Michael Boblett: Jan, I am interested in the human foot as a sense organ. Mary Bond writes about the foot as having almost as much sensory representation in the brain as the hand. The other day, I was talking to a naturopath at Northwest Foot and Ankle in Portland, Oregon. [Editor’s note: see interview on page 29]. He talked about how you can literally train the sensory homunculus and make its map of the feet more defined. In my own stuff, I write about toes functioning more like antennae than biomechanical units. What are your thoughts about all of this?
Jan Sultan: Well, one of the things about that homunculus (the map of the distribution of motor and sensory areas in the brain) that I found fascinating was that the thumb has as much motor sensory dedicated hardware as the whole leg. That gave me a pause. Functionally, our perceptual thumb is huge relative to the foot. Having said that about proportion, it’s safe to say that the brain also devotes a fair amount of perceptual function to “Where is my foot?” I’m very interested in the eye- foot, eye-hand connections, and the way that those flow together in coordination and gesture. A lot of what happens in the foot is actually unconscious or below the level of consciousness. It’s in a motor part of the brain that doesn’t normally come under direct control, unless there is an active learning process going on – like learning a new dance step. It can be trained but it doesn’t ‘think’ while you’re in motion. We don’t control our feet once we are really dancing.
Imagine a soccer player running down the field and the ball is coming on a diagonal across his path. Watch the length of the stride. As the player gets closer to the ball, he starts shortening the stride and making small adjustment steps so that when he and ball are in the same space he can kick it into the goal, at a dead run. That whole calibration, at a dead run, and the ball moving at a diagonal trajectory, all happens in the motor cortex. It doesn’t go up and figure itself out. When you say that the toes are antennae, I agree with you. But there isn’t necessarily ‘someone reading the gauges’.” It’s all integrated. What I love is that while we can train motor activity until it’s highly developed, once you put it in motion, you don’t think about it. The skaters at the Olympics are a perfect example: what looks like perfect coordination is in fact an example of thousands of practice hours unfolding into fine performance.
MB: You talked about the thumb and the homunculus. What about the toe? What about the big toe?
JS: I know you have some ideas about the big toe, but I haven’t thought about it discretely. The motor homunculus diagram I was looking at simply showed the thumb bigger than the leg, including the foot.
JS: Having said that, Dr. Rolf was more interested in the lateral arch than the medial. Dr. Rolf had an old anatomy book, Plastische Anatomie, from an anatomist named Mollier, illustrating the way that the two arches are structured. The medial arch is layered on the lateral arch, with the calcaneous being the common origin and the first and fifth metatarsals being the anterior projections of the arches. Moreover, there is a third arch that is the hollow sole of the foot, and it lays transverse to the two long arches. As I work with feet, I’m interested in getting that lateral arch into its correct relationship to the stuff around it. In one of Ron Murray’s courses, he showed some excellent techniques for working with the relationship between the two longitudinal arches. Dr. Rolf would say that if you want to get around like the Greek messenger Mercury, with wings on your feet, get your lateral arches up.
MB: For a while my favorite muscle was the abductor digiti minimi because it falls asleep in a lot of people. How do you feel about that muscle and how do you work with that muscle to get the little toe to act like it’s independent?
JS: Well, I don’t think of it that way. I mean, truly, Michael, I’d have to open an anatomy book and make sure that I was thinking the same thing that you’re saying. I guess that means I don’t give the little toe its anatomical credit. At one point, while thinking about the function of the little toe, I began to think of it as analogous to a cat’s whiskers. When a cat is going to enter a space, the tension or the pressure of the whiskers tells the cat whether or not it can fit in the space. I think that the little toe tells us where our edge is. Where the little toe is, is the boundary of your space, in a way. If there were a drop off, your little toe would feel that there’s nothing under it and that care is needed. I think the little toe guides the foot quite a bit.
MB: I like the idea of toes as whiskers, and the little toe is that outer whisker. What else can you say about perception and the foot?
JS: At one time in my life, I was involved in the shooting sports a lot. I took courses in pistol shooting for accuracy from an Olympic coach, and he pointed out that the handle of the gun has got to be long enough for the little finger to grip in order for you to shoot accurately. Stubby handled small guns like a Saturday Night Special are inherently inaccurate, because the shooter can’t get his little finger around the handle. The little finger is the one that traps the barrel, in a sense, from the other end and really allows you to be accurate. That was the launch point for me to begin thinking about the little toe, and wondering . . . If the little finger is a guide for where you’re pointing a gun, how does the little toe function in orienting the foot? – given that the link between the eye and hand, and foot and eye, are both profound in terms of how we occupy space.
MB: What you just said opened up for me the whole idea of the lateral line and how we orient in space. People in our culture orient primarily front and back (sagittal plane). I remember a guy who’d worked for American intelligence in the Middle East telling me that one of the dead ringers for figuring out that somebody is not from the Middle East – even though he dresses right, and talks right, and looks right – is if he walks without looking side to side. Americans tend to go from point A to point B, and we don’t look from side to side. That’s one of the reasons why Americans are so easy to pickpocket: we just don’t have that 360° awareness. In contrast, he said, Middle Eastern people are always scanning, and for them to get from point A to point B may take quite a zigzag course.
JS: My very first thought is we spend a lot of time in automobiles, and our locomotion is very often moving fast: thirty-five miles an hour looking straight out through a windshield. Your peripheral vision may be operating but your head is not scanning. If you think about the Middle East, among many things, there aren’t as many cars for the amount of people. If you’re going anywhere, chances are you’re either walking or riding a bus, rather than driving.
MB: I’m also thinking about the foot as a dome or a diaphragm. One of a series of domes or bowls up through the body – the pelvic bowl, the diaphragm, the roof of the mouth, and of course the ‘eye of the foot’. I often feel like the ‘eye’ isn’t dilating properly, or it’s getting too narrow . . . Or it’s opening up front and back, or side to side, but not in three dimensions. What do you think about that?
JS: First thoughtisthatin Chinesemedicine, that eye of the foot, the acupuncture point there, is called the ‘bubbling well’. There’s a recognition that that is the place where the body is actually taking earth energy from the ground up into the body. In that perspective, heaven and earth, above and below, form the energetic field that we are in, and as heaven descends and earth rises they mix in the body to form an alloy with your life force. Heaven and earth mix in the cauldron at the abdomen (the dan tien) and strengthen the ancestral energy called jing. Back to the bubbling well: each time you take a step you compress that point/region, and as you release it, it sucks up earth qi. It’s very much an energy pump in the context of the Chinese medicine system.
MB: Wow. That’s got my mind going a mile a minute, and you’ll understand when you read my article on early primates. [Editor’s note: see page 35.] I’m going back about 55 million years to when our little mammal primate ancestors were going out and saying, “Wow, it’s safe to go out in the daytime. We don’t need to be nocturnal anymore.” The foot is something that grasps but also yields, that throws energy away, but also sucks it in. Can you say anything else about the foot from the Chinese medicine perspective?
JS: The leap I would make it that typically heaven descends through the ventral part of the body, into the legs and feet. You would rightfully assume that it would come down there, and then the earth energy comes up more dorsally, rising up the back of the legs, entering at the pelvic floor, and flowing up both immediately in front of and immediately behind the spine. That rising earth energy coming up our dorsum, behind us, then goes extra-somatic into the space above us, meeting heaven. Heaven, meanwhile, is pouring down, coming down the front of our face and inside our skull, and the circuit closes where the tongue touches right behind the front teeth. If you want to bring heaven down, you put your tongue there and then that heaven qi comes down. Certain organs are nourished by the heaven side and others are nourished by the rising earth side. That’s the ‘microcosmic orbit’ if you’re just looking at the torso, or the ‘macrocosmic orbit’ if you’re looking at the body inclusive of the legs in its immediate space or environment.
JS: Now, consider Western physiology, and we see that arterial blood is pumped out to the perimeter and the legs under the pressure of a flowing wave of a heartbeat. To return, it needs the squeezing of the leg muscles, and there are a set of one-way valves in the veins, so that as you walk, you squeeze blood up progressively and that pumps the blood back up across the pelvis. A certain amount of the return blood from the legs, which is oxygen-depleted, goes around the small intestine and becomes the portal circulation loop. Here is where the digested nutrients are picked up from the small intestine and taken to the liver. Hence, the great value of a walk after you eat as an aid to digestion.
MB: Something that fascinates me is that we primates and a few marsupials are the only mammals who have rediscovered how to see in color (something that was lost in the roughly 200-million year period when our mammal ancestors were nocturnal). The return of color vision coincided with mother nature putting out all this big fruit. You talked a little bit about the eye and the hand, and the eye and the foot. Say more about that.
JS: I had always assumed (without examining it) that color vision came with basic human hardware . . . Obviously certain fruits being brightly colored would be attractive to the eye, and a carnivore would not be looking for that as food, but perhaps as the location to find the prey that feeds on the fruit. If you extend the logic, birds can perceive color, or at least they have a version of it in the ability to perceive certain frequencies.
MB: Yeah, they never lost it. We got it back. Plus our stereoscopic focus is partly about jumping from tree to tree. The eyes moved to the front of the head and started backing each other up, kind of like a telescope or whatever, and we also rediscovered how to see in color. As I see it, the foot and the hand, as articulate structures, have a lot to do with living in a world in which we say, “Oh, that fruit is green. I’m not going to reach for that. That fruit is red, I’m going to grab a hold of that with my long fingers.” But I’m also talking about the foot as grabbing and releasing objects and energy. I think of it biomechanically in terms of stored energy: I grab a hold of a piece of gravity with my foot when it comes down, and then I throw it away when my foot goes back. How much of this opening and closing is eccentric versus concentric motion of the muscles?
JS: It brings to mind Robert Schleip’s development of Fascial Fitness, a gym program to develop the elasticity and density of the fascia, so that it is used as a spring. Imagine jumping, so that on landing the plantar fascia behaves like a spring. When the compression phase of the gait happens, that arch is lengthening earthward, and then just at the point where it passes under you, and the load comes off of it, it also catapults you as stored energy that is appropriated for locomotion. Schleip has really tuned in on this. His whole system is not about developing muscles, but developing fascial tone. Quite elegant.
MB: It’s interesting, in terms of tonic versus phasic. Just how as a culture we’re very sagittal, we’re also very phasic. We see that in these sculpted bodies. It’s all about concentric motion, like my gastrocs should be enormous, shaped like footballs, and oh that little weak soleus, I don’t care about that!
JS: Let’s look at Joe Pilates’s work. Pilates came online right after World War I and was inspired partly by the ideal bodies that were coming to the first Olympics. If you look at the art from around that time (this is also close to where Dr. Rolf was getting her inspiration), there was this eccentric expression, moving forward into space with the arms extended, the eye focused on a far horizon . . .
MB: Step forward into the future.
JS: Precisely, but that’ s eccentric movement. Pilates developed this whole system that set the body up to be able to lengthen under load. It’s largely been eclipsed by the ‘gym body’, which is a contraction body like you’re talking about. It’s a concentric body. It packs muscle around the joints as a way to theoretically stabilize, but it also has an aesthetic hiding in it, which is that “I’m strong this way, I look strong.” I’m lucky enough to be in this place in LA where there is a particular kind of athlete – the volleyball player. Knotted- up, veiny, contracted bodies don’t do very well at volleyball. Volleyball is a jumping and extending sport. Surfing, same thing – if you’re knotted up and chunky, you can’t move gracefully on a wave. I get to see a lot of athletes who are eccentrically strong and they’re actually cultivating eccentric strength in motion. I’m going to guess that this is culturally derived. Yoga has become really popular in the last fifteen, twenty years. Before that, it was around in pockets in the 60s. Yoga has exploded in my neighborhood. I mean there’s yoga studio on every corner in West LA.
Interestingly enough, although I think that Rolf and Joe Pilates did not have an overlap, they both came up with geometry. Rolf’s version was expressed by ‘the Line’ and the horizontals. Joe didn’t say it out loud, but I’ve been doing his exercises for a couple of years, and it definitely organizes my spatial geometry toward the way Rolf was trying to make happen. It has been a revelation to feel the geometry emerge through Pilates. I’m going to call it eccentricity, but I don’t mean behavioral eccentricity; it’s moving in a way that is radial, from the center, and produces a graceful gesture. Typically you’re less strong as you get further from center. If your arm is extended, you’re not nearly as strong as when it’s close to you. I think Pilates was trying to get strength at the limit of range of motion. A typically concentric body gets its strength close to the body, and not at the limit at all.
MB: That’s interesting in terms of something I was thinking about. Take short, fast-twitch muscles, those that tend to have a larger percentage of fast-twitch fibers. In our society people tend to train those much more, to the exclusion of slow-twitch fibers that are still there, albeit in smaller percentages. Whether it’s in a tonic or a phasic muscle, why do we prefer rapid movement? You know what I mean? A biceps isn’t just meant to contract ten times while you are at the gym. In real life, at least in terms of our evolution, you’d be moving around, climbing trees, throwing stuff, picking stuff up . . . it might be doing a bunch of different motions over a long period of time. That’s the other difference I see between eccentric and concentric motion: very often even when we do eccentric motion, we do it very few times, as opposed to quite a few times in the course of regular activities. What are your thoughts on that?
JS: There’s several layers of it. This is as I understand it, so I could be not quite accurate, but the fast-twitch fibers are largely part of the phasic muscular activity. The slow-twitch are more the tonic side. Fast-twitch fibers tend to consume more glucose, and the slow-twitch ones are more proportionally oxygen-burners. I think that certain kinds of yoga and Pilates train slow- twitch fibers, which are fundamentally postural muscles. Robert Schleip once gave us a presentation about tonic and phasic at a faculty meeting, which is written up in some obscure article, probably in Hans Flury’s original Notes on Structural Integration. Schleip said that if you took ten different psoas muscles, you would find quite a wide range of how much red or white fiber was in any given psoas. In some people, the psoas is highly tonic, and in other people it’s a lot more phasic. I began to think of it like this: tonic function had to do with the shape of the body, literal form; phasic is the activity of the form. The tonic becomes a kind of scaffolding, and the phasic is all the ladders and platforms that are built around this tonic scaffold. Gesture has its base in tonic function, and we push the tonic body around with phasic activity and our feet and legs, for example.
JS: To circle back to legs and feet, because I know we’re going a little far afield . . . Okay. We have this support principle embedded in Rolfing Structural Integration (SI): that if you’re going to try to get, let’s say, a better positional organization, you need to have support available for it on one end, and you need to have adaptability available on the other. The support side then takes me to the legs and the whole thing about the return of circulation by contraction, and the veins with their one-way valves and the whole bit. But I got up to the pelvis, and have had a long meditation on the nature of the ilium, and how in, let’s say, ‘normal’ walking the ilium actually behaves like part of the leg. The acetabulum is not the end of the leg, but rather the sacroiliac joint is the end of the leg.
JS: There are anterior and posterior nodding movements of the ilia, so that when you’re in your push phase, the ilium on that side has come to its full anterior nutation (which is Latin for ‘nod’), and then as you un-weight the leg and swing, the ilium, in a sense, cocks back and is prepared then for the next heel strike when it begins its conversion back forward again. Let’s say in a well-organized body the ilia contribute massively to the effectiveness of the gait. In people whose ilia are relatively fixed in the pelvic ring, so the sacroiliac joints are tight and bound up, you don’t see movement flow through. You see the heel strike harder, they use more muscular effort to pull themselves along, rather than that beautiful part of walking that looks like falling and recovery, giving a sense of almost floating. I pin that down to the function of the pelvis, and the way that the ilium is both leg on one side and pelvis on the other. I like this idea. When I’m working on people, I study that. What happens to the ilium when you are pushing off from the foot? What happens to the ilium as you land on your heel strike?
MB: That reminds me of seeing Haile Gebrselassie winning gold in 2008. Like all of the top ten marathoners, he’s sub-Saharan African. He looks like he’s shuffling, like, “Whatever, I don’t care.” Several miles behind him are all these white people doing what we’ve been doing since the first 26.2 marathon in 1908 – we’re goose-stepping really, really fast. It doesn’t work.
JS: I’m with you. The book Born to Run, which is an absolutely revolutionary statement, talks about the Tarahumara people who come up to run the century marathons. They are indigenous runners who don’t train really hard but they live in a terrain that has huge elevation changes. If they’re going to the market, they might be carrying a load of produce on their back and climb 4,000 feet to get out of the canyon to set up in the market place in Creel, which is at the top of the Barrancas del Cobre. They go up and down those hills all the time. What the author of Born to Run points out is that they tend to run on their forefoot. In walking, they heel strike, but as they begin to pick up speed, they move until they are basically running on the forefoot, and that’s the same gait that you see in the sub-Saharan guys. Up until this information was in the field, [runners in our culture] were pretty much heel strikers. That’s the
goose-step look because you got to hear the hobnail boots on the pavement.
MB: Just this morning, I was talking to a client who is trying to figure out how to walk in Vibram® minimalist shoes, in shoes that don’t tell her feet what to do, but she’s a European-American upper-middle- class white lady, and she’s got all these generations telling her, “No, no. Your feet are supposed to be little and narrow, and pretty.” Let’s talk about women and shoes.
JS: First off, you might remember that in the court of Louis XIV, men wore high heels – those stubby high heels with the big buckle on the front. High heels first appear for riding horses, as a way to hook your foot in the stirrup. In a sense, then, the nobility had horses, and so the style of the elegant gentlemen with the heel then started working its way into, let’s say, fashion culture as supposed to functional culture. Then somewhere in there the men gave up the high heels and the women got them. I don’t know how that happened.
MB: Actually, I read an article about this. It was almost like a cross-dressing thing where some women would go, “Hey, I’m wearing high heels like I’m riding a horse.”
JS: The question remains, how do high heels affect feet? You only have to look at women who come into your practice. Many are in their fifties and say, “I was in corporate life for many years and I wore high heels forty hours a week because that was the protocol at the office.” They will mostly say it’s very rare to ever put on a high-heel shoe anymore. Their feet often have bunions, their toes are jammed up, you see a funny development of the forefoot, and the heel cords are short. I think wearing high heels as regular footwear is crazy. Maybe for fashion, maybe for dancing – certain kinds of dance, flamenco or tango because they became part of the style – but in terms of regular footwear, well it isn’t good for people. No way. While I might appreciate the aesthetic of a woman in high heels, the legs look pretty, as a Rolfer I can only say, “Don’t wear high heels unless you have to or unless it’s a special occasion.” I ask them, “Why do you accept that value? You’re in corporate life, why aren’t you wearing a flat? A nice looking shoe, but a flat?” “Oh, I couldn’t do that.”
MB: Yeah, yeah.
JS: That would be like a guy not wearing a tie.
MB: It’s still enforced.
JS: Very much so.
MB: That’s one of the things about the limits of the plasticity of the foot. There is a shape of foot that I would call high-heel foot – if I look at the foot from the top, there is this triangle that I want to open up. But if I look at the foot from the side, where the metatarsals and phalanges come together, that is often stuck at a right angle. I can’t open up the toes until I can straighten that out.
JS: You’re talking about a plantar-flexed foot that has a high fixed arch?
JS: Ida Rolf used to say that flat feet were actually flat shins: that they were a failure of tone of the muscles in the lower leg. In order to get a flat foot rehabilitated, you have to get better tonus and circulation in the peroneals, gastrocs, tibialis posterior, the whole bunch. But if you’re trying to get a rigid foot mobilized, you’ve got to work on the little tendons between the individual foot bones. That’s where you have to get the hydration. Truthfully, it hurts people to do it. You got to get in there enough to pick at it. I often actually end up using my fingernails in order to reach and grab that tough stuff. So high fixed arches as you described, you’ve got to work locally in the foot, make the bones wiggle again on each other. Flat feet, you take on the tonus of the whole lower leg and the peroneals, and even the neural stuff – tibial, sural nerves. It’s a soft-tissue job. Well, both of them involve nerve work, but one is in the foot and the other is in the lower leg.
MB: This is very helpful, because the other thing that I see is the floppy foot where there’s a big space between the big toe and the other toes because the person’s been using their foot to hold flip flops on. The foot just keeps flopping down like a dead fish landing on a concrete counter. You see the arch, and it’s nice and wide, but it’s asleep because the toes are doing a job. There’s no back strap on those sandals, so the toes are just doing that, and nothing else is going on.
JS: They’re gripping the shoe. If you consider the return of fluids against gravity, that sloppy foot is also not working as the second heart to drive the blood back out of the legs. You would perhaps anticipate a boggy leg that goes with that foot, or edema, that sort of thing.
MB: Often people who have that kind of foot structure also have a metabolism that is very frugal, they kind of drag their feet a little bit when they walk. It’s part of a whole posture than tends to trudge.
JS: If you were measuring physiologically – and we have no clinical data on this, so this is purely speculation – I would expect to see slow pulse, low blood pressure, and constipation.
MB: That makes a lot of sense. I think about the clients that I see with those feet and very often their spines are stuck in kind of a C-curve pattern.
Well, this has been an incredible pleasure. The journey that you have taken us on today dovetails with not only the theme of the feet, but I would say with the aesthetics of what we are doing in this particular issue of the Journal. Thank you.
JS: Thank you.
Jan Sultan currently lives in Manhattan Beach, California, and maintains a full-time practice there. He also travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico to work with his clients there. He teaches Advanced Rolfing classes and offers continuing education for structural integrators on a regular basis. In addition to holding a direct lineage to Ida Rolf, he works to deepen Rolfing SI as it is practiced today. Jan’s studies include various aspects of the nature of structure, including craniosacral work, visceral manipulation with Jean-Pierre Barral, nerve mobilization in all its variations, and journeys to the sacred spaces.
Michael Boblett works in San Diego, California. He has been a Certified Rolfer since 2003 and a Certified Advanced Rolfer since 2008. Michael is a retired Unitarian minister. His advanced degrees (MA, MDiv, and DMin) are from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. At seminary, he focused on the anthropology of religion, with experiential training under Michael Harner, author of The Way of the Shaman. Michael runs marathons and hikes up mountains wearing Vibram Five Fingers. His website is www.rolfer.biz.