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We know this from dancing, but no matter what you’re doing — whether it’s making art or building a house or starting a relationship — a strong foundation allows for spaciousness and possibility above it.

The key is to know what your foundation is and how to make it strong.

It’s true for doing Tree Pose, starting a company, or raising a child.

Ask yourself,
What is my foundation?
What is essential at the base of what I’m doing?
And how can I make that foundation stronger?

The more solid the foundation, the more creative, expressive, and limitless the possibilities in the space above.

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(originally posted April 28, 2013)

Not long ago, my friend Dinah sent me this video. It was a mesmerizing 16 minutes. I could not tear myself away.

And the whole time, my knees would not stop shaking.

Spending 16 minutes with my knees rattling, made me realize how vulnerable I’m feeling these days – in all realms. So this week, I’m revisiting a piece about knees that was originally posted in April 2013. EnJOY.

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You can mess with God, but you can’t mess with your knees.” – genius facilitator and friend, Bev Wann

For the past week or so, my knees have been feeling tight and sore. I’d love to tell you that my in-depth knowledge of anatomy led me immediately to the source of the discomfort. But I had no idea why my knees weren’t feeling right. I’d also love to tell you that I was calm and at peace with the ache in my knees. While I wasn’t exactly panicky, I was sincerely not chill with it.

Knees are sensitive spots. At just the sight of someone who looks unstable or likely to fall, my empathetic husband’s knees tingle. Think about the way we talk about knees idiomatically:
– Weak in the knees
– Knocking knees
– Up to my knees or knee-deep
– Cut off at the knees
– Fall on the knees or bring to the knees
– On bended knee
– Knee-high to a grasshopper
All of these sayings reveal the vulnerability of knees.  Whether it’s love or fear, overwhelm or a heartfelt plea, when we talk about our knees, we are talking about helplessness.

The largest joint in the body, knees are a complex hinge or condylar joint which are essential for movement.  Knowing the anatomy of the joint can help in understanding the importance of alignment.  For example, when you stand up or squat down, do your knees fall in toward each other?  If so, you are straining your Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL).  If your knee juts out in front of your foot when you lunge forward, you are stressing the ligaments around your patella (knee cap) that connect the muscles from the thigh to the shin bone.

There are many good resources for learning about knee health (for example, click here for a good article about knees and yoga), but we can learn particular things from the practice of Nia (click here for an article from the Nia White Belt Manual about Nia and the Knees and another on Knee-Locking Syndrome).

Both in the studio and in life, I’ve discovered the following four keys to knee health and comfort:

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #1:  Always step silently and cleanly

This is the A-number one, most important focus when it comes to happy knees.  First, step softly (with cat-like tread!) and silently.  Stomping and walking heavily strains the feet, ankles, knees and hips and dulls awareness (see Knee-Ahh Tip #4).  And step cleanly, without dragging, shuffling, or twisting your feet on the floor.  Imagine the floor is slightly sticky so you have to lift and place your feet – every single time.  This is particularly important when turning.  The Body’s Way is to step rather than spin on the feet which protects not just the knee but the joints above and below.  Which leads to…

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #2: For happy knees, look to hips and ankles

Whenever you experience discomfort in the body, look above and below the place of pain.  One of the best ways to keep knees healthy is to keep the hips and ankles strong and mobile.  Most people are unable to execute a walking turn in Nia because their hips do not have the range of motion to allow the turn.  And commonly, people shuffle or drag their feet because of stiff or weak ankles.  Practicing any of the first eight movements of the 52 Moves of Nia will condition the ankle joints while Moves 19 through 29 are all particularly good for the hip joints.

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #3: Breathe & Relax

Given that they are particularly sensitive and vulnerable, one tendency is to hold tension in the knees.  This week, I’ve noticed that while sitting at my desk, watching baseball (Go Twins and Red Sox!), and even when I’m in Savasana, I’m often holding some level of tension in my knees!  One of the best things I can do in movement and in stillness is relax and breathe into my knees.

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #4: Listening & Awareness

The more I practice Nia Principle 5, Awareness, the more I learn about what is supporting and what is taxing my knees… or any part of me.  This week, I noticed that I am very precise with my foot placement when I’m in Nia class, but when I’m working in my kitchen, I tend to twist on my feet especially on the rug in front of my stove.  Use awareness and deep listening to find even the small changes that can make happier knees.

What makes your knees happy?  Share your body wisdom and Knee-Ahhh! experiences below!  May this week leave you knee-deep in knee health!

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

I’m all about feet.

Since 1999, I’ve been dancing barefoot and exploring what happens in the body when we take off our shoes and move as we were designed. I’m always interested in ways of stretching, massaging, strengthening, and generally caring for feet since happy feet are the foundation of a happy body (just ask me after I’ve spent the evening standing in pointy, pointy high heeled shoes how happy I’m feeling).

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But when I stumbled on this video I learned something that set up a cascade of unexpected discoveries that surprised even a foot health fan like me.

1. Stretch the feet and release the back of the legs

The Pilates foot release video has a nice protocol for stretching that I’ve been enjoying but it’s not that different from other stretches I’ve done on my feet with a variety of balls (tennis, Yamuna , foot rollers , etc.). What fascinated me was the connection between releasing my feet and releasing my hamstrings.

Not only did it feel good to stretch and open my feet, I loved that I could also feel the release through my back legs. That discovery had me looking for other connections…

2. Release backs of legs and release low back

As I noticed a lengthening and release in the back of my legs, I noticed a corresponding release through my low back. I have a tendency towards lumbar lordosis (or duck butt)

lordosis

but as my feet and back legs released, my tailbone dropped down allowing my lumbar spine to let go. So I kept following the thread…

3. Release low back and engage core

As my low back released from its habitual hyperextension, my low core and belly naturally turned on. <a href=”http://As we’ve talked about before in this space” target=”_blank”>As we’ve talked about before in this space, core strength is key to moving in a with grace and power but a perhaps surprising benefit of core engagement is…

4. Engage core and get lighter and more flexible feet

…that a strong core, allows me to step more lightly, with more mobility and agility without taxing my feet which allows them to stay (you guessed it) more flexible.

This chain works in both directions: I can also focus on stepping lightly, without dropping my foot, and that strengthens my core, which releases my tailbone and lumbar spine, which lengthens my hamstrings which creates more ease in my feet.

Cool, huh?

And all of this connection sleuthing has me curious about other unexpected connections in the body. Some of the ones I also play with:
• Relaxing my jaw allows my hips to let go
• Pressing my feet into the floor and opening the arch of my feet allows me to breathe more deeply (stretching my diaphragm)
• The thoughts and images I have in my mind profoundly connect with how my body feels and moves

As ever, I’d love to hear how this chain of connection reverberates in your body and any surprising connections that you’ve discovered in your own practice! Do tell.

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

The power and support in your body is at the back. Check it out: the biggest bone is in the back of your foot, the biggest muscles are along the back of your legs and hips and back, the strength of your shoulders is at the back.

Given our forward orientation, though, we tend to lean in and away from the support that is naturally there for us. As head and chin and shoulders come forward, the smaller muscles in the front body tighten and contract while they attempt to hold the body upright. Meanwhile, all those big muscles at the back get over-stretched or tight from disuse.

Here are 6 practical ways to build back power in the body plus a bonus for another way of getting support from behind.

Awareness

1. Pay attention to how you stand and sit. Are you leaning forward (even a little) so the back of your body can’t support you? Get next to a mirror and sit or stand as you usually do (while looking away from the mirror), and then without moving your body, gently turn your head so you can see your position. It’s important to know how you do what you do. This information can bring awareness and help to make choices for ease in your body.

2. Notice how you walk. The power of the human walk comes from pushing off the ball of the foot and letting that push propel you forward. Pay attention to how you walk normally and see if you can play with feeling the push off from your foot and leg as your shoulders and arms relax back.

Strength

3. Sink and rise. I mean, really sink and rise. We tend to hesitate to sink into the strength we have in our legs. Play with using your legs to get down with your bad self. Drop something? Squat down to pick it up. Use the big muscles of your legs whenever you can.

4. Engage your back. Some days, get on the rowing machine instead of the stairstepper. Get in Plank position (either toes down or knees down) and feel the support from your back. And while you’re in Plank, do a few push ups (even if you go down just a little way)!

Stretch

5. Open your chest by lying with a foam roller lined up along your spine and your feet flat on the floor. Let your arms open to the sides and gently let gravity open tight chest muscles.

6. Release your hips. The hip flexor muscles at the front of the hip tend to tighten with repetitive walking and sitting. Open those muscles by stepping one foot back (bow stance) and gently tucking your tail under as you sink. Go gently and let the muscles lengthen.

Bonus – Build a Team of Allies

Think of people who inspire you, people whose lives guide yours. Whether they are people you know or have never met, people who support you directly or by their example, even animals who have helped you, recruit them to your team of allies. Imagine them standing behind you when you need encouragement or guidance. Call on them when you need strength or support. Ask them for wisdom when you’re not sure what to do next. Your team of allies gotcher back.

NOTE: The physical focus for my classes this week is about the body’s design of support and power from below and behind. If you’d like more about that, there is a lot of great information in this post from September 2013. What follows is the interpersonal and metaphysical side of this focus.

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Grampa at my college graduation in 1986

Monday, February 29, 2016 would have been my beloved, maternal grandfather’s 100th birthday. Or more accurately, it would have been his 25th birthday … and he would have been 100 years old.

In our family, the grandchildren looked forward to the year that they were “older” than Grampa. When I was born in 1964, Gramps had just had his 12th birthday. We both had our 16th in 1980. When I turned 17, I’d had more.

He died on January 27, 2008, one month and two days before his 23rd birthday. By that time all but one of his six grandchildren had had more birthdays than he. When Catalina turned 22 in October 2008, they’d had the same.


After the main course of any dinner at my grandparents’ house, my Nana would ask if anyone wanted dessert. Yes, yes, we all did. So, she’d say, I have oatmeal cookies, vanilla ice cream, or orange sherbert (in her Brockton accent, it was “sheh-beht.”) We’d all go around the table and tell her what we wanted while she dramatically kept count on her fingers. Every single time, when she got to my Grampa, he’d say Steamed Chocolate Pudding and Hard Sauce. Exasperated, she’d lose count of everything. He knew perfectly well that Nana only made this fancy dessert on Christmas Day. When she asked him what he wanted for dessert on Christmas, he always said, Oatmeal cookies.


Any child who sat on Grampa’s lap loved to play with his face. My tongue is connected to my ears, he’d say. When little hands grabbed his left ear, his tongue would pop out on the left side. Grab the right and the tongue would slide to the right. Grab his nose and his tongue would point straight out. Sometimes we’d get tricky and pull both ears at once and he’d explode in a loud raspberry and a flurry of tickles.


My Nana loved to give gifts, so on birthdays and Christmas there was always an embarrassment of wrapped wonders to open. Nana wasn’t much a bow maker, though. Instead she used those stick-on puffy bows. Whenever anybody opened a gift with a stick-on bow, they would pull it off the box and stick it to Grampa’s head. Good-natured Gramps that he was, he would leave them all there until there was no room for more.


Grampa was a sailor and served in the Coast Guard in World War II. Going out on his boat, Sabrina, on Buzzard’s Bay was a staple of summer in my family. Once we were under way, the grand kids would skibble up onto the bow in our bathing suits and Grampa would casually turn into the wind so the waves would come over the gunnels and splash us with cold Bay water. We would shriek back to him at the tiller, Grampa! You’re splashing us!

It’s not me, he’d say, it’s the wind.


On one remarkable July weekend in 1987, I had a weekend alone at the Buzzard’s Bay cottage with Grampa. My Nana was uncharacteristically travelling and I arranged to hang out with him, just the two of us. We went sailing and ate frozen pizzas with cans of Budweiser and then went sailing again. On Saturday night, he wanted to cook me dinner but he only knew how to make one thing: baked whole bluefish. Not many people cook it whole, so we drove to every blessed fish market on the Bay until we found a whole fish. He doused it with butter and served it with potato chips. It was sublime ~ weekend and bluefish alike.


Whenever we shared any happy news with Grampa, he always said in his rumbling voice, Yea-Bo! Drew a nice picture for him? Yea-Bo! Hit a decent golf shot? Yea-Bo! Sang a solo at church? Yea-Bo! Got into the school you wanted to go to? Yea-Bo! Steamed Chocolate Pudding with Hard Sauce for dessert? Yea-Bo! To this day, when I have a success no matter how small, I can hear him cheering me on.

Erin's Yeah Bo truck

My cousin Erin’s Yeah Bo truck

* * *
Everybody needs someone who lifts them up. Whether it’s a teacher or coach who taught you to be a better athlete and person, or an artist whose work you go to for inspiration, or a politician or activist or musician who shows you the kind of person you want to be, we all have allies. It doesn’t matter if they are someone you grew up with or someone you never met. It doesn’t matter if they are alive or even fictional. We all need allies to support us when we aren’t feeling strong. When we need guidance, we can look to these important people to get behind us.
Who are your allies? They are always available. Ask them for help whenever you need it.

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Grampa with his first great-grandchild, Olivia

In loving memory of Richard Crocker Reed ~ Feb 29, 1916 – Jan 27, 2008

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One way to understand something is to look at another thing. The Body’s Way is really Nature’s Way, so what can I learn about my feet by understanding roots?

Spread out.

Most tree roots grow in the top 18 inches of soil – spread platter-like under the tree. For balanced movement, spread and relax your feet. Unclench your toes and your heart may follow.

Resting but ready.

In winter, tree roots don’t go dormant but instead are resting and poised for even a few warm days to enliven and grow. Keep relaxed aliveness in your feet and You will leaf from there.

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Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

… tree roots seem to maintain a readiness to grow independent of the aboveground parts of the tree. … This winter quiescence – where roots are resting but ready – is extremely important for the health of individual trees and, by extension, for forests in general. ~ Micheal Snyder, Northern Woodlands, Winter 2007

Most of the time, I don’t give tree roots a whole lot of thought. But I think about tree roots plenty when I trip on one (a perfect opportunity to use John Larroquette’s timeless line from Stripes: “Have that removed.”). I think about tree roots when I’m riding over them on my bike. When I’m bouncing along and every other sound out of my mouth is “ooohff”? That’s when I think about tree roots.

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Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

On our trip this summer, we saw roots everywhere: on the trails, curving around rocks, clinging to river banks and lake shores. We saw the roots of up-ended trees fanning up toward the sky with the awkward vulnerability of a teenager who’s tripped and fallen in a high school hallway.

When I’m bumping and tripping over them, I think of roots as solid and fixed, grasping the earth to keep the tree upright. But of course, roots aren’t that way at all. Roots are alive and growing and finding their way through soil, around rocks, always deepening their connection and finding ways to offer support and nourishment.

Rigid, solid roots would serve the tree no better than rigid feet would serve us.

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Grundy Lake Provincial Park, Ontario

Feet offer stability and make it possible for us live upright. Tight, tense feet that live in ill-fitting shoes are unstable feet – and are likely attached to an uncomfortable person. A couple of years ago, I noticed I tense and lift my big toes a lot when I walk and when standing I often “grab” the floor with my toes. No wonder balance is a challenge for me: my feet are holding on instead of relaxing down. Check out how much tension you hold in your feet. Relax your feet and toes, and your whole body gains stability and mobility. You might also smile more.

One misconception I had about tree roots is that they mirror the branches above them. I always imagined that roots reach down as far as branches reach up. Instead, most tree roots grow out more than down – mainly in the top 18 inches of soil where the most water and nutrients are available. Imagine a wine glass standing in the middle of a dinner plate. Roots create support and stability by spreading wide.

Except for maybe in super soft sand, our feet can’t really dig down, but they can spread out. Notice if, like me, you roll to the outside edges of your feet (you can also look at the wear on the soles of your shoes to see if you have this tendency). The inside of foot — heel to big toe and third toe plus the arch that spans the space between — is the most stable. As you stand and move, focus on pressing down through the big toe mound to engage the muscles and connective tissue in your feet and legs that offer you stability and relaxation. You can also pay attention from the top down: if any body part above the base is tense, this is a sign that the base isn’t stable and relaxed.

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Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

As winter approaches, tree branches go dormant and wait for spring before they grow again, but roots go into a different state as the weather gets colder. Roots are inactive, but if temperatures rise even briefly, they will “wake up” and get growing again. In the winter, roots aren’t totally alseep; they are in a state of “resting but ready.”

When our human bodies are moving easefully and efficiently on the earth, our feet and legs are in this state of resting but ready each time we place a foot on the ground. The foot’s intricate architecture of 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles plus connective tissue all allow it to move, be still, and balance on sandy, grassy and rocky terrain. When we say “stability” sometimes it’s mistaken for solidity or rigidity. Instead, every step and stance is alive with powerful and readiness for whatever movement may (or may not) come next.

Nature knows how to make a tall life form like a tree or a human stable and resilient. Awareness and intent can let your roots come alive.

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Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario

Plus, more resting but ready, means less tripping over tree roots.

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