Tuesday, September 16, 2008


It seems that as we grow older, it is normal to get hammertoes. Why? Osteoporosis? Diet related? Lack of exercise? Because of high heeled shoes? Is there a cure? 

Yes, certainly, there are specific stretches and exercises that will help alleviate hammertoes. I even use them when working with clients. But it is also good to know the big picture as well, to understand how you created the hammertoes in the first place, and what to do about it.

Yes, high heeled shoes will greatly aggravate the condition, but is not the primary cause. Hammertoes are one of the body’s many ways of giving us an “early warning” that certain aspects of our life are out-of-balance. It is really a profound message, and a fascinating one. It has taken me many years to piece this information together, and understand it (although, I am sure I was given this information in one way or another during my Feldenkrais Training).

It’s caused by gripping the bottom of the feet – especially the toes – when balance is somewhat compromised (for whatever reason), combined with a tendency to stare in the context of visual dominance. Staring means we fixate all the joints. That guarantees compromised balance. 

Gripping the bottom of the feet and digging in the toes - you might not even be able to notice yourself doing it. It takes a refined sense of body-awareness. Try it: stand up, and stare fixedly at a nearby object, keeping your body motionless. What is happening to the bottom of your feet? It takes time to become aware of such subtle reflexes. They are so quick, so seemingly-normal and “part of who we are” that we take them for granted. Or, more likely, they have been “full on” for so many years that there is no detectible response to such a test.

In my private practice I have worked with hundreds of feet. Almost all of them are far too tense, 24/7. People don’t know how to relax their feet! Even when sleeping or sitting, they are holding incredible tension. When I feel the feet of a client with soft feet, like a baby, I know there is a special person lying on my table.

Most of us are already so visually dominant, with over-tight arches of the feet, that we are so used to it, we cannot feel it going on. As you start to make the corrections I recommend here, however, you will certainly begin to feel it, eventually.

When a foot takes weight it should lengthen and widen, and the ankle should become tonified, active and intelligently managing the weight of the body. Any excess tension in the foot will only interfere.

You can easily demonstrate this with your right hand. With a relaxed right hand, make slow easy circles of the hand in the air, from the wrist only (don’t move the arm). That should be easy. Now, make a circle with your tightly-clenched fist. Not so easy, is it?

Stand up, relax. Slowly shift your weight from one foot to the other. Sway your body slowly left and then right. Notice what is happening to the foot that takes weight. Is it softening, lengthening and widening? Or is it doing something else?

Similarly, tension in the feet will interfere with the ability of the ankle to balance the body weight. Balance is no easy task to begin with, and foot tension makes it nearly impossible. What happens then, over many decades, is that – because of compromised balance – we are overly susceptible to stress, to anxiety and fears and negative situations and emotions. This is because, as Moshe Feldenkrais pointed out many times, our first inborn fear, the primary fear response we are born with (and which is the foundation of all later fears and anxieties in life) is fear of falling. Tensing the feet unnecessarily causes such a deep damage to our lives, over many decades, if we only fully understood it we would take drastic actions to turn the situation around.

So, tensing the feet unconsciously, as most of us do, not only makes us “ungrounded”. It sets the stage for a lifetime of compromised balance, and susceptibility to anxiety, fear and negativity. It creates a vicious cycle, the more you tense the feet, the more you have to be visually vigilant, and the more your eyes do that, the more your feet will grip, due to compromised balance. The ankles cannot balance you if the feet are tense. Tense feet cannot sense what is under them as well as can relaxed feet.

The very common end result is extreme visual dominance, impaired balance, extreme fear of falling, and in fact, a bad fall in later years is indeed very much like a death sentence. When an intervention is made at some point to soften the feet in weight bearing, wake up the ankles, reduce visual dominance, improve body organization and balance this unfortunate circumstance can be moderated. That's true even if one starts somatic work at an advanced age.  
The quickest solution, easiest and best, is to spend about 30 minutes a day (at least 15) blindfolded, while moving, standing, walking. Personally, I rarely miss my 15 minutes a day of doing exercises with eyes closed. After all blind folks spend 24 hours a day not seeing anything, so why can't I spend 15 minutes? 

Some other ways to get the same benefits:
  • As you take a walk, close your eyes for a few seconds, when the “coast is clear” and walk using your inner proprioceptive skills – remember where you are, sense your surroundings etc. 
  • When you get up in the morning, walk to the bathroom with eyes closed. Keep your hand along the wall if you need to do so. 
  • If you do regular exercises at home, do at least some of them with your eyes closed.
  • Wear moccasins at home or when hiking and walking. Learn to walk as Tom Brown teaches (the “Fox walk”) in his books. This way of walking means you first touch the ground with the ball of the foot, little toe side, and roll in as you take weight. The heel does not even touch, necessarily, as you walk or run. Personally, I run barefooted on concrete this way, in LA, regularly. I love it!
  • Do like I do, at age 62, I still do this. I put on my shoes while standing on one leg. It keeps my balance skills constantly updated. When you first try this you may be shaky, but keep trying. You’ll get it. 
  • Stand near a wall or door-frame. Close your eyes and fall into the wall. Catch yourself with your hands on the wall. Do this with hips twisted, with the body slightly turned, with variations of head looking up or down, left or right. This will teach your ankles to get smarter, and your feet will automatically have to be more relaxed. You body knows that intuitively, and it will happen automatically. 
  • If you go away to a mountain cabin, or on a retreat, spend some hours a day in the cabin blindfolded. This will do wonders for your balance, your memory, your brain function, your mood, and much more. You’ll be quite happily surprised. 
  • If you can’t do any of these, then spend some time every day using your ears deliberately instead of your eyes: turn your head to listen, not see. While talking to friends, listen to them more than you look at them. When walking, listen to objects, listen to your environment with more deliberate intent than looking. 
  • Take a yoga class where you do lots of standing-on-one-leg postures. 
  • When you wake up, make the alphabet with your big toes, but with a totally relaxed foot. Let the movement come from the ankle, not the foot. Remember, the intrinsic foot muscles cannot move the foot, only an outside force can move the foot. That outside force is the lower leg muscles, operating through the ankle. 
The Apache Indians had a game for children called “The Blind Drum Stalk”. I actually did this once. In the center of a large clearing is a man with a drum. Every sixty seconds he hits the drum once. All the participants are wearing moccasins or barefooted, and are scattered out around him, each of them at least 100 yards away. All are blindfolded. The winner of the game is the first person to touch the drummer. At the end of the game, I was farther way from the drummer than when I began. I was so frustrated.

For one thing, this game means you need to learn to walk in a straight line with eyes closed. Not many can do this. If you get lost in the woods, or you walk at night without landmarks, you will always come back to where you started from – you’ll make a big circle. The direction of the circle depends on which leg is dominant, since you will be taking slightly longer steps with your dominant leg.

For another, it cuts off visual dominance and makes you pay attention to other senses. You have to soften the bottom of your feet to sense what is there under you. It is not necessary to do that in a culture where you have shoes with hard soles, and are trained to be visually dominant (meaning you orient and stabilize balance primarily with your eyes).

Hammertoes are just one way the body is telling us we have something to learn, some changes to make. Plantar fasciitis is another way. Compromised balance is yet another. Fear of falling as we grow older is just another variation on that theme. Painful feet is another way.

You were not born visually dominant. You did it to yourself. Computers, TV, video games, books, college, using your eyes too much at work, etc – these are the causes. It is nearly impossible not to be susceptible to at least some of those influences. The solution is not so much to avoid them – as that may be impossible – but instead to take positive action in the opposite direction. Implement a few ideas from that list above. Just a little bit of intelligent counter-action will absolutely reverse all that damage and keep us on the right track. Your hammertoes won’t go away in a week or a month. But you’ll be reversing the trend that created them. Over some years, for sure they won’t be worse, and most likely will be much improved. To get quicker results you’d need to get actively involved in The Feldenkrais Method® by taking ATM classes and seeing an experienced practitioner privately every few months, to be sure you are on the right track. Guidance from a veteran somatic practitioner can save you years of wasted effort.

We were born with hearing dominant. It takes time for new-born to learn to use the eyes. It is in the context of hearing-dominance that we first leaned to sit, stand, take our first step, take easy and relaxed breaths, balance our heavy head on our neck, turn our head, run and play. And, we were pretty good at it! If any adult were given a head as heavy – relative to his body size – as a toddler, he could not manage it. He would instead have some kind of neck damage!

All of us adults, more or less, are visually dominant, it seems normal and accepted and nobody sees the damage that is going on because of that.

Again, in native shamanistic traditions, you will find in almost every case traditions of going blindfolded, often for prolonged periods of time. Why would that be so? I, for one, have learned that so-called primitive cultures, and what they did, was not so primitive. We “more civilized” folks, in fact, have a long way to go to even understand the wisdom behind many of their practices. At least, that has been true for me for many decades.

Another aspect to consider: visual dominance means being overly-attached and concerned about the material objects that surround us. One word for that is materialism. It is something to think about. Hearing is not so concerned with the materiality of physical object. It is more globally expansive.

What are some ways to reduce visual dominance?
  • Spend time listening more than looking at things. 
  • Minimize TV and video games, books and close vision work, if you can. 
  • Spend more time in Nature. 
  • Learn about wide angle vision, soft open focus, it is the natural way to use the eyes. Using the eyes to read print is not a primal, natural way to use the eyes. 
  • Learn how to change your focus from near to far and back, smoothly. TV and computers give us the illusion of depth perception, but we really never change focus. This teaches us to stare fixedly at one specific focal length. 
  • At work if you do not have a window to look into the distance, then you will immensely benefit by often using your imagination to look into the far distance, eyes open or closed. Little kids can all do this, if they are not “over TV’d”). Look through a wall, look through a picture and really “see” into the distance. 
  • When you do look at objects look softly. 
  • Spend time looking at thin air, after all quantum physics says everything is mostly empty space anyway. 
  • Learn to meditate. This will make you less materially-minded, less visual dominant, if it is done under the guidance of a competent teacher. If you try to meditate with close-focus, staring eyes in the context of frontal visual dominance and diminished global awareness,  all I can say is, good luck. Stock up on pain killers for all the headaches that you will be getting. 
  • Get involved in the Feldenkrais Method.

1 comment:

Ginger said...

Hello Steve, I have just discovered your blog. Wonderful insights! The hammertoes article is very intriguing. I have a 65-year-old friend who has hammertoes and she has also had plantar fasciitis. [She is also very hard of hearing, so she must be very visually oriented. Her hearing began to lessen in her early 50s.] I would have never associated hearing loss with foot problems... but your article has shed some light on this. I wonder what my friend can do for herself, with the inability to hear well. Your thoughts on this would be so appreciated.