Barefoot in the grass in my backyard, I am playing with the mobility in the structures of my feet. It is a sunny spring morning, the kind of almost-warm that draws a person who was very sick of winter outside to pretend the temperature is several degrees warmer than the gauge might suggest. I stand on one foot and feel the bones and muscles in that foot, the ankle and both legs adjust. I feel the damp grass between my toes. Then I stand on the other foot and notice the differences and similarities between it and the first.
On two feet again, I reach my arms up into the air, lift my face to the sun, then fold forward. I step first one foot back and then the other, so that now both my hands and my feet can feel the dampness of the grass.
There is a difference in the ease with which my hands and my feet hold my weight; a difference too between the mobility of these fairly similar structures. My breath is more pronounced when I ask my hands to bear my weight.
I make my way back to standing and walk slowly around the backyard, negotiating the various textures — grass, brick, straw, soil — with my bare feet. They notice as much as my hands and eyes do about the garden. For various reasons, I am consciously teaching my feet to be more aware of and more responsive to the environment I find myself in. I am re-learning how to walk.
Ethnographer Tim Ingold writes about the decline in “foot thinking” in modernist societies that put their feet in shoes and create hard surfaces to walk on, and about the relationship between this infrastructure and the valuing of head over heels in thinking, experience, biology and culture (2004). He argues that the mechanisation of footwork, along with other changes that accompanied the onset of modernity, “conspired to lend practical and experiential weight to an imagined separation between the activities of a mind at rest and a body in transit, between cognition and locomotion, and between the space of social and cultural life and the ground upon which that life is materially enacted” (2004, pg 321). Much of the way modern societies conduct and write about travel, Ingold suggests, is done as if the travellers are without legs (2004, pg 322).
This is something I see in yoga classes I teach. It’s something I’ve experienced myself. I’ve watched people struggle to stand and to move about on their feet in anything that looks even vaguely like a comfortable fashion. And when they’re asked to stand on just one foot at a time, they wobble around all over the place. I’ve experienced the same myself. Many of my yoga students also struggle with tight, restricted, immobile and sore upper bodies. It’s only recently that I’ve fully realised how closely the two are connected.
In yoga philosophy, there are two related concepts called ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha’, which can be translated as ‘stability’ and ‘mobility’, or perhaps ‘gravity and ‘levity’. Many of the practices of yoga have developed to try to find a balance between these two ways of being and/or doing. The concepts are relative, not absolute, and we can see them in the very structures of the human body. Relatively speaking, the lower body — the pelvis, the legs, the feet — are structures that are more solidly built (although within each part of the body, when you break it down further, there are smaller parts that are more stable and others that are more mobile). The structures of the upper body — the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, ribcage — are less solidly built, but more mobile. Hands move more freely than feet; arms and shoulders more freely than legs and hips; upper spine more than lower spine. Generally speaking, the upper body has a more ‘sukha’ quality, and the lower body a more ‘sthira’ quality.
But. The body is a responsive thing. It changes depending on how it’s used, and depending on its environment. If, say, we habitually or repeatedly rely on the arms to pull ourselves up and/or do not make use of the bones and muscles in the stabilising structures of the lower body, the upper body will become more stable, the lower body less so. There are, of course, circumstances in which this would actually be helpful to a person — keeping in mind that a body will look for (because it needs, in order to function) both sthira and sukha, a person, say, who has no use of their legs, might find it useful to have stability in their upper body. But for those of us who walk around on our feet and legs, this is not ideal. And, of course, the upper body also houses our breathing materials, which need to be able to change shape to let air in and out of our lungs.
I’ve been seeing an osteopath every month or so, on and off, for about the last five years, because of pain and discomfort in my hips. This is something I noticed increasingly as I practiced the physical components of yoga more regularly. Which is not to say that the physical practice of yoga caused the discomfort, more that moving my body in those ways made it impossible for me to continue to ignore what was there. The more aware of my body I became, the more I could feel the instability in my hips, the tightness in my upper spine. I ended up at the osteo because there was a limit to my knowledge, a limit to how much I could see of myself, and to how I could understand what I was feeling. Over time, we’ve begun to work out how it is that I’ve been using my body, and how some of those habits might have contributed to my discomfort.
One day about a year ago, I realised I’d been completely neglecting my feet — in fact, I’d been thinking of them as if they were just inert stumps at the end of my legs. When I told my osteo this, he laughed and nodded, knowingly.
We did a gait analysis. I walked on a treadmill and he filmed it. The forward tilt in the top of my pelvis was obvious, and the accompanying shortness of the muscles at the front of my hips and length of the muscles in the back of my hips. To stay upright, I was bringing my ribcage back, and in doing so, compressing my lower back. And my feet? In this position where I was essentially falling forwards, my stride was long and I was landing on my heels with my shin on an angle, dropping my feet onto the ground, rather than placing them or using them really at all.
The structures of the feet have evolved to have the trajectory of weight as we stand and walk come down through the legs and ankle to the heel, along the outside edge of the foot to where the foot joins the pinky toe, then across to where the foot joins the big toe. The big toe, when we walk, is ideally the last thing to leave the ground. This trajectory is a spiral: heel, little toe, big toe. The outside edges of the feet are structurally more stable (sthira), and the big and second toes are structurally more mobile (sukha). But the way my feet were landing as I walked with my shins out at an angle made it difficult for me to follow this trajectory. My feet had become all stability/sthira, and were just kind of clumping along across the surfaces I walked on, rather than through them.
Ingold writes about walking as a form of knowing. Expanding on the idea of “foot thinking”, he suggest that walkers are ‘wayfarers’ — they they make their way through the world, responding to what they come across. A wayfarer is “a being who, in following a path of life, negotiates or improvises a passage as he goes along. In his movement as in life, his concern is to seek a way through: not to reach a specific destination or terminus but to keep going” (Ingold, 2010a, pg 126 — emphasis is Ingold’s). In contrast, transport carries a passenger across a surface from point A to point B, and what happens along the way is of no consequence (2010a, pg 127).
However, Ingold says, in practice “pure transport is an ideal that can be no more actualised than can the dream of being in two places as once. Time passes and life goes on, even while the passenger is in transit” (2010a, pg 127).
I find Ingold’s suggestion that in wayfaring, walking becomes “an act of inscription” (2010a, pg 127), where the walker leaves an impression of their movements, fascinating. If wayfaring is also a way of knowing, then this way of walking presumably also leaves an impression on the walker.
This idea of leaving an impression and of having an impression left upon an individual, and of the suggestion that attempting to be ’transported’ might also be an attempt to avoid the inevitability of this impression, or perhaps of its two-way nature, brings me to thinking about the ways in which modern societies think about and deal with waste. Much of the literature around waste and wastage uses the framework of “matter out of place” (Douglas, 1980), where waste items, or ‘dirt’, are things that we find difficult to categorise. This is both a useful and interesting framework through which to look at waste, but for the purposes of this piece, I want only to acknowledge it and set it aside. Perhaps not in contrast, but in addition to these ideas, Joshua Ozias Reno suggests a theory of waste that has links to Ingold’s notions of wayfaring and impressions left.
Reno argues that waste is not merely a human cultural categorisation, but is also something that pre-exists symbolic categorisation (2014). He suggests that animals too leave behind waste (their own biological waste, or animal scat), and that for other animals, that waste becomes a sign of life — both the continued life of the animal that left behind the waste material, and the potential for new life that waste materials such as animal scat might signify (2014). (Think here of the animal manure we might incorporate into our gardening ventures to feed the soil and therefore our plants.) Reno argues that human mass waste — which he defines as the waste material that “no longer refers back to the body that left it behind”, and is usually something that is the result of mixing together the wastes of different people — has become “more and more concentrated and contaminating”, and that public images of waste have therefore come to be dominated not by images of “the generation of life, but especially the spread of pollution, the interruption and cessation of life” (2014, pg 19).
My research is experimenting with waste materials. Specifically, my research is exploring notions of so-called unavoidable inedible food waste in households. The materials I’m looking at so far include citrus rinds, eggshells, avocado skins and seeds, and spent coffee grounds. Thinking of these materials as both signs of life and as potential new life is a helpful framework for me as I experiment with making things from them, finding value in them other than as compost.
Here again Ingold’s notion of the wayfarer’s walking is useful. He also writes about how wayfaring might be applied to making, saying that a work of art (or creation) is “not an object but a thing” (2010b, pg 97), and that the role of the maker “is not to give effect to a preconceived idea, novel or not, but to join with and follow the forces and flows of material that bring the form of the work into being” (2010b, pg 97). That my materials are waste materials — signs of the life they came from and signs of the potential for new life — means this framework for thinking about making is all the more potent for me.
The materials I’m working with are still living. And there is a certain unpredictability in that. No two lemon rinds are quite the same, or if they are, the weather on the days I’m dealing with them is unlikely to be the same, or dexterity with which I can use my hands is not quite the same — or any number of other factors that might change. Experimenting with these materials — because that is how I think of this making — means I have to be stable (sthira) with my attention to what I’m doing, and it means I have to be flexible or mobile (sukha) enough in my thinking and expectations to work with only the vaguest idea of what creation I might end up with, because it is likely to change as part of the process.
When I was a child, I made it my mission, for one reason or another, to walk comfortably barefoot across our gravel driveway. The gravel was not the fine beige sort often used for driveways; instead each slate coloured piece was somewhere between the size of a thumbnail and the size of a teaspoon. I could not rush across the surface with no shoes on. I needed to make my way through, to walk within the landscape’s texture — and often its temperature, since the dark coloured stones gave off more heat — as a wayfarer. With practise, I was able to do so swiftly, but to begin with it was a slow process. At the time, I thought of it as a process of “hardening up” my feet, but I can see now that the opposite was also true. I was also developing the more mobile parts of my feet so they could respond to the gravel. It was necessary to have both stability and mobility to stop myself from falling across or into the gravel with my feet. The gravel was not the same on any given day — it changed with the impressions left by other walkers and by the cars that drove through it.
My learning to walk as an adult is not a dissimilar process. I’m having to teach some parts of my body how to be more stable so that other parts can be more mobile. I’m having to slow down so I can be more responsive to where I’m walking, to where I am. And I’m noticing that perhaps, consciously or not, one way or another, I am always re-learning how to walk.
Douglas, M. (1980). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Binghamton, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
Ingold, T. (2004). Culture on the Ground. Journal of Material Culture, 9(3), 315–340.
Ingold, T. (2010a). Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing. JRAI Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16, S121–S139.
Ingold, T. (2010b). The textility of making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 91–102.
Reno, J. O. (2014). Toward a New Theory of Waste: From Matter out of Place to Signs of Life. Theory Cult. Soc. Theory, Culture and Society, 31(6), 3–27.