Ill Communication: reawakening the dead zones
Anyone who comes to my classes knows that I’m really into feet. Not in a weird way, just out of a pure anatomical fascination with the structures that form the endpoints of our movement and embody our relationship with gravity on this planet. I have been through a personal journey with my own feet, suffering as I do with the consequential effects of an accessory navicular bone: tight Achilles tendons, over pronation, protruding inner foot bone, etc. I use the term ‘suffering’ loosely, because my feet no longer throb with the god-awful ache that plagued my teenage years.
My foot situation has settled and has presented to me the important lessons about how gross anatomy is a harness for the subtle body in the Yogi’s endeavour to strip away blockages and increase connectivity. As we lose the propensity for system-wide communication, neglected parts of the body go through a sort of “souring,” and through the practice of Yoga we are given a means of extended freshness.
What the heck am I talking about? My point here is to highlight the areas of our body that for one reason or another, we have refused to accept and with which we consequently lose touch. I call these areas Dead Zones. My feet were for years a dead zone, and I just didn’t deal with them. On some level, I knew my flat feet were aesthetically backward as well as functionally problematic.
Since I couldn’t change my genetic flat-footedness, at some stage I ignored the situation and began to push other aspects of asana performance. All this prioritising goes on subconsciously in all of us, on a level in the brain that regulates what our higher levels of decision-making gets to reckon with and what is left for our reflexive brain to deal with, like a kind of “auto responder.”
It is to our advantage that this filter is so efficient, or else none of us would be able to get both feet out of bed in the morning for having to consciously consider every nuance of movement. However, there is a substantial benefit in becoming acutely in tune with how and why we move the way we do, as contending with some of our gross assumptions is the stuff of real progression in Yoga and in general.
Dead Zones often arise from hereditary aspects such as flat feet, and a lack of awareness pervades whilst the hereditary condition becomes reinforced as a myofascial imbalance. We can become so habituated to the situation that we are unaware of what is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other end of the spectrum, we become so fixated on the anatomical area that it becomes totally dominant of our self-image. I see it all the time in my Yoga classes in people who present with rounded shoulders, inability to stand with their feet together, wandering eyes, weakness in the arms and hands, chronically anteriorly rotated pelvis, and other imbalances that are partially or totally the manifestation of long-standing bad habits built upon some unfortunate genetic phenotype.
Because we don’t like our hand shape, we regress into not bothering to deal with hand position in Yoga. Because we are told we have hyper-kyphosis of the spine, we don’t bother rolling back the shoulders anymore. Because I knew I had flat feet, I hated on the Yoga teachers that told me to lift my arches. Don’t you think I’m trying to lift my *&^@ing arches?
We have all been there, and getting poked right in the Dead Zone makes us angry. Wasps emerge. Sometimes we just need to be guided gently there and left to address the void. The best Yoga teachers are those that lead us to the water compassionately, and sometimes push us in. Ultimately, each one of us must accept our zones of contention and find the sort of communication that engenders dialogue if not anatomical perfection.
I would like to offer the following 5 stages of reconnecting to these areas, in all their imperfection, as important regions for reconditioning the ego. Unfortunately, it does involve getting resolutely poked in areas of which we have long ago checked out. Fear not, in this game there is nothing to lose except the residue of ill communication.
Stage One: Get Poked
You have knock-knees. You slump. Your face is tripping you. What about that spare tire that’s keeping you from binding in Marichyasana C, and indeed reaching the floor in a forward bend? What is your obvious zone of contention that is so clearly holding you back that you haven’t quite accepted its harsh reality yet, even at this late hour in your life? You need to be told in no uncertain terms that your duck feet are unacceptable here, and then objectively face their physicality in the cold light of day.
This sounds very harsh and often the poke is painful and ungracefully administered by an uncaring individual. Rarely is one fortunate enough to be poked by a caring and experience Yoga teacher; pokes received from such a giver are precious and few. What we have to accept is that the information zap is best unpacked quickly so that the emotive wrapper can be discarded expediently, leaving behind a core of truth that can be objectively harnessed for connectivity. My point is: don’t take it personally, but you slump. Deal with it.
Stage Two: Lament
Once you get the sharp stick of awareness poking holes in the boards that have been blocking out the light, you can start to see the condition your condition is in. This is almost always a painful process and so Stage Two usually involves several sub-stages including anger, fear, disillusionment, despair. We can often get caught down the rabbit hole of blame, hating our parents and blaming Grandmother for the genes that set you up this way. Go ahead, let these feelings work through your layers. But wallow briefly and continue the work as swiftly as possible.
Lament is important because it is what makes us human, it is the waft of colouring that defines a powerful vertex of our experience as emotive beings. Emotion is the blowback of real change taking place, like the wake of a ship in its turning radius. It is tricky stuff, because perhaps our Stage One was a particularly unfair and hateful Poke, so our seemingly justifiable emotional defense mechanisms will represent thicker packing material around the kernel of truth that represents a potential sea change in our subtle body. Once we have unpacked the message then we have more energy for ernest research, and perhaps a heightened sense of humour about it. Excellent.
Stage Three: Research
There is an overlap here, when you’re still sore after getting poked, but you can take pride in your new interest and follow your intuition to find who to consult first. Learn about the anatomical area of interest. Through this study, you’ll piece together an objective understanding of the factors involved and just how your particular pattern fits into the spectrum of normalcy. What if your particular poke has been something like “You need to smile more,” well, that is your cue to become aware of people’s faces and study countenance as an academic field of inquiry. Gaining a range of data is critical for finding the objectivity required for true perspective.
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The research I did on feet was pretty extensive, and I saw my GP and podiatrist, learning the names of the bones in the feet and taking every opportunity to observe biomechanics. Through this research I found out that fallen arches are a normal human variation, not normally correctible in adulthood, and not the abhorrent personal deformity signifying kinetic retardation that I had shamed them into representing. The more I learned, the more my lamentation turned to fascination. My feet and I came to an understanding. That shift is the essence of this program.
Stage Four: Therapy
Once your fascination gains traction, you’ll have the powerful tools of knowledge and discrimination on your side. You’ll know more about the anatomical area of concern in general, where your own particular situation falls on the spectrum of normal, and perhaps have seen a specialist in the field.
Persist in that regard; do NOT be deterred, and make sure you persevere in consulting the expert level in the area. In the meantime, develop a means to address your Dead Zone directly. I strongly advocate the Ashtanga Yoga method as the best therapy available for discovering and addressing Dead Zones; however, there are some incredibly sensitive therapeutic methods available that are more suitable for dealing with certain imbalances in a precise way. Sometimes doing asana as normal is not part of the treatment required, especially where damaged cartilages are concerned, and this is where the tool of discrimination becomes especially important vis-a-vis “the traditional method.”
As part of my own therapy, I modified Ashtanga Yoga asanas for my feet, integrating arch-strengthening physio, used orthotics, and built anatomical models to understand the kinetics involved. This therapy took on new meaning once I had embraced my situation and had key input from specialists. My navicular bones could be operated on if I really wanted to reduce their protrusion, but this would be a lengthy and painful process with no guaranteed outcome. Certain postures wouldn’t be possible for me to achieve beautifully, but in the last few years I have become less concerned with aesthetics and more interested in what David Garrigues calls “the pattern that connects.”
The Therapy Stage is continuous and heightens with maturity. We all have to weigh up our options, perform the relevant physio exercises religiously, remain open to other opinions and new facts, become experts in the subject, and diligently embrace the area as it actually lives and contributes to our body’s total movement spectrum.
Stage Five: Repeat
The Five Stages of invigorating our Dead Zones is a cyclical technique best used in conjunction with an ongoing method such as Ashtanga Yoga, and a grain of salt. The process continues indefinitely as we switch the lights on in the subtle body’s fibre optics, getting poked and sending resources in that region to investigate. In Ashtanga Yoga, the infamous obstacles are fear and ego, and perhaps an indiscriminate adherence to certain “rules” that can make this beautiful practice unnecessarily into a Procrustean bed. But undertaken with moderation and consistency, the diligent practitioner will increase lightness to a degree I think is unlikely achievable by any other method. The key is to repeat often, staying inspired by the constant fascination of a newly reclaimed acceptance of ourselves.