Clown feet?

TLDR: it’s worth spending time looking into and adjusting to wearing shoes with wider toeboxes, lower or no heels, support from lacing/straps (i.e. not flip flops), and flexible soles – so your feet can be, or slowly return to being, the shape they naturally are, and more strong and mobile. This can reduce pain, improve stability and balance, and help with conditions such as bunions, ingrowing toenails, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis, and even some types of knee, hip and back pain. But don’t throw all your shoes out tomorrow – take your time, do your research, transition gradually, and if you have existing painful conditions, consult the relevant health professionals! And when you’re wearing your new delightfully comfy shoes, ignore any haters in your social circle ;-)

It’s great, these days, that all sorts of footwear choices seem to be getting more acceptable. In my teens and early 20s, I had to develop a thick skin to ignore the comments made about my Birkenstock sandals (which go in and out of fashion, but were TOTALLY uncool, and basically unavailable in Scotland, in the 1980s) and my Hotter Comfort Concept shoes. I thought I had weird feet, because my second to fourth toes are the same length as my big toes. My second toes would be longer, if they hadn’t been deformed in part by having to fit into the only shoes available back then. I say in part because there are of course also genetic/inherited elements to feet! My heels are narrow but the fronts of my feet are wide, and I used to describe them to friends as ‘hobbit feet’. I had no internet and no info back then about what normal healthy feet looked like (all sorts of shapes and toe lengths) and how they might benefit from good footwear. And I hated, absolutely hated, wearing high heels and pointy-toed shoes. Though, as a young woman who didn’t want to be totally outcast and mocked, I kept trying. Even my ‘healthy’ shoe choices (those Birkenstock thong sandals, and Hotter shoes) weren’t that great, and are not a patch on what is available now.

Catherine
A clown

I’ve been thinking a lot recently (again, still) about foot and lower leg health and strength, and how this affects our joints, balance and health in general – both right now, and as we age. The more I’ve looked into this, the more crazy it seems to me that we basically force our feet to conform to the (fashionable, or at least culturally normal/appropriate) shape of our shoes, rather than wearing shoes which fit the shape of our feet. We literally end up with feet the shape of modern shoes, rather than the shape feet are supposed to be, and start out as. And the shape and movement of healthy feet and toes looks strange to us, because we’re more used to seeing feet with toes which have been crushed together for so many years they can no longer spread out. With all the bunions, hammertoes, ingrowing toenails, joint pain, balance and mobility issues that can come along with that. Not to mention the waste of money – I don’t want to begin to calculate what I’ve spent over my lifetime, trying hard to get comfy shoes, right up until very recently – including getting fitted in specialist shops for expensive walking boots and running shoes, which went on, during longer walks or runs, to make my feet blister and bleed…

I’m not going to go on at the length I could, but as someone who sees many people in bare feet, it is clear to me from the state of the feet I see that women have suffered more from this ridiculousness than men. I don’t know whether the recent fashion for long pointy-toed shoes for men will create more issues in future, but overall, men are able in most social settings to wear flatter, broader shoes, without it breaching a strong implicit dress code. And they tend to have the nicely straight and reasonably spaced toes to show for it. Come on, ladies – what are we doing, spending a hefty amount on shoes to wear to a wedding, which are so uncomfortable you have to take them off as soon as the ceremony and photographs are over, in order to be able to enjoy the rest of the day, in order to be able simply to walk, or to dance…and then you maybe never wear them again?! Stop it right now, and join me and my lovely clown shoes!

“The image above shows what would be considered in barefoot circles an ‘aligned’ foot. It has a slight pizza [slice] shape as the toe-box is the widest part of the foot. Toes point straight ahead and there appear to be no deformities such as bunions, hammertoes, claw toes etc. They are a rare breed – ill-fitting shoes, high heels, rigid soles and life’s adventures and challenges affect how typically aligned your feet (and body) look and feel.” See full post at https://baresoledgirl.com/toe-spacers-game-changing-hack-or-gimmick/

[I was going to put in a contrasting photograph here of squashed feet/hammertoes/bunions, but they are too horrifying – feel free to google it yourself if you are strong enough].

If you want your feet to be as comfortable, pain-free, strong and mobile as possible, into your old age – do your research and transition as gradually as you need. My top tip would be not to buy too many new shoes at once, even supposing you can afford to do that (minimalist shoes are still mostly quite expensive, as they tend to be made by small independent companies without the cash, sales volume, etc. to cut costs). Because, as you start to wear wider shoes, go barefoot more often, and strengthen and mobilise your feet, they will continue to change shape. The first minimalist shoes I bought and wore almost daily till they fell apart, around 5 years ago, would now be too small for me. Even the Vivobarefoot sneakers I bought a year or so ago feel a little constraining now that I’ve been using toe spacers and doing foot strengthening exercises, and got used to the broader toe box of my Be Lenka and Lems boots. Expect that your feet might change shape as they un-crush and get stronger.

You’ll also see a lot of good advice about not suddenly expecting your whole body to be able to deal with going from wearing heels (and even ‘flats’ such as trainers have heels) to ‘zero drop’ (actually flat) shoes. I’ve linked Katy Bowman’s book on this subject in the resources below. Time needed to transition to flatter, more flexible shoes will vary from person to person. I took my time over it. My husband has recently got his first couple of pairs of zero drop boots and shoes, and although he was prepared to be sensible and take a while building up the length of time he could wear them, he actually found they were totally comfy from the start (again, the benefits of a lifetime in flatter, broader shoes than most women wear).

You also might initially, or always, choose broader/flatter shoes which still have thicker soles or more padding – tread cautiously (boom, boom) with regard to switching immediately to thin soles. Our son loves the ‘ground feel’ of his thin-soled Vivobarefoot Gobi boots, but his dad prefers the solid 10mm of the Lems Boulder Boots. The Boulder Boots are in general a good transition boot – they look like a traditional lace up-work boot, and still have a toe spring rather than being totally flat (yes, ‘normal’ shoes are often built so they curve your toes up in the air and hold them there – strange, eh?!), but they have a super comfy wide toe box, zero drop sole, and supportive ankle/lacing which is nice if you’re accustomed to that. We chose the waterproof Boulder Boots and they’ve survived a Highland winter well and been so far completely watertight.

There are all sorts of styles of minimalist sandals, shoes and boots now available, and I’ve linked two good UK-based companies, which stock many quality brands, in the resources section below.

Another thing you might want to consider purchasing is toe spacers. Be careful if you do – some of the cheap ones are rubbish and force your toes into quite strained positions. I hemmed and hawed about this for ages as the best ones I could find (Correct Toes) are SO expensive. But when I realised at the start of this year that my husband’s toes were heading bunions-ward, and that we could wear the same size so could share the use of a pair, I decided to invest and see what I thought. As a GP, my husband is very aware of how common foot-related problems and pain are, so he was up for wearing the spacers for a short spell daily for several months to see what would happen. He’s been amazed and pleased at the difference they’ve made to his foot alignment and comfort – and that’s even without doing regular strengthening exercises. I’ve been wearing them several times a week, and also doing foot intrinsic and extrinsic muscle exercises regularly. While I don’t think I’ll ever be able to undo all the damage to my poor second and fourth toes, which have since my late 20s had fused joints due to being perpetually cramped inside shoes which didn’t cater to long toes, my feet definitely feel and look better. I’ve also noticed my feet are stronger and more stable – e.g. in balance poses in yoga. For me, it’s all been well worth doing now and also as ‘future proofing’. Falls are a major cause of loss of independence and even loss of life in the elderly, and maintaining the strength and mobility of our feet, ankles and lower legs is a crucial part of our balance.

I’ve linked some classic foot exercises in the resources section below. They are very quick and easy to do once learned, and can be done while you’re doing other things. For example, I’m sitting doing a toe extensor stretch right now while I’m typing! I taught all of these exercises briefly at the start of my yoga and Pilates classes in January and February this year, and provided the clips to everyone who came along, so they could do them at home if they wished. This morning, someone told me after class she has continued doing the exercises regularly at home, and they’ve made an enormous difference to strength and mobility in the foot she’d fractured a few years ago.

As a yoga and Pilates teacher, I also spend quite a large amount of my days literally barefoot, and that was what initially led my feet to start taking up the room they should, and to me becoming more aware how uncomfortable many of my shoes were. I’ve also worn toe socks some of the time for many years, and more recently become aware that some of my ‘normal’ socks were actually tight enough that they were squashing my toes. I’ve since got rid of the smallest pairs and from now on will buy larger socks – I’m a size 6-7 and in the past I’ve generally had UK “women’s” socks which are often along the lines of ‘size 4-7’. From now on, I’ll be buying socks in the range of size 7 and over.

Reading this over, it can all sound a bit trivial and nerdy, no? But I hope you might be open-minded enough to dig a bit deeper and experiment with some of these things yourself. I know I don’t need to persuade those of you who have experienced the persistent pain of plantar fasciitis or ingrowing toenails that healthy, pain-free feet are important…but speaking as someone who doesn’t have significant foot pain or problems* and only got interested because of what she was seeing in the classes she was teaching…my feet, back and mood** have all benefited from making these changes! So, have a go – even if it’s only doing a few foot exercises, and reading some of the other links below.

*other than struggling to find super comfy shoes, and oh yes, an ingrowing toenail a decade ago, plus that tendency towards hammer toes…

**Because no-one would want to hang out with me when I’ve had to spend hours with my overheated feet stuffed into pointy high heels.

Useful Resources:

Anya’s Reviews. SO much interesting, detailed and useful advice here – well worth digging around, reading lots, before investing in buying shoes, toe spacers, socks, etc. Anya is also very active on Instagram @anyasreviews.

Northwest Foot & Ankle has lots of info about using Correct Toes spreaders and improving the alignment, health and strength of your feet in general. See for example: (a) 5 Foot Strengthening Exercises – this is the clip showing exercises we did in my classes this year (b) Toe Extensor Stretch – we also did this in classes – a great one if like me you’re dealing with toes which want to be hammer toes, or a range of other conditions including plantar fasciitis (c) If you are considering investing in anatomically correct toe spacers: How to wear and use Correct Toes.

Katy Bowman – Nutritious Movement. In particular, if you’re considering switching over to shoes without heels (and most shoes, including trainers, have heels), it’s worth doing this carefully, so you might want to read her book Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear. And do the exercises in it, obviously ;-)

Happy Little Soles is the UK-based online company where I got my Be Lenka boots. They stock a wide range of fantastic ‘barefoot’ shoes and boots which in many cases would now otherwise be hard to get at all or without customs duties (thank you Brexit). They also sell a very inexpensive foot measuring device, which is super helpful to have to get the right size of shoes, because as I’m sure you know, shoe sizing is not standard – one company’s UK size 6 may be significantly different from another’s.

Footworks is the Edinburgh-based online company where we got our Lems Boulder Boots, Lems shoes and Luna sandals. They also stock Vibram and Altra.

Both these UK online barefoot shoe companies provide lots of helpful information – I’ve found that if you read it carefully, it’s actually hassle-free getting shoes online which fit well!

There is more detail about managing back pain via walking, awareness of gait, footwear choice etc. in a popular older post I wrote, Moving Matters.

Care & help: Pop-up sessions, by donation

I know I’m not alone in often feeling sad, scared and helpless in the face of the current global situation. So, I’m inviting you to join me in doing something we can do. No matter how tiny each individual action seems, or is, lots of tiny steps in the right direction are important in so many ways.

I’ve been saying to members of my family for a few weeks now, try to stay grateful for the daily small things we do have. Focus on doing what we can, even if that is, at the moment, simply to care for our own mental and physical health, so we’re better able to cope with whatever happens, and to support others both now and in the longer term.

Personally, one thing I can do is draw on my teaching experience and skills to provide a way for people to come together in a community which cares. For that reason, I am offering a range of different options, free of booking charge, over the next fortnight. It may be you come to several or many of these to keep yourself as ‘steady and comfortable’** as possible under stress, so that you are able to support others in various ways. It may be you are able to donate money to help support refugees, whether that’s the usual price of a class, less, or more – any amount possible matters.

I am outlining the options below, and everyone on my Mailchimp emailing list (i.e. it will not be posted on this public website) will receive the zoom invite/link for these before 21st March. If you currently come to my classes, or have done in the past, but are not on my emailing list and would like to be, please contact me and I can add you (due to best practice data protection regulations, you need to ‘opt in’ to my emailing list).

Everyone on my mailing list is welcome to come to any of these sessions. You don’t need any particular level of experience, or fitness, or anything like that – the only requirement is that you feel you’d like to show up and take part, take care of yourself, and care for others.

If you are able to contribute financially in return for attending any or all of these sessions, please donate to:

Doctors without Borders

British Red Cross

Personal Practice Together, weekdays 7.15-7.45am. Monday 21st March to Friday 1st April inclusive (not on Sat/Sun). This is a shared practice session, not a taught class. I’ll open the Zoom meeting at 7.15am sharp each weekday. We’ll say ‘good morning!’ then I’ll very briefly share what I plan to do for my practice that morning, and why. Anyone else who’d like to share what they’re planning to do is welcome to. After that, I’ll be doing my practice, which will vary a lot over the fortnight. I will be visible to you, but I won’t be giving verbal cues, like I do when I’m teaching you. I’ll leave my Zoom screen on gallery view so I get that nice ‘community’ feel of practising alongside others, but I won’t be observing you like I do when teaching a class. I will play music, because I find practising to music in the morning really helps lift my mood and energy levels. Once you’ve joined the meeting, it is up to you whether you want your video/audio on or off, and whether you want to hear my choice of music or to turn the volume down/off. Some mornings you might want simply to say hello, then log off before the half hour is up, to do your practice offline, or do a shorter practice than 30mins. Some mornings, you may want to continue for a longer practice – as I may do myself on days when I don’t have to be out the door early to dog walk then teach. You are welcome to take inspiration from what I do, or do something entirely different. It’s completely up to you. You could be practising yoga or Pilates, meditating, weightlifting, skipping, doing interpretive dance, having a cuppa…whatever feels possible, good or beneficial. We did a fortnight like this last year, and you can find more information about personal practice in that blog post, here.

Yoga Nidra – there will be two of these late evening guided relaxation sessions offered, details below. When I’ve previously done these, they have lasted 25-40mins depending on the Nidra style. People always tell me afterwards that they can’t believe how quickly the time went, and how relaxed they felt! The Zoom Meeting Room will open at 8pm sharp and we’ll begin by ten past. Once you’ve joined, you choose whether to have your video on/off, then make yourself comfortable in any position, whether supported Savasana, seated, or lying in another way – including in your bed if you want to drift off to sleep straight afterwards!

Yoga Nidra, Thursday 24th March, 8pm. This evening’s Yoga Nidra is an adapted Satyananda Yoga one. This tradition includes Sankalpa – setting an intention – in the form of a short, positive, present tense statement, e.g. ‘I am calm and strong’, ‘I am good enough’, ‘I am relaxed’, or whatever you choose. There is a guided body scan, and the Nidra also includes suggested visualisations of opposites and sensory images, e.g. light/heavy, the image/taste of an apple, etc. Some people like visualising and some don’t, and it is entirely up to you whether you choose to do the visualisations or not. Give them a go if you’re happy to.

Yoga Nidra, Thursday 31st March, 8pm. Tonight’s Nidra draws on the traditions of the Himalayan Institute. The type of body scan rotation I use most often at the end of general classes comes from this tradition and so will be relatively familiar to you. A full Yoga Nidra in this tradition often includes long periods of silence whilst focusing on your breathing. Tonight, these silent pauses will be a maximum of two minutes. The Himalayan Institute rotation draws on the chakra system, which is not usually directly mentioned in short body scan rotations, but I will refer to it tonight during this Nidra.

Yoga, Saturday 2nd April, 9.30-10.30am. This is a taught class, beginning with around 5 minutes of settling in and pranayama (a relaxing breathing exercise), moving on to asanas (physical exercises/movement), and ending with 5-10mins in Savasana (guided relaxation).

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If you are able to contribute financially in return for attending any or all of these sessions, please donate to:

Doctors without Borders

British Red Cross

I’m sure many of you are aware there have been elements of reporting about the Ukrainian crisis shocking in the judgments and remarks made, as if some people fleeing war are worth more than others. Every refugee, regardless of skin colour, religion, or previous socio-economic status, needs our help. For this reason, please consider donating to these two organisations in general, so they have funds for wherever need is greatest.

**Sthira and Sukha, often translated as ‘steady and comfortable’, are key concepts in yoga. You can find out lots more about this via Google! But here’s a brief quote from one blog post: Sukha can mean happy, good, joyful, delightful, easy, agreeable, gentle, mild, virtuous or quite literally; good place. Sthira can mean to stand, to be firm, stable, compact, strong, steadfast, static, resolute, and even courageous.

Top reasons to give Zoom Yoga & Pilates a go!

Not keen to do yoga or Pilates online via Zoom? I hear you; I was that person myself. I tried attending Zoom Pilates in March 2020 and disliked it so much I gave up, until that summer when I realised the pandemic was here for the long haul, so it behoved me to look into Zoom more and try again. Now, I know I’ll attend and teach Zoom classes indefinitely, even at times I’m also comfortable to attend or teach classes in face-to-face venues.

There are many wonderful aspects to attending a really good in-person small group class. For me, the irreplaceable factors are best quality individual supervision/feedback from the teacher, plus the social aspect of meeting other regulars. On the other hand, if you’ve got a long journey, to a large class in an uncomfortable venue (perhaps less than clean, with poor lighting or heating), with a teacher who doesn’t observe and support you as an individual – you’re better off at home. And there are actually some BETTER things about Zoom from home, than going to a class. Two years ago I wouldn’t have believed I’d ever say that! Also, although I use and benefit from the pre-recorded work of a few excellent online teachers, overall I believe there are more potential benefits online to a live Zoom class, in which the teacher actually knows and sees YOU, than to a pre-recorded class, despite the latter usually having slicker production such as high quality sound and lighting.

So, what are the reasons you might want to go to a live, interactive, online Zoom yoga/Pilates class?

Last year, a good friend of mine who is an experienced yoga and Pilates practitioner said to me how much she missed attending classes, but she hated attending Zoom meetings in general, so she didn’t want to go to Zoom classes. In an effort to tempt her, I sent her the following (not comprehensive, and only slightly tongue-in-cheek) list:

The pros of doing yoga or Pilates via Zoom in your own home:

  • you don’t have to drive in the dark, or get cold after class
  • you can have the lighting and temperature any way you want
  • it is as clean as you like and no-one coughs over you
  • your pets can join in
  • you can play background music of any kind you like, and no-one even knows
  • you can have All. The. Bolsters. plus blocks, eye pillows, blankets, weights, resistance bands, cushions, etc. without giving yourself a hernia transporting them to a venue
  • you can stay in Savasana as long as you want at the end
  • you can say hi to, and practise with, people all over the country who you might not otherwise meet/see
  • no farting issues. Unless your dog has joined you, of course
Mabel was a gorgeous dog, but didn’t necessarily always smell gorgeous…

But don’t take it from me alone. I’ve had lots of astute, interesting and heart-warming feedback from people who come to my online Yoga and Pilates classes and workshops. There are other reasons which matter to people, some of which never occurred to me – for example, I’ve heard more than one person say if you suffer from anxiety or depression, it can feel much safer, easier and more possible to join a class from your own space than to walk into an unfamiliar venue, surrounded by strangers.

Here are a few comments emailed to me in recent weeks (posted here with the senders’ permission). Please do feel free to add your own experiences and opinions in the comments box below, or by private email message to me.

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Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed tonight’s yoga. I woke up this morning with an unaccountably stiff upper back/right shoulder blade area, so tonight’s exercises were just what I needed. Thank you! I miss the ‘social’ side of in-person classes, but as far as the actual yoga class goes, in many ways I prefer joining in via Zoom from the comfort of my own home – it’s much more relaxing and easier to focus on the exercises and not be worrying if you’re encroaching on your neighbour’s space and so on. And at this time of year, with the dark nights and when the weather’s foul, it’s great not to have to haul all your yoga kit to a hall and back. And having the recordings to watch if you want to redo any exercises or catch up on any you miss is great.

Zoom yoga is brill, so relaxing… and enjoyable.  No driving, extended relaxation, even the cat gets to come along (sometimes…) plus you can get into a lovely candlelit bath right after if you want!  I love it!  And there are the recordings as a bonus…. not forgetting the fab teacher…

This year of Yoga and Pilates has again been a lifeline; I am so so grateful for your classes, the preparation and thought you put in is obvious. I learn so much and I also can come to you no matter where I am, manic or depressed or just exhausted, and feel safe and not under pressure to be anything or do anything. You have a wonderful way of making your students feel like they are part of your team; I feel less alone knowing you are on my side in my practice and supporting my dream to teach. Zoom classes are a Godsend for me and the recordings even more so. Just thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Thank you for a brill session tonight.  Just what I needed after all the driving yesterday!
Then I totally drifted away to another plane… I didn’t hear you all leave 😄 though I don’t think I was asleep 🤔 😴 😉 I feel lovely now.

When you practise Pilates in a venue, you tend to think that Pilates is something you do one day a week and you can forget about it on the other six days. But when you practise it at home, it becomes part of your daily life, even if you practise it for just 10-15 minutes a day. The video recording is invaluable as reference. You can go over the exercises as much as you want or need to.

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SO – if you’ve never tried a Zoom yoga or Pilates class, why not give it a go? At least once, and perhaps a few times, since you do learn things over the first few sessions which make it an increasingly positive experience. My March timetable is now posted up on this page and the classes are open for booking. I have done a LOT of teaching via Zoom now, as well as attending classes myself, and if you’d like to try one of my Zoom classes, I’m happy to email you my free resource, ‘Using Zoom for Yoga & Pilates’. I’ve had several people, who were already using Zoom for meetings or other classes, tell me they learned new tips from this which improved their experience of Zoom yoga or Pilates. If money is tight and you don’t want to invest in online classes till you’re sure it’s for you, I also periodically offer free Zoom sessions to people who are on my emailing list. And my weekly online yoga class (Mondays 5.30-7pm) has free ‘pay it forward’ spaces for anyone currently experiencing difficult financial circumstances.

I encourage people in my Zoom Yoga to get themselves extra comfy & stay in Savasana as long as they want

Breath cues – worth it?!

Is it useful to be told when to inhale and when to exhale during a movement class? And how to breathe, perhaps in terms of the duration of the breath, or where you feel it in your body? Is it, maybe, useful or helpful for some people and not for others? Is there any evidence at all that breath cueing makes the movements more effective, or beneficial? Or that it could cause problems?

Most of us take it for granted that our yoga or Pilates teacher is going to tell us (or at least suggest to us!) when to breathe in and when to breathe out, for part or all of the class. Even beginners attending their first class, particularly in yoga, sometimes expect this. However, complete beginners with no prior knowledge of what yoga or Pilates involve can be taken aback when asked to pay attention to their breathing, or to breathe in particular ways. And in my experience, some beginners are the people most likely to feel stressed by breath cueing, or convinced they are ‘breathing wrong’.

I have attended group classes for more than 30 years and have been teaching them for more than eight. I don’t remember ever feeling stressed about breathing. That might be because my ‘new beginner’ experience is SO long ago – but perhaps not, since I remember finding lying still in Savasana (yoga relaxation at the end of the class) quite weird and uncomfortable as an 18 year old. I have also, for so long I can’t identify when I started doing this, disregarded any breathing instructions from a teacher which I found didn’t work for me or that I didn’t wish to follow. If it feels comfier or more natural to me to breathe out rather than in for a particular movement, I will. And because my own average, relaxed breaths-per-minute rate is very low, I do not breathe at the speed most teachers cue for a general class. So if I’m doing, say, a Sun Salutation in yoga, or the Hundred in Pilates, with a teacher who is choreographing the entire class’s breath and movement as one, I will ignore this if it is making me feel like I’m hyperventilating, and instead breathe at my own comfortable pace.

When teaching classes, I frequently and repeatedly tell people that my breathing cues are only suggestions, and that they should breathe any way which feels comfortable if my suggestions don’t work for them. I also vary the breath patterns for the same Pilates exercise or yoga asana from time to time, and explain that I’ve been taught varied breathing patterns for the same Pilates exercise, or yoga movement, by different teachers. Less often – because I realise not everyone shares my geeky interest in these things – but still fairly regularly, I drip feed in little bits of information about research into whether instructing breathing in a general class does any good whatsoever. For example, I will mention in Pilates it doesn’t actually make any difference to most people in terms of managing load (of light weights, or their bodyweight), though some find it helps them to exhale with the effortful part of a movement, or that breathing in a pattern in general helps them find and focus on a rhythm. And I am still, and always, learning and developing as a teacher – at the moment, I’m trying to be more aware of my habit of reminding people to keep breathing whilst doing e.g. a tricky balance, as if it’d be a wrong or risky thing for them to hold their breath (see Magnus Ringberg’s article, linked below, for more about this).

Over the years, though, I’ve found no matter what I say, I will fairly regularly be told by a relatively new beginner something along the lines of “I’m no good at the breathing / I’m doing the breathing wrong / the breathing is making me uncomfortable”. Presumably, for every beginner confident enough to tell me this, there may be many more who don’t speak up about it – and perhaps even give up Pilates or Yoga because they ‘didn’t like or couldn’t do the breathing’.

I’ve been doing yoga since the 1980s and Pilates since 2003, so I see some fairly constant aspects of the practice and some things which go in and out of fashion. It has seemed to me that recently breath cueing has become rather unfashionable, certainly in the internet bubble I read around in, whereas it’s still very much a largely unexplained, integral, part of every yoga and Pilates class I’ve attended in the last few years. I’d welcome hearing from other teachers whether and how they’ve been able to get beginners to relax about ‘breathing right’, and what I could do better to help people hear what I’m saying about it being most important to breathe comfortably, about there being varied ways of breathing for the same movements or sequences, and that only some people find cued breath patterns useful. I’d also be interested to know whether teachers are changing or cutting back on breath cueing? And I’d welcome hearing from anyone about what helped them as a beginner in a group class to relax about ‘the breathing’, or what they wish with hindsight their teacher had told them, or not said, about breathing.

What I’ve also noticed over the years – and this is obviously my anecdotal observations, not scientific evidence! – is it often seems to be those who feel most anxious about “breathing right” as beginners who go on, over time, to find breathwork and breath cueing a real benefit of the practice. Does this chime with your experience?

white and green paper
copyright free image via Unsplash @designed for adventure

I run a weekly online Pilates class via zoom, which has been regularly attended by a pool of around a dozen people for more than a year now. We had a 3 week mini block in the run up to Christmas, with only eight in the class, all with at least a year’s experience of online and face-to-face Pilates, some with many more years’ experience. At the start of the block, I explained I’d been reading and thinking about breath cueing a lot, told them a little bit about what I’d been reading, and said I was interested to know how they experienced these issues. I announced I was going to give no breath cues at all for the three sessions, and I would like them to explore how this was for them – better? worse? no difference? I encouraged them to give me feedback verbally or in writing at any point. At the end of the block, I asked them again to let me know how they’d found it. Half the group didn’t provide any feedback at all, and my guess would be that’s because it just didn’t seem that important to them either way and they enjoy the classes anyway (none of them gave up at the end of the block!). The other half sent me written feedback, which I’m including here as it was so varied, even within this small sample of experienced practitioners:

“I prefer not having the breathing cues. It allows me to concentrate more on how I’m doing the exercises, as I get so caught up in trying to breathe at the right time that that takes most of my concentration. For some reason, I seem to naturally want to go completely the other way to you on my breathing.”

“I prefer when you tell us when to breathe in / out. I find it’s an essential part of PIlates. It’s true we find our own rhythm in some exercises, but initially I find I need breath cueing.”

“Lack of breath cueing was fine for me as I think that I have found my own pattern for breathing over the years. However, when I am given any breath cueing I do try to do this. Generally, I think that I breathe out with any strong exertion and when “folding” body over and breathe in when reaching up or any movements that naturally tend to expand the chest.”

“I found less prescribed breathing cues in Pilates fine. I’d really struggle to go slowly or to not hold my breath during more strenuous exercises if you never mentioned breathing; I definitely need reminding to keep mindfully breathing steadily. The inhaling/exhaling is useful if I’m having a bad day and just being on my mat with myself is uncomfortable; under those circumstances it does really help to concentrate on the movement and breath pattern in a stricter way, inhale to prepare, exhale to move etc. I really struggled to do backbends breathing out when I started Pilates but now I much, much prefer it, and I ignore in yoga when I’m cued to breathe in and hold it for a cobra; it’s way more comfortable to breathe out as you move up and then naturally breathe in and out to hold or go down.”

Fascinating, no?

It is completely okay not to be fascinated, and not to think or read about these issues – having been there myself in many busy and stressful periods of my life, I totally get why many people simply want to attend a class, trust the teacher, and be told what to do. But if you ARE interested in reflecting more on why you do what you do in yoga and Pilates – whether attending classes or teaching them – I’m including some links below for you to read. If you want to explore breath cues and breathing in practice in more depth, I’d suggest a large general class (particularly one taught by someone whose qualification included little or no learning about anatomy & physiology or research evidence) is not going to be the place for that. You might prefer to attend a specialist workshop, or work one-to-one with an experienced and well-qualified teacher.

I’ve been trying to think how I’d sum up my own current approach. Something like this:

Don’t worry about breathing. Keep an open mind, try breathing different ways, see what works well for you, and don’t do anything which makes you feel uncomfortable, let alone stressed. The yoga/Pilates police aren’t going to come for you if you exhale when the teacher says inhale, or breathe at a different speed to your teacher. Nor will it damage or break you, if you do the movements without thinking about your breath – although many people do eventually feel that coordinating breathing and movement in some situations is a positive and beneficial aspect of their practice. Learn a bit more about breathing, or at least be aware it varies, and it’s not necessarily a good thing to try to control the breath in certain ways during vigorous movement. Your awareness of breathing, the ways in which you breathe, and your feelings about breath cueing or breathing exercises such as pranayama are likely to keep changing – whether in the short term (depending on what else is going on in your day, week, or life in general) or in the longer term, over the years and decades in which you practise yoga/Pilates. Remember you’re doing yoga/Pilates to feel better, not more stressed…so enjoy doing what works for you!

Further resources: (please note, I am not endorsing everything said by everyone in these posts! The aim is to introduce you to some ideas you may not have come across yet)

Holly Wallis https://movementmonthly.com/2016/05/20/cueing-the-breath-a-blessing-and-a-curse/

Magnus Ringberg https://jennirawlingsblog.com/blog/questioning-the-way-breathing-is-taught-in-yoga

Emma McGeorge https://www.thepelvichub.com/post/pelvic-floor-basics-part-four-breathing-youre-doing-it-wrong

Jenni Rawlings https://jennirawlingsblog.com/blog/a-modern-approach-to-core-stability-is-navel-to-spine-the-best-cue

Flow into 2022…

In addition to my regular weekly classes, which you can find on my Timetable page, this January I’m offering a small yet varied menu of ‘pop-up’ yoga sessions. They have a flowing movement theme in common, but are otherwise quite different in duration and content. Please read the individual descriptions below to see which are best for you!

All three sessions are booked the usual way, i.e. by emailing me to check there’s space and then transferring your payment. If you’ve not already done so, you’ll be asked to read a short paragraph/disclaimer about my online classes and the linked recordings, and return your agreement to me by email. All three sessions will be capped at a maximum of 11 participants, so I’m able to see and therefore respond to everyone well. The recordings of me teaching on the 8th and 9th will be available for replay the subsequent six days. The recording on the 15th will only be available for a couple of days, and this is reflected in the lower cost-per-hour for this session.

I’m REALLY looking forward to sharing these special one-offs, and I hope you’ll be able to join me for one or more!

Saturday 8th January, 9.30-10.30am. Pandiculate. £9.

Pandiculation, n., the act of stretching and yawning. If you have a dog or cat, you’ll see pandiculation on a daily basis – they do it every time they wake up and get moving! This session is an hour of gentle, flowing movements to mobilise your body and leave you feeling great and ready to face the day. Suitable for any level of experience, and anyone who is comfortable on their mat in these positions: semi-supine (on your back with knees bent and soles of feet on floor); all fours; seated; and standing.

Sunday 9th January, 4-5.30pm. Dancing Warrior. £12.

Inspired by the teachings of Mark Stephens and Shiva Rea, this session begins with a warm up of gentle mobilisations, then we’ll look at each asana in turn from the ‘Dancing Warrior’ sequence, which includes: Downward Dog, Low Lunge, Warrior I, Warrior II, Side bend Warrior, Side Angle pose, Plank, Chaturanga, Upward Dog/Sphinx. We will go on to link the sequence together, repeating it several times in a rhythmic flow, before cooling down to rest in Savasana. How you experience this session will depend on your general fitness. The last time I taught a similar session, one person described it as ‘refreshing and relaxing’ while another said it was ‘strong and sweaty in a good way’! Various options will be offered so you can make it more gentle or more vigorous as suits you, and you can of course also choose to rest out of the sequence whenever you like. However, you do need to feel comfortable doing Downward Dog and moving from Lunge to Plank/knees down then lying on your tummy – so if you have wrist or shoulder pain/injuries, this session is not the best choice for you. For those with no such joint pain, it’s an uplifting and focused flow.

Saturday 15th January, 3.30-5.30pm. Waves. £15. FULLY BOOKED

This longer session is partly inspired by trainings I’ve done with Pete Blackaby and Dan Gelblum – I taught it in Skye many years ago, and people who were at that event still mention it to me occasionally as one of their all time favourite yoga workshops! There will be plenty time for a settling scan of body and breath at the start, and Savasana at the end. In between, we’ll be doing many, varied, movements and sequences, mostly in themselves fairly gentle, although doing multiple repetitions can lead to some interesting and different sensations and results in poses which you may be more used to doing only 2 or 3 times. The emphasis will be on exploring your own experience of the movements, rather than trying to achieve or copy a particular ‘shape’. Keeping an open mind and a gentle, playful approach can be surprisingly profound and effective in yoga practice. Suitable for all experience and fitness levels. Those with wrist or knee pain should be aware there is a section on all fours, but you are welcome to substitute by e.g. doing seated cat/cow, or doing Downward Dog standing with your hands on a chair seat.