It’s Not a Foot Race

   Developing the ability to feel your body and its arrangement is a key aspect of learning how to take care of its movements. If you are a physical therapy patient, practicing this ability will help you to benefit from the instruction you receive in your sessions, and even after you complete your program. If you are a lifestyle athlete, competitor, performer, or any other kind of mover, the knowledge you acquire with this sense will apply to your performance in all of your moving and training, in injury or health.     

   Experience the following (it’s a little silly). Stand on one foot, wave the other around rather wildly and tell, literally tell, the first how to balance, as your other leg continues to move wildly. Now do the opposite. Stand on one foot, wave the other around, no need to think at all…did you balance with more ease?

   A different intelligence allows for balance, as well as for coordination, proprioception, your kinesthetic quotient, and other systems and abilities that govern our movement and sense of body. This intelligence listens to soft waves of feeling, a loud jab at your lower back, and the shout through your forehead under stress. It does not respond well to direct verbal command, as you learned if you attempted this first experiment. You may work on this intelligence at different parts of the body, perceiving the effects in the immediate area (your hamstring feels different after you stretch it) and in other, seemingly unrelated areas (check the back of your neck after a good hamstring stretch). The following exercises describe ways to work on this intelligence at the feet. You will make small changes, and then pay attention to what happens to the feet and the rest of the body.

   Holding a wall, door, or desk, hands shoulder width apart, stand on one leg. Without straining, extend the other leg behind you. Moving carefully, rock back onto your heel, rest a moment, and then rock forward to stand on the ball of your foot. Repeat this motion many times. What do you feel? Where do you feel it? In your mind’s eye, try dividing the foot into three parts length-wise. Rock back and forth on the outside third of the foot (the little toe to the outside of the heel), the middle (the middle toes to the center of the heel), and the inner third (the big toe to the inside of the heel). What do you feel? How do these imagined thirds of your foot change the rocking motion? The feeling of rocking?

   Take a rest and walk around. Does the left foot feel different than the right? How about the left leg? How “high” has the change gone (given that you do feel differences between your limbs)—could the change in your leg have affected anything in your torso? (This question is not aiming for you to “try to feel” something where you do not, but to open up the possibility of perceiving the unexpected. You can make up your own questions, too, with the formula “if I do __ with this body part , what happens in the position/feeling/etc. in this other body part?)

   Return to the same position with the wall, door, desk, or other object. Stand on the same foot, with the other leg gently extended behind you. Now, think of the bottom of your foot, roughly the area of your arch, as a tripod. One point at the center of the heel, one point at the ball of the foot under the big toe, and another point at the portion of your foot beneath your fourth and fifth toes.       Press into your foot at each of these places. Vary your pressure. Rest and walk around. Notice how smoothly the foot rolls on the surface as you walk—does it unfurl from heel to toe, or stomp as one unit? Has anything changed in the rest of your body—your leg, hip, midsection, back?

   Try the same exercises on the other leg. Ask more questions, make more variations. Where is most of the weight in your feet? Standing on the right leg, for instance, how does your balance change if you rotate your hips to the right? To the left?

   Without your hands on a support, bend your leg and point your big toe at a spot on the ground beneath your hip. Press into the floor with the tip of your big toe, and then move your knee forward, which will fold the big toe under the weight of your foot. As you begin to feel the stretch, stop: hold the position for twenty or more counts rather than pushing for results by intensity. Exit the stretch slowly, almost tentatively, paying attention to the sensations.

   You can do the same stretch, isolating one toe to fold it under your foot, with your other toes. Manipulate your smaller toes with your hands in order to fold them under your foot. Try working on where it feels tightest, and remember to exhale.

   Now, try to pick something off the floor and put it somewhere else—with your toes. Build a precarious stack of things. Put your car keys on the floor; pick them up and put them on a chair. If you can, the table. Hold something for balance, to start, and then practice without the support.

   Look at what you are doing. Then, practice looking at another point in the room; only paying attention to your peripheral vision; or closing your eyes. You might have to wait for some time before noticing your body begin to change in response to a change in your vision, and so it is important that you do not conclude that nothing has happened before you have given it a long enough chance.

   In all of these exercises, practice sustaining your interest—what can you do with your feet? What kind of circuit can you create out of the combination of exercises? Some stretching, then some balancing, then some picking up, then back to stretching—something like this, perhaps. In addition, you can do one of these exercises and then test it on a movement you perform often in fitness, sport, or daily life. How has the exercise changed your perception of your foot in this movement, or even the movement itself?

Bio: David Mercier is a Bard College student studying nonfiction writing. A lifelong athlete, he now approaches physical training with an experimental bent, blending strength training with body awareness practices.

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