Learning to walk

2014-09-12 10.12.22-2Barefoot 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.

2014-09-14 12.29.37One 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.

~

2014-09-28 10.13.39-2Ingold 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.

2014-10-07 18.53.01-2Here 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.
Advertisements

Traces of things from the past

Ceiling from the floor In the mornings, I roll out of bed and onto the floor, where I breathe and move my body through a series of strange shapes and stand still and move again and sit and lie down and breathe. Some mornings my breath is difficult, sometimes my back or my hips or my neck and shoulders hurt. Most mornings my bedroom carpet smells like the dog who used to live in the house with the people who lived here before I did.

My room is small. Over time, I’ve worked out where I need to stand at the beginning of a sun salute so I don’t end up kicking my bedside table half way through the sequence, where on the floor I need to lie so I’ve room to let my legs drop to the floor on my right side and then my left for a lying twist. I’ve worked out these same things about how my body fits into the space in each of my bedrooms for the last eight years or so. In most of those houses, I’ve also practiced in various shared spaces: the lounge room, sometimes the kitchen. The feel of carpet, floor boards or kitchen tiles under hand and foot; the layer of dust that gathers under furniture; the way hip bones, knees, shoulder blades dig into and are bruised or not by various floor surfaces; the way light plays on the ceilings and light fittings — these are things I know about the houses in which I’ve lived, these are the ways I remember those places.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Buddhist concept of ‘samskaras’, or ‘traces of things from the past’. Which is probably another way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own past. I recently had an essay about the traces of places in memory and the concept of ‘home’ published on Tabula Rasa. I’ve often wondered about how much what we think of as home is really just about familiarity, or whether there are also places for individuals that feel genuinely more like home than others, regardless of how much time a person has spent in that place. How much of ‘home’ is inherent and how much is learned?

My thinking about samskaras and place and home has done strange things to time. I’ve not been entirely confident about where I am in the week, and often where exactly I am in the timeline of my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated several times in the last year, and I wonder whether it’s the effect of making a change in my life like moving interstate, and everything that’s come with that. Moving back to a place I’ve lived before has perhaps amplified that weirdness in time. It’s pushed me to see again past versions of myself, and to try and integrate both past Sophies and present Sophie into some kind of coherent narrative of identity. It’s an odd process. Not entirely unpleasant, but definitely weird.

Another way of thinking about samskaras is to think of them as habits — in doing, thinking, responding — that have formed because of the stuff of life. Of course, periods of great trauma or stress or joy leave traces, but so too does the mundane, everyday stuff of our lives. So it makes sense that a period of transition or big change like moving interstate, where many or most of one’s everyday habits are shed, would have the potential to shine light on some of the other habits or traces.

The shake-up of everyday rhythms and habits might also explain why time is so strange for me right now. In her post on Claudia Hammond’s book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, Maria Popova summarises Hammond’s theory about why a good holiday feels at the time like it’s flying by, but long when you look back on it later.

“…the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.”

Change, they say, is as good as a holiday. I wonder whether that’s because, like a holiday, change injects this novelty into life. It gives us an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. And if, as research suggests, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are so important to our wellbeing, then what a great opportunity this is.

Something I love about the concept of samskaras is that it’s entirely neutral. There is no judgement; the traces are just there. Whether or not a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a judgment value we place on it after it’s noticed. The idea in noticing is to have some idea of what we’re carrying around with us, because those things inevitably affect the way we think and behave in the present. They affect who we are. Figuring out what in that luggage (or is it baggage?) is helpful and what isn’t is a tricky process though.

I remembered the other day that when I moved to Sydney from Melbourne all those years ago, I wrote about packing memories into boxes. (But I also wrote about packing ideas for the future into boxes… and then abandoning them. Clearly moving and packing was a powerful metaphor for me.) My life at that time was incredibly confusing. I’d been through a particularly heartbreaking breakup, immediately after which I’d decided to move interstate. This meant quitting my job, then having to find a new one; it meant meeting lots of new people and learning to live with a whole new set of people. I had to get to know a new city. I felt like I had to get to know myself again too.

It’s been useful for me to remember that time now and how confusing it was for me. Partly because this time around I’m not hurting anywhere near as much as I was then, and partly because it shows me that perhaps, for me at least, prolonged confusion is just part of the process of making big changes.

But now, instead of figuratively packing and unpacking boxes, I’m breathing and standing and folding forward and bending backwards and twisting and sitting and lying down and breathing. Having that thread, the yoga, has become, unexpectedly, a way of remembering what it’s like to take up space in the world I inhabit now as well as what it felt like to do so in times and places I’ve left behind. It’s a way of remembering what it felt like — in every sense of that phrase — to be me at those times, and of noticing what it feels like to be me now. It’s a way of feeling time and all the things it changes and all the things it doesn’t and to see that things just go on even if it’s not always easy or straightforward. It helps me see that at some point I’ll be looking back on this present, perhaps as I roll around on the floor in some new place, and be seeing the traces, the samskaras, left by what’s happening now.