Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice


I just put my feet in the air and move them around.

~ Fred Astaire

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

~ Henry David Thoreau

Only one group of mammals (watch for clue) carries itself as ”catwalk” models do when they show off the new season’s fashions. Catwalking humans strut designers’ goods out with what those who identify animal tracks call “negative straddle”: Each foot slices over the center line of the body as it strides forward. This specialized, braided walk usually has to be practiced and coached. It carries power and even menace as the display of fashion becomes pleasurable assault.All of the expressive uses of the foot tell us about–or can alter our–humanness.

Dance critic Alastair Macaulay celebrated the expressiveness of the foot’s contact with the ground in a recent New York Times essay, Macaulay contrasted the way in which Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova sprang through her full foot up into the air–her “weight seem[ing] to contradict reality and to flow not down to the toe but up through the body”–with the Indian dancer’s customary flatiron drop of her full foot or her percussive striking of ball or heel against the ground as she articulates the rhythm of the music.

It is not incidental that the ballerina’s liftoff evokes a sense of emotional expansiveness in the kinesthetically empathetic audience member, nor that the syncopated polyrhythms the Indian dancer stamps out ground the audience member and situate her in the complexity and serendipity of each moment. When we feel what we see in these performers, their feet communicate directly to our full-bodied, fully emotive experience.

We’ve all known people whose identity seemed to be centered in their chests, as they jutted their ribs forward and walked as if a fishhook had caught in their clavicles and yanked them ever forward. Or perhaps the “I’ of them was in their heads, as they towered above and dissertated all over whomever could not get themselves away, or in their hips, as they moved with the  consciousness of others’ desiring eyes upon them.

My identity, I know, is centered in my feet. I can affirm that, when the feet make full, sensuous contact with the ground, they affect the sense of self in profound ways. One of my yoga teachers, Tom Quinn, was the main character in a dream that has stayed with me for years. In it, Tom spoke to the ungroundedness I was experiencing with a straightforward reminder: “Find your feet.” With these three words, Tom returned me to the knowledge that, once I could feel the rolling, variegated contact of my feet against the ground, I would know where and who I was.

In his Ancient Walking to Primal Rhythms, Randy Eady has developed a walking modality that makes finding one’s feet the source of healing. Eady’s method combines tai chi, acupressure stimulation of the feet, and labyrinth walking to integrate body, mind, and spirit and to contribute to the healing of serious diseases.

If, as the feet sense the imprint of the ground, they actually reshape the body-mind, then letting the feet go bare is one of the deepest ways of letting experience in.

Do you buy as the real reason many people seem reluctant to take their shoes off in workshops is that they’re embarrassed by the smell of their feet? (I can’t say I do.) Taking off our shoes invites us to transform ourselves through an ineluctable contact with the ground: once you find your feet, you have to be ready to go where they take you, inside as well as out.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
– Henry David Thoreau

Comment from Athena Uslander: I love the conversation about hands and feet. In Iran nobody wears shoes inside the house.

Comment from Kevin Ladd: The ideas about more angular, asymmetrical forms of prayer and their relation to aspects of emotionality are nice. I like to think of [studying symmetrical, peaceful poses] as job security. 🙂

Comment from Randy Eady: Your Skin in the Game is a really useful educational/relational tool for those of us “working anthropological” with rhythms/movement/therapy.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment

Prayer Hands

I remember when directing actors or teaching public speaking I would scramble to figure out what to do when performers’ hands were too active, distracting from what they had to say or from some essential dramatic transaction. Perhaps they just couldn’t get the words out without stammering with their hands. Or perhaps they felt that excited gesturing would improve their portrayal of an emotional moment in a scene. Almost always, asking a performer to hold his hands behind his back and to try to find other ways to get his message out improved his expressiveness a hundredfold. Yes, he’d first plead, anything but that!, but something transformational virtually always happened. The essence of the necessary communication emerged, free of expressive detritus. The stilling of the hands allowed the essential relational posture, whether verbal or physical, to clarify and make its appearance. The sinking of the actor’s chest as he engaged in a scene with the departing girlfriend was so much more expressive and evocative than any amount of gesticulating could have been. A speaker, who had jabbed his index finger at his audience with every point, used his eyes and the modulation of his voice to express a deeper caring at key moments in his delivery. In many of the world’s postures of prayer and meditation as, for example, Indian mudras or “seals,” the hands are brought to stillness, perhaps allowing the mind to distill and collect itself. In what ways might particular hand positions, as used in prayer or meditation, affect the brain or the subjective experience of prayer or meditation? Kevin Ladd, of Indiana University, has a novel approach to exploring prayer positions.

In one of his experiments, Ladd positions eight male and eight female mannequins (shown above in mirror images of each other) in common prayer postures. Many of these postures are characteristic of more than one religious tradition. In the first of two standing postures, arms, hands, and fingers are held upstretched, as one often sees in Christian liturgical dances; in the other, the arms are crossed gently over the chest, hands relaxed.

One “chair” posture folds one hand over the other, as one might adopt in private prayer.
The remaining five postures hug the earth closely. In a series of three floor positions, the mannequins sit in the familiar “lotus” position, the palms held facing upward, or kneel as they either hold the hands similarly, as if in welcome, or close them into a folded position, much like the one that might be performed in a chair or a pew.

The last two postures surrender the head: in one, the mannequin is on hands and knees, as may be seen in Muslim prayer; the other is a prone position with the arms outstretched and the face melted toward the ground, as one may see in many cultures’ monastic or clerical practices.
Subjects encounter the full set of eight mannequins that correspond to their gender. They share their impressions about the “pray-er” represented by a particular mannequin: about her health, personality, and spiritual leanings. They then put on some of the accessories (a hat and two wristbands) worn by the mannequin(!), as if to take on something of her “self,” and they attempt to pray in the same position they’ve witnessed. Afterward, they share their prayer experience in writing.

While the experiment has to do with how prayer behaviors are socially learned, as well as with religious prejudice and stereotyping, the postures themselves are notable.
Recognizable from a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western, they have distinctive features in common.

•    The postures are all symmetrical with respect to the spine (right to left).
•    They are generally easy to maintain for long periods of time; that is, none of the postures requires extraordinary balance or is likely to bring on particular discomfort.
•    Some of them favor opening the body–and particularly the heart region–through spreading of the hands up or out or shining the palms upward.
•    The others seem to expel personal identity and self-importance from the body as, in one, the chest softly collapses and as the hands join together; in another, as they support the upper body in an all-fours position or as the chest rests into the ground in a prostration.

So these poses may appear to cover all possible bases, but–

•    Where are the positions of prayer that are asymmetrical, that involve the hands in slicing or pounding, or intentionally muscular activity?
•    Where are positions that twist the torso?
•    Where are postures in which the location of the eyes or hips is more important than how the hands and legs, instruments of action and intention, are arrayed?
•    Where are the postures that require balancing on one leg, or reclining to one side?

In Ladd’s collection of archetypal prayer poses, there are none of what James L. and Melissa Elliott Griffith have called “emotional postures of mobilization.” They are much closer to what might be called “emotional postures of tranquility.” All of these postures involve a disarming of the body on some level, a dropping down into vulnerability–in large part, perhaps, because of the stilling and discharging of the power of the hands.

As the ancient Indian classical dance text, the Natya Shastra, says, “Where the hands go, the eyes follow. Where the spirit rests, a state of being manifests itself. Where a state of being intensifies, supreme joy is awakened.”

All, as the hands lead and still.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | 1 Comment

Signing Our Thank You’s

When I was growing up in an increasingly car-packed Southern California, a product came on the novelties market to aid communication between drivers isolated from each other in–and by–their vehicles. Bumper sticker-sized car signs, which could be slipped into the side or back windows before, or flashed during, a drive, opened up a literary medium for communicating one’s general relational availability, for flirting with a particular eye-catching neighbor-driver, or for offering a spirited review of another driver’s navigational choices. The blocking of social interaction by customized steel and glass encasements had been solved, so long as an assortment of two-to-four-word signs (a primitive Twitter?) could convey a driver’s emotional whereabouts.

As angry and amorous drivers well know, this wasn’t the most practical solution to inter-car communication. There’s just not always the time or the correct following distance to select and flash a printed sign to another driver, but a quick gesture usually does the trick.

In a recent “On Language” column in the New York Times, William Safire reported on a poll of physical gestures people use to complete the social gesture of favor + thank you. Grateful drivers have found many ways to thank someone for letting them move into the lane ahead of them. There’s:

·    the A-OK sign, with the joining of first finger and thumb;
·    the thumbs-up, followed by pointing to the other driver;
·    the doffing of an imaginary brimmed hat;
·    the combination of the hat doff with a military-style salute;
·    the Hollywood-Indian “how” sign, of the upraised palm and the mouthing of the word “thanks”;
·    the “toodley-doo,” or wiggling of all five fingers on an upraised hand;
·    the waggling of the pinkie and thumb, with the middle three fingers closed in toward the palm (known in Hawaii as the “shaka”);
·    the prayer position, with a small bow (to be performed only in very safe traffic conditions); and
·    the (relatively safe) raising and waggling of the index finger from the steering wheel.

Years ago, when I was living in Seattle, a driver made room for me to enter the lane just in front of her. I appreciated it, especially as Seattle is one of the hairiest places I’ve ever driven, its popularity outstripping the capacity of its streets to hold the cars that assert a right to drive on them. Gratefully, I gazed up into the rearview mirror and waved my hand in a kinetic-sculpture version of the “Hollywood-Indian” method (above). I thought was an open, friendly gesture: fingers straight, a speedy, exaggerated windshield-wiper motion from my elbow. For myself as much as for her, I mouthed an overarticulated “thank you” into the rearview mirror.

A day later, I picked up the telephone: it was the Seattle Police, calling to notify me that a complaint had been lodged against me for having expressed road rage in an inappropriate manner on the streets of Seattle. I was baffled: when and how had this occurred? My method of handling any negative emotions toward other drivers has been to chide them under my breath: “Monsieur, monsieur, others have seen the benefits of signaling a lane change in advance. Perhaps you too would find the benefits of this practice?”

As the caller gave more details as to where and when my offense had taken place, I recognized what had happened. The woman who had granted me space had thought she’d been dissed by my returning gesture. As he ended the call, the cop admonished me, “We’re not going to pursue this now, but it was suggested you take an anger management course.”

The thank you, socially gestural in its very nature, is an interchange that depends on both parties’ understanding the generous act and the return as such. Either the expression of gratitude must re-establish a form of respectful equality or reciprocity, particularly if the favor cannot be returned directly, or it must answer the bounty others offer with an expression of genuine humility. Failing to bow in humility leaves the circle of that gesture broken. In Dante’s Inferno, Margaret Visser observes, “At the bottommost circle of hell, the ungrateful are punished by being eternally frozen in the postures of deference they had failed to perform during their lifetimes: trapped rigid in enveloping ice, they stand erect or upside down, lie prone, or bow face to feet.”

The gift + thank-you gesture of social life depends on the accomplishment of two givings, two receivings.

“It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation.

Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”

–Laurie Colwin,
Home Cooking

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Physical Culture | Leave a comment

Making One Body (of Two Families) at the Wedding

If weddings were only about the joining of a man and a woman into a single body, that would have been better accomplished in private.

We all seem to know how weddings are supposed to be, to look. One wedding website offers separate sections for the “elegant” bride,” the “fairy tale” bride, the “glamorous” bride, the “contemporary” bride, and the “destination” bride.

Photo by Kristpher Saim.

While the wedding images and two-dimensional ideals are firmly ingrained for us mentally, we often carry less sense of what weddings are supposed to, and can, do. Yet, held in public, with their very specific organization of the bodies involved, weddings hold the potential to transform not just couples, but whole communities. At their heart, weddings aggregate one family and set of friends with another, even through how the social spaces of sanctuary and reception hall are organized.

The transformation from two to one begins even as guests enter for the wedding, identifying themselves as being on the bride’s or the groom’s “side.” Yet, virtually as soon as they are seated, they undergo a subtle shift from their identification as representing the seeming self-interest of the bride or groom, to being a representative, for the other side’s view, of just who those people are to whom one’s nephew, best friend from college, or co-worker is about to be joined for life. I’m both my oldest friend Rosalind’s fiercest defender, as she makes this most significant life commitment, and (alas) her visual and behavioral ambassador and stand-in, as her husband-to-be’s friends and family check me out. With the bride as overcommitted as she’s going to be this day, Ros’s other friends and I have a lot of work to do to convey to Avi’s side that he’s going to be with good people from now on.

Thus, the bride’s and groom’s social worlds are unveiled to each other at the ceremony itself, much the way a couple may reveal themselves to each other at the altar in cultures that have arranged marriages. And the unveiling that happens at the ceremony itself carries potential for all kinds of outcomes, from hope, delight, or relief to horror.

Once we get to the reception and the choreographed interactions that often lead it off, the two peoples go beyond merely gazing across an aisle at each other: they enter into a choreographed mixing ritual reinforcing the relationships across generations and then across family lines. The now-traditional bride and groom first dance is followed by the groom + mother and the bride + father dances, then often opens out to inviting the larger community into increasingly bacchanalian combinations, as intensely focused or calculatedly seductive couple dances give way to the power of the grape and morph into group line and circle dances.

Perhaps the best example of this kind of integration through the dancing I’ve ever seen took place in Antigua, Guatemala, at the wedding reception of my friends Stephanie and Aldo. The guests were of two quite distinct audible types–those predominantly English speakers who had flown from the U.S. for this destination wedding, and Aldo’s Spanish-speaking relatives living in Guatemala. I’d never experienced the intensity of male dancing energy that I did at this wedding, where no woman, of whatever age, language of origin, or relationship to the couple, was allowed to sit out a dance. (True, one group of young men kept to themselves on one corner of the dance floor. With their long arms wound around each other’s shoulders in the circle they’d formed, over and over again they’d bend their knees slightly and pop as a group high into the air, like a team of porpoises. Their exuberance at the occasion of their cousin Aldo’s marriage was uncontainable by any cardiovascular limitation.)

But because of the palpable commitment of the rest of the male community to proving its mettle by raising every present woman’s heart rate, each danced with all, and two worlds united in a grand sociosexual mating. Dirty dancing would be the entitlement of every couple, no matter the age or language difference; even the female officiant participated.

Yet most of us have attended a wedding, an integration ritual, that succeeds in joining a couple legally and ceremonially but utterly fails at joining the two bodies of the couple’s social worlds. For me, when that happens, the sense of the squandered opportunity can be heartbreaking.

It is, after all, supposed to be about me and everyone else as well as about the couple. The wedding’s about my getting re-married to my partner, re-connected to the institution of marriage, integrated in a commitment to the new family and circle of friends and bearers of her husband’s history my friend has chosen. That’s perhaps why people cry at weddings–for the enormity of the transformation into a wider community they have agreed to undergo.

Sometimes there are special challenges in bringing together the two worlds. I once attended the commitment ceremony joining a Catholic man and a Jewish man in the Upper West Side apartment of my dear friends Steve and Michael. Rabbi and priest co-officiated, and together they both cracked up the attendees and surfaced the unspoken religious and cultural tensions via a mirthful duet about their interreligious officiant union that mirrored that of the loving couple. They leaned in toward each other and chimed, “We go together, like cookies and milk, peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots.”

In a like situation, it wasn’t a religious but an apparent geographic barrier to partnership, as the bride lived in Chicago, the groom in Manchester, England. Many of us carry the belief that the two involved bodies need to be present in the same place most of the time. Yet that wasn’t the assumption of the couple, both mature people. Thus, one of the chief ritual functions of the officiant was to move each side through its tacit distrustfulness by helping it know the unfamiliar partner well enough and assent to the likelihood of success for these two, given the unusual “‘cross-the-pond” (Atlantic Ocean, in British terms) basis on which they had predicated the first few years of their marriage.

Graduations, housewarming parties, funerals, even baby showers carry ritual function. But one can go smaller, zoom in tighter than that. In our simplest daily one-on-one interactions, we engage in rituals that can either appear or accomplish.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice | Leave a comment