first, understanding we are not the body, we are eternal.

This understanding is like the tripod of the foot in mountain pose, without this connection with the ground of truth & reality we cannot have the upward lift that enlivens the rest of our spiritual life.  Without some understanding of our eternal non material nature we are unable to see and reach out to and accept the protection of, and be lifted up by, the Supreme Infallible Agent, eventually redeveloping our full natural relationship with that Supreme Agent.  So first things first, we must clearly understand the difference between our self,  our body and mind.  This is the basis of all further understanding.  If our understanding of this first point is weak, the rest of our understanding will be shaky.

And here is a little coda, a footnote, so to speak:  a weekend or two ago I went on a mini retreat, catching the train to a bordering city, and staying with 2 friends in a hotel close enough to walk to the gatherings which had been organized to celebrate some special days with ongoing Kirtan (mantras with music) and the association of some wonderful yogis (not all necessarily practitioners of asana, but yogis in deeper sense).  I also took the opportunity to go to some other kirtans at a yoga studio in an adjacent suburb.  As usual, I took my shoes off and left them outside before entering.  I then put on my “dancing shoes.”  I love dancing but my feet need help to overcome their structural issues.   Without this help, I dance anyhow and then, depending on the length and enthusiasm, I may end up with difficulty walking later.

Being somewhat distracted due to catching up with long time unseen friends, I walked out in my indoor shoes and left my walking shoes behind.  I was peeved when I realized… the new shoes, inserts and a visit to the podiatrist to retro fit the shoes would set me back several hundred dollars.  I rang and texted around to see who was responsible for lost property.  No luck.  The next day I caught up with the person who closed up shop the previous night and she hadn’t seen them.  Nor had the person who told me she checked on her way past to see if they were still there.

Usually I’d have been more perturbed, and would have fretted over it for some time.  Fortunately for me, I was at that time, standing in my mountain pose of spiritual life.  All the Kirtan I had been doing over these 3 days had drawn me downwards towards the real foundation of my life, and I didn’t want to let my mind topple me, distracting me with concerns with an ultimately temporary issue.

The pleasant irony was that, having given up the shoe concern, I was approached some hours later by a yoga teacher.  She handed me my shoes.  They had sat for 2 days outside the front door of the studio, which was located on a busy shopping strip, where the needy homeless could have been excused for souveniring a pair of apparently homeless shoes.