This was an interesting exercise in several ways, but I think what is most fascinating to me is the way that our bodies and our muscles perform so many complex actions "automatically". From breathing to digestion, to tying shoes to standing to walking, the things that we do regularly fade out of our conscious domain and seem to take care of themselves; but any one of the activities when analyzed seems to engage many parts of if not the whole body.
Standing on both feet
As with any automatic action it took me a few moments to even recognize that anything was really happening at all. I was standing barefoot on a hard wood floor and could feel my feet planted firmly against the cold wood. Soon after beginning to stand I noticed that my weight was pitched slightly forward onto the balls of my feet, creating a slight tension just below my knee caps. From there the tension extended up into my hips, with a tightening of the buttocks. I shrugged my shoulders trying to relax into the pose, and as I let them slack I tuned in to the tiny fluctuations at my core. I suddenly recognized the extent to which my stomach and entire core are involved in maintaining effortless balance. Now I could feel the tiny muscles in my feet, tensing and releasing ever so slightly as shifts in the core of my body necessitated minor adjustments. Next I tried to relax everything systematically, seeking a state of total stillness. Each time I released something in my shoulders, neck, back, feet, I could feel something tense or gained awareness of something already tense somewhere else. I closed my eyes and found that much of my balance was based on fixed visual cues. I didn't actually lose balance to the point of falling or even tilting, but I could feel a forward/backward tension that I am normally oblivious to and found that the minor shifts in weight and muscle resistance became more pronounced than with open eyes. Finally I tuned in to my breath. This let me actually relax, firmly planting the entire souls of my feet on the ground and allowing an ease of balance like I am used to.
Standing on one foot
Standing on one foot was a very different experience. I have enough practice standing on one foot to make it a more or less easy activity. However, there is nothing about it that is automatic. I immediately feel my balance start shifting from left to right and back again regardless of which foot I stand on. My foot becomes a rapidly responsive pivot, rolling towards the inside or out as needed to help maintain balance. My balance is very different too, not poor but much more nomadic, refusing to anchor at one spot and instead shifting from here to there. It seems that any adjustment, no matter how small, to my center of gravity requires innumerable muscles to reposition and respond. Two feet seem strongly anchored, one is more like a light tether. My weight drops at my hip and I feel the dominant leg sink into the socket, my arms extending like wings, rising or falling in minute or dramatic amounts to compensate as my center of gravity falters. I notice a tendency to fold slightly at my center, as though remaining full and upright will expose me to the wind and compromise my stability. I want to look forward and down, perhaps my bodies way of making sure that if I fall I am ready. The tension is less at me knees and instead at the bottom of my calves and ankles, tops of my quads. There is little difference between my left foot and right, though my left has a bit more balance, my right endurance. It must be from hackey sack.
Walking normally (or for that matter doing anything “normally”) at the same time as trying to analyze my walking was difficult. This is partly because every time I pay attention to walking, I, through force of habit, try to walk better; to correct my posture, engage my core, go from heel to toe with equal pressure throughout the step. I believe this is the result of a specific period in my life when I was studying trapeze and walking an hour to and from work each day. Trapeze requires many muscles to be toned in the neck, shoulders, and back, but the primary muscle group involved in most trapeze motions and postures is the abdominal core. One day I was speaking to my instructor about core strengthening and she mentioned that properly engaging the core while walking is one of the most effective methods. Since then I have paid close attention to how I walk. So for this exercise, I had to spend some time figuring out how I actually walk instead of walking how I know I should walk.
What I found is that my feet bow out slightly, giving me a very minor duck-footed walk, seemingly more pronounced on my right foot than left. (afterwards I looked at the soles of my shoes, and sure enough the right foot had worn more along the outside, indicating a preference for placing more weight along the outside of the foot.) I also noticed that I tend to look slightly down and hunch forward a bit. I would say that this is consistent with my posture in general, but was still interesting to note that I am pitched perpetually forward, leading from my head. As a person I would say I tend to do the same socially, lead with my intellect and let my physicality follow (though I have consciously started balancing these things in recent years.) And then there was the actual physical process that my muscles go through. Leg swings forward from hip, straightens, heel touches, depresses, and weight shifts as step arcs through foot. Shin muscles contract as leg swings forward, then expand as calf contracts and leg bends, foot contacts. Arms swing cross-laterally in seamless time with steps. This makes my hips stay relatively fixed so that they feel almost like they are floating in place.
The primary take away form this experience as it differed from normal walking was the idea of time domain and cadence. When walking normally, I feel muscles moving through familiar and incredibly smooth and seamless transitions from heel to toe, foot to foot. There is no real sense of start/stop, but rather an ease-in/ease-out. Muscles work in unison to accomplish the locomotive goal, expansion and contraction penduluming effortlessly. But when I slow the whole thing down, the parts are revealed and the perceived continuum of muscular engagement becomes granulated. Like the eye trying to track an invisible nothing through space, fluid motion is split into fine jumps, discrete moments. I find that maintaining a consistent slow speed (below the speed of simply ambling or walking slowly) is almost impossible. My heel touches and the body wants to accelerate into the rest of the step. With an incredible degree of conscious effort I am able to slow down, but it always feels like I am midway between movement events, never quite occupying a state of moving.
Afterwards I couldn't help but think about how this applies to so many of our learned behaviors: we don't slam a foot down on the gas pedal, instead we ease into it, cueing off the acceleration of the vehicle and weighing it against our expectations from previous experiences; when we speak we don't try to say every word at once, but rather use pauses and inflections, variations to pace, to contextualize and layer meaning; when we ride a bike we slowly shift application of force from one pedal to the other. The act of moving through space is done, summarily, on a human scale and on human time. Obviously, but incredibly.
The interesting thing about slow walking was the way in which familiar and un/subconscious actions were rendered apparent and perceptible. With backwards walking it was very different. In one way it is the forward action reversed – the toes touch first then arc through the foot to the heel, heel lifting off last and pushing a fully extended leg back. The movement components are familiar from a logical and rational perspective. The actual physical experience however, was much more alien and only resembled normal walking insofar as certain movements could be isolated as reverse to their regular counterparts. The sense of familiarity and muscle-sense or muscle-memory was simply not there. Suddenly spatial relationships that guide our movement are out the window. My normal sense of proprioception and knowledge of self other spatial dynamics are called into question and I wonder with each step if I might hit something.