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I slip off my shoes and quietly enter the studio’s back door. I’m not the first to arrive. Several students have shown up early, after their work day, to claim their favorite corner or spend a few moments in a supportive posture before class.
Students shuffle on their mats, finding their places in Tadasana. Some bring the mounds of their big toes to touch; others instinctively bring a distance of two fists between their feet. After a moment’s pause, the grounding begins. Our breathing becomes synchronized and our bodies thrum in a still dance.
As students anchor heels into the floor, their intention as foundation, my gaze tracks downward, where I find the first signs of secret distress. I am the audience. Each student is a universe unto themselves, and it is my place to recognize and celebrate the unique worlds that surround me.
And to do that, I first look at their feet.
There, I find the delicate swoop of the inner arch, a hidden cathedral, before toes drag the dome again toward the floor. Toes press deeply into the mat, stress seeping into the space around them like an invisible puddle. This is my primary stage for inquiry. I can see who has come straight from work in an office. Their toe beds are sculpted by tight shoes, their feet like large arrowheads. They’ll want to ease their lower back pain, soften their hip flexors, dispose of the clutter of the day. My voice softens. Their body armor begins to dissipate, their shoulders start to relax. Their obligations and responsibilities are over. I am a mediator, not a manager.
Calluses bandage the feet of runners in beautiful displays of the body’s ability to protect itself. Thick layers reach up the back of a pair foot, betraying a heel striker. I’ll need to be cautious of knees and hamstrings, speak gently to tight lower backs and creaky joints. I see a blackened toenail and recognize a distance runner. Looking closely, I see that one of his hips is slightly higher than the other from running on a grade. His gentle asymmetry, his power, is stunning. My voice guides his breath to deepen and expand. His chest lifts, and so does the light behind his eyes.
There’s a new mom in the far corner. I notice her inner ankles. Exhausted, they pull toward the floor, followed by her inner knees. Her body has been swaddled to that of her child for so long that it hardly recognizes independence, and she rocks on the edges of her feet, redefining her own perimeter, hesitantly cleaving herself. I place my palm between her shoulder blades and feel her heart lift toward the ceiling, her strength uncurling itself.
Dancers wear their past like badges of honor. There is evidence of blisters, broken toes, rolled ankles, and worse. They are a reminder that beauty cannot exist without its shadow. Their practice will be stunning and fluid, but their relationship to pain is nuanced. They can easily stretch past their limits. Some will need protection from their own selves. Here, it’s my palm on their skin that lets them know I am their partner, and that I am leading now.
A collapsed arch, an inner ankle that reaches for the floor instead of its partner, reveal the violent tenderness of our foundation. I am reminded just how much it takes to put ourselves on this Earth. Each step navigates an existential crisis, a potential pitfall.
The body always retains its baggage, no matter how much we try to leave it outside the studio door. I am not here to solve problems. But if I look closely and listen deeply, I may be able to assist a body’s relationship to the ground it walks upon. These differences in shape, texture, and form give the practice its inimitable vibrancy, and to watch, recognize, and listen to the subtle cues of the body is to open a secret door. The beauty contained herein can be blinding, and I feel tears spring to the corners of my eyes. What a gift it is to stand here, in front of these warriors.
Palms press together at the center of hearts, and the practice begins.
About our contributor
MacDuff Perkins is the co-owner and co-founder of Blue Lotus Yoga Studio in Annapolis, MD.