Since high-school graduation I’ve lived in a different house or apartment every year. As such, I’ve been granted the annual opportunity to leave behind, throw away, sell or donate all that hasn’t been amply used in the last year or, couldn’t be crammed into whatever size trunk I had access to. The absence of this yearly expurgation, in this past year’s attempt to settle slightly, has resulted in a palpable difference; things are piling up and the walls closing in. I’ve always been stunned but, mostly shamed by my ability to accrue and hide away unnecessary accruals, sorting through them is more like flipping through a scrapbook of neglected hobbies or styles and décor that didn’t wear well or don’t wear as well as they once did. I hate carrying the physical and emotional weight of these things. Before my recent spring cleaning spree, I was having nightmares that the weight of me and all my things would come crashing down on my reasonable but already a little spiteful downstairs neighbors. I’m far from the first to tout the benefits of a more functionally oriented and minimalistic lifestyle, there’s countless resources on the topic and a variety of ways to go about it, but the most sound benefit of ridding myself of clutter is the space it suddenly spares for life and living. There is suddenly less to maintain, less mess to navigate, and always a renewed vow to stop looking for more, or look for more in different places, and to better define my needs and fulfill solely those. Very few things are as necessary as they first appear and to find clarity wherever we want to, we have to first separate the necessary from the unnecessary, another way of refining priorities.
My first minimalist practice started at the foundation, my feet, the most frequent connection with the ground beneath me. At first, I loved the ease of picking up one foot after another mile after mile without a weight attached, and then found an increased ease and comfort making my way to the edges of heights and landscapes, built on the comfort of knowing that nothing would slip out from out from under me without a proprioceptive warning, traveling via the nerve network at a rate of 350 ft/sec. The side effect of this has been strength, physical and emotional. A stronger physical connection to my location, my mind brought a little closer to the earth, not due to collapse or failure but rather emancipation from previously necessary support; “Blueprint your free, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight bearing device ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter it’s parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure.” (as cited by Christopher McDougall, Born to Run, pg. 176)
We rarely endeavor without support, be it internal or external, but for me the preference has always been self-sufficiency, footwear or a lack thereof has been a step in the latter’s direction. It has redefined the two longitudinal and one transverse arches of my feet with more awareness, articulation, and pliability; all of which increase the efficiency of my locomotion. These arches are formed by 26 bones and 33 joints (20 of which we have active control over), 18 muscles. 12 tendons and ligaments, like the plantar fascia, medial, and lateral, all stabilizing and allowing the foot to move. This is a high percentage, twenty-five, of all the bones in our body, indicative of the range of motion, and strength that the entire mechanical system should be capable of when unrestricted. Important because all of the above influence the way we carry our weight, and for how long and far it’s sustainable; “Imagine your kid is running into the street and you have to sprint after her in bare feet,…You’ll automatically lock into perfect form–you’ll be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking back toward your butt.” (as cited by Christopher McDougall, Born to Run, pg 206) This is perhaps an oversimplification of a debatable topic, but in the context, a high-adrenaline/fight-or-flight scenario the biomechanics described are those that I would rely on, and often do, as many would without a moment of conscious thought. The biomechanics would be different if one were trying to run all day where in maintenance mode landing further back on the foot is more appropriate, preserving the previously more active calf muscle group. All versus walking, in which a heel strike, and roll to the outside of the transverse arch (the pinky toe) onto the inner edge of the transverse (big toe mound) to, finally, a roll onto and a push off of the big toe as the body falls forward to be caught by your other foot, is the most efficient, slow, and steady ambulatory cycle.
Where we initially catch our weight on our feet in the graceful fall of forward bipedal motion subsequently utilizes all the muscles in the lower leg variably, creating the basis for movement of the entire human structure, be it forward, backward, up or down. According to Erik Orton, one of Christopher McDougall’s running coaches; “You can’t run uphill powerfully with poor biomechanics,” (as cited by Christopher McDougall, Born to Run, pg 206) the intended meaning being that it’s physically impossible to do so but, I want to relate it to something bigger. In my post “How do we steer a balloon?” in a direct quote Bertrand Piccard relates, through a beautiful metaphor, changing altitude in a balloon by releasing ballast – or that which is no longer necessary – to climbing to higher psychological, philosophical, or spiritual levels in life by doing the same; but, because we are bound to earth by gravity we are climbing up hills and summiting mountains (physical and metaphorical) to change altitude more often than attempting to do so in a balloon, so while it always serves us to release the unnecessary externalities that weigh us down as Bertrand suggests, it also serves us to release the externalities that have become crutches. The unnecessary banisters weakening our inherent support system, the arches of our feet. By doing so we’re working toward strength and flexibility that allow for a wide range of enduring and efficient mobility, giving us the necessary power for all the uphill climbs ahead.
In yoga, more so than running, adjustments are made from the foundation up, whatever the acting foundation may be feet, hands, forearms, shoulders, knees, or toes the initial work is always to build a solid base before the apex of the pose. This narrows the scope of the workload and prevents the frustration of trying to globally perfect all the precise physical movements at once. It also requires a little disregard for the big picture and allowance of ego driven work to fall away until we’re able to form the infrastructure necessary to hold it. This requires building strength in the arches of our feet, in the muscles supporting the curvature of our spine in a backbend, or the muscles and tendons in the hand buttressing a healthy carpal tunnel; all before we load them with our weight as it’s well documented that if where, proper alignment dictates, the bulk of our weight should land isn’t ready to bear it we’ll disperse it unsafely elsewhere. Placing the strain on unintended and unprotected muscle groups/tendons/ligaments/bones, and not without consequence, though these don’t always manifest upon the first offense. Because, however we move, we’ll strain our strength if we carry too much, like trying to bring all you own backpacking. You’re arches may not crumble but you will suffer and struggle. And carry too much, too soon. It’s why we work knees down chaturanga first, but what’s too soon to lift your knees requires open awareness and acceptance allowing “start where you are,” to sink-in, settle, and guide forward or upward progress.
If we carry less relief from the physical burden requires little more explanation. Yet, the emotional liberation is tangible too but, from where does this stem?