Ridiculous Shoes

Gathering dust.

I’m addicted to shoe shopping. 

The shoes in my wardrobe fall into two categories: the Beautiful and the Comfortable. The Beautiful ones stand around gathering dust. The comfortable ones only exit my life due to structural collapse.

This is the case because I have Problem Feet. They are long, flat, strangely shaped (the technical term is ‘accessory navicular’), and they usually hurt. 

So I have an ongoing fantasy that the Right Pair Of Shoes will make my feet 1) smaller, 2) beautiful, and 3) pain-free.

This week I was forced to acknowledge that my best pair of work shoes, the ones I was likely wearing last time you came for a massage, were no longer viable. Life came to a crashing halt while I found another pair of work shoes, with arch support, stability and flexibility. 

Because EVERYTHING depends on your foundation. Your feet affect your ankles, which affect your knees, which affect your hips and back and neck. If you’re walking around in ridiculous shoes, your life eventually collapses. 

So make sure your shoes are good for you. Ideally you want arch support which isn’t rigid, so that the articulations between bones stay mobile. High heels, although beautiful, throw your back out of alignment and cause bunions. Flip-flops–well, grinding your bones directly into concrete all day–I won’t lecture you any more.

If you have foot issues as serious as mine, check out Footsmart.com. Not only do they sell comfortable walking shoes for all kinds of conditions, they have devices that help with plantar fasciitis, custom orthotics, gel inserts, and all kind of nifty bracing things. 

This message brought to you thanks to the Equinox Wardrobe Cleanse.  

How To Master Pain

Okay, I’m BSing you. Forearm stands aren’t painful. 

They used to terrify me, however. Going upside down would make my brain shut down. I’d be asked to do a forearm stand in yoga class; I’d make a sort of wounded-penguin attempt at flipping my legs up, then huddle in child’s pose for the rest of the class.

Then one day I paused. For thirty seconds, I visualized myself doing a perfect forearm stand. Then I tried again. 

It was easy.

Lately, I’ve been tackling something way harder than forearm stands–fear, anxiety, and pain. When I notice myself doing things like surfing social media for hours, reaching for sugar, carbs and alcohol, finding ANYTHING to do except the next thing on my task list, that’s a red flag. I’m suppressing feelings that I don’t like having.

The remedy is this: Stop, sit, and feel the feelings. 

As soon as I bring my attention to that panic, shame, discomfort, and notice it without judging, avoiding, or trying to ‘fix’ anything, the feelings start to shift. The knot in my gut moves to an iron band around my head, which flows into constriction in my sinuses, a panicked clench in my throat. More rapidly than I think possible, they melt.

After maybe ten minute of this, thing are really different. I’m no longer craving a cookie or a Facebook binge. I’m ready to tackle the Big Scary Thing. 

Because the way out of negative feelings is through them.

There is reason to suspect that this applies, in some ways, to chronic pain as well. Research has indicated that taking painkillers in the early stages of recovery from injury may correlate with the development of chronic pain syndrome later on. It’s as though the brain has to experience the injury in order to recover from it.

So I’ve started bringing mindfulness to my massage clients, as an experiment. When we hit a problem spot, I encourage you to be with your sensations, as far as possible, without judging, avoiding or trying to change them. Preliminary results indicate that pain starts to melt then, too.

Let’s see what happens. 

On The Bleeding Edge of Science


Twenty years ago, a friend of mine stopped being able to walk.

It happened intermittently. She’d be fine for a few weeks or months, then collapse. She had intense pelvic pain that doctors couldn’t find a reason for. Some thought she was faking it and sent her to the psych ward, or gave her a catheter without anesthetic “to teach her a lesson.”

No doctor, as far as I know, asked her if she had a history of childhood abuse.

Then came the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACE), a study of 17,000 adults which correlated long-term health outcomes with childhood trauma. It suggested that certain experiences are risk factors for leading causes of illness and death–as well as poor quality of life, including idiopathic pain. Chronic, high-intensity stress in childhood, it seems, can  re-engineer your nervous system, and not for the better.

In my bodywork practice, my biggest source of fascination and frustration is “mystery pain,” often accompanied by “mystery fatigue.” I can get a little obsessed. In trying to solve the problem of why a client is in pain, exhausted, dizzy, depressed, anxious, can’t walk properly, or gets “pins and needles” for no apparent reason, I’ve researched not only musculoskeletal problems, such as injuries, arthritis, disc disease, spinal stenosis and spondylitis, but also adrenal fatigue, chronic Lyme, and any nervous system illness we have a name for, including every type of sclerosis that they thought my friend had, and then ruled out.

And I keep going back to the ACE study. All the TED talks and spin-off studies and New Health Initiatives focus on prevention, which is splendid. But what about people whose nervous systems are already kerflucked? Is there any way to help them?

Answer: I don’t know.

We know the nervous system is plastic; it can be rewired, to a certain extent. We know that PTSD is treatable. Could we develop a protocol in cases of idiopathic pain and fatigue syndrome, otherwise known as Nobody Knows Why I’m Kerflucked?

Because the danger in addressing an undiagnosable problem in a holistic way, is that you may be attacking it at the wrong level. You can’t heal a broken leg by changing your mindset. Too many holistic practitioners make claims that aren’t backed up by research. As a colleague noted when she said, “I don’t know any other massage therapists quite like you.”

So I keep asking questions. I keep reading research. And I keep up my attempts to hack into your nervous system, and tell it there’s no cause for alarm.

A Pansy Grows in Philadelphia

When I was struggling with a partner who was chronically unemployed, Kate Jesuele put me in boxing gloves, turned up the boom box, and told me, “Leave it all on the bag.” Two weeks later I kicked him out.

When I was having panic attacks after separating from my partner, Terrie Lewine of Back to Life Wellness Center said, “Come to my office.” She did something subtle and magical to my spine. Two hours later I was grounded, calm, and functional.

When I was stalled in my process from years of upheaval, Dawn Mehan of Motherheart Studio gave me a private yoga class. “I’ve never felt so nurtured,” I told her. I left her studio feeling forty pounds lighter.

All of these healers thanked me. They thanked me.

In sixteen years of practice, I’ve come to understand that any treatment is only as good as the client allows it to be. Healing isn’t something that can be imposed; it can only be received. It makes a healer’s day when you accept what they offer, and run with it.

Every one of my clients is a healer, whether you know it or not. You are healing yourself and the world by allowing yourself to connect and be nurtured.

It’s an honor to know you.

The Trash Heap of the Soul


Ten weeks ago, our new back yard was a weed-choked wasteland.

We moved in late April; it took a couple of weeks to unpack. By the time we tackled the yard, it was already late in the season. We turned over some beds, threw down some seeds, bunged in a few starters (“bunged’ is a word. P.G. Wodehouse uses it ALL THE TIME), and took a hose to the whole mess.

Two months later, we are battling a jungle. Note to self: never plant the whole packet of pumpkin seeds.

At the same time, I’ve been doing a daily meditation practice, based on Joey Klein’s “The Inner Matrix.” This week’s exercise involves bringing a “higher vibration emotion” to a “lower vibration situation.”

This made me nervous. I was afraid I’d find out what a jerk I was. Leaving my partner in rage and frustration, just because he’s been voluntarily unemployed for seven years? Even though we have a wonderful daughter to raise? Maybe I wasn’t LOVING ENOUGH. Maybe if I’d been more patient, things would have turned out differently.

So, in trepidation, I brought the energy of unconditional love to this situation.

And to my very great surprise, I saw myself lovingly, calmly and decidedly leaving him, five years sooner than I actually did. Because staying in an abusive situation isn’t loving–to myself.

It amazes me, how fast and how huge my “starters” are growing. I didn’t expect such soil fertility in a vacant urban lot. “Maybe it was a midden,” suggested another gardener.


“Garbage heap,” she explained.

Nothing is wasted. It all goes back into the ground and comes back as roses, eggplants, tomatoes and giant man-eating pumpkin vines. And when you love yourself, things turn out okay.

You Cannot Control Your Posture

Do you hear that? You’re not responsible for sitting up straight:

You do not have conscious control over your postural muscles. Your postural muscles are controlled by a part of your sub-conscious system. If you had conscious control over your posture you would be unable to do anything else. For example, while you are reading this, you probably aren’t consciously thinking about holding your head off your chest, or keeping your body from collapsing to the ground.  The reason is… you don’t have to. Your nervous system does the job of maintaining your posture naturally – without you even thinking about it.

Regardless of this natural ability, we are taught to think or be mindful about our posture. We are told to hold our heads up, have our shoulders pulled down and back, and our abs pulled in tight. But since we do not have conscious control over our postural muscles, the act of consciously engaging our muscles to provide postural support activates the mobile muscles that we do have conscious control over. Over time, these movement muscles become neurologically trained to function as stabilizing postural muscles. This is not what they were designed to do. As our movement muscles are re-programed to provide postural stability, they become less efficient at providing movement. All this happens and our postural muscles remain inept. The result is the significant loss of range of motion which will lead to dysfunction, pain and injury…

This is something I’ve been telling a lot of my clients, lately. They come in and guiltily confess that they ‘have bad posture,’ and this is why they hurt. But adding to the stress of modern life by heaping on a large portion of personal guilt isn’t helping anything. Your body arrives at certain postures because of the demands your environment places on it, not by your conscious will. If you hurt because of ‘bad posture,’ you need a little help to realign your fascia. Forcing yourself into a ‘better position’ only makes matters worse.

On a related note–I had twelve years of ballet training in my formative years. About 25 years later I had a trial session with a network chiropractor, who encourages the nervous system to balance itself by targeted, gentle stimulation of the spinal cord. After the session I noticed that my hips spontaneously rolled inward, so that they were parallel, rather than chronically ‘turned out’ in correct ballet posture. All of that training, all of those years ago, was still overriding my body’s natural (and efficient) positioning.

Read the whole article.

Why I Am A Bodyworker

Talk about stumbling upon a gift.

At the age of four, during a performance of The Nutcracker, it was revealed to me that I was destined to be a Famous Ballerina. I pursued this vocation with focused determination until the age of seventeen, when I acknowledged that no girl with flat feet and limited hip flexion would ever make Principal Dancer with the NYCB, and quit cold turkey. At least I could finally wear bangs.

Ballet being dead to me, my next career was Famous Painter. With equal seriousness of purpose I obtained a couple of art degrees, and mastered the art of living on almost nothing. To pay my rent I found myself working as the Information Lady at the San Francisco Public Library.

Several years into my tenure, a few things hijacked my attention. First, several of my friends started having crippling health problems that only got worse when treated by mainstream health care practitioners. An ex-boyfriend ended up on disability for repetitive stress injury in both hands. A college friend developed intermittent pelvic pain and paralysis that landed her in a wheelchair, while doctors accused her of ‘trying to get attention’ and administered needless catheters without anesthesia in order to ‘teach her a lesson.’

At the same time, I found that I loved answering people’s health questions. I would get so wrapped up in researching a problem that I’d go through a department of reference manuals. Here again, I encountered people who were as traumatized from their interaction with western medicine as they were from the illness itself.

I once spoke with a caller who had been to her doctor for a disfiguring skin condition, and wanted me to 1) look up the condition to find out if she was going to die, and 2) look up her prescription to find out whether it had any hideous side effects. She sounded terrified.

After a few minutes of research (Google hadn’t been invented yet), I informed her that she wasn’t going to die, and that the problem might take awhile to go away but was neither degenerative nor permanent. Her relief was tearful and extravagant. I then asked her whether she’d been under stress. “My father died,” she replied.

Overstepping the bounds of a proper Information Lady, I expressed my condolences, diagnosed her rash as somaticized grief, and prescribed brown rice, broccoli, long walks and the company of friends. (I had just been reading Andrew Weil.) She pardoned my youthful condescension and hung up the phone a happier woman.

So, I wondered, why didn’t her doctor do that? Surely common sense and compassion are a prerequisite for obtaining an M.D.?

(Idealistic? Me?)

Over time, I found that alternative healthcare really floated my boat. The Bay Area offered a smorgasboard of available disciplines to sample: Ayurveda! Chi healing! Hypnotherapy! Acupuncture! Shiatsu! Raw food veganism! Thai massage! Registered nursing!

After breathlessly exploring these options, common sense prevailed (sort of), and I decided that massage therapy was my most practical starting point–popular, portable, and somewhat clinical. I enrolled in a program at the National Holistic Institute in Emeryville, CA, almost on a whim.

I didn’t expect to be good at it. I’m not sure what I expected. Mainly I was terrified that my WASP-ish upbringing would make it impossible for me to touch people. I thought of it as making a heroic attempt to balance my own shortcomings, before moving into a career more suited to my temperament.

Almost from the first day, however, I’d put my hands on a client or colleague and they’d remark, “Wow, what are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I’d reply. Literally, nothing. After a few years of dating a Buddhist monk, I’d gotten into the practice of Zen meditation, and when I put my hands on people I reflexively emptied my mind.

“There’s heat, coming from your hands,” people informed me. Wow. Cool.

What I came to realize was that I already had a background of kinesthetic understanding that was ripe to be used. Years of dance, yoga and meditation had given me a vast repository of wisdom that I didn’t know I possessed. I didn’t think of it as valuable, perhaps because our culture doesn’t often recognize it as wisdom. We might admire the grace of a dancer, or the speed and precision of a star athlete, but we don’t necessarily think of such skills as having ‘practical’ applications beyond their entertainment value.

But as any musician knows, there is a world of difference between pressing a button and singing a note. It’s not enough to know your anatomy, and push on the right muscle with the right clinical objective. To perform effective bodywork, you have to have calculus in your hands and rhythm in your brain. You must be able to inhabit your client’s body as if it were your own, while maintaining a conscious boundary and therapeutic objective. This may be termed ‘empathy’ or ‘intuition,’  but the mystical implications of these words mask the fact that massage is just physics. Physics may be understood with the mind, but it is manifested by the body.

The word ‘healer’ is so obnoxiously overused in New Age circles that I tend to avoid it. It’s not possible to march in and ‘heal’ anyone; that was made clear to me in every book I read, no matter how whacky, before I discovered it in practice. ‘Healing’ is a natural, organic process that thrums along by itself, with or without interference from us. So to call myself a ‘healer’ seems presumptuous and flaky.

But the root of the word ‘heal’ also means ‘to make whole,’ and seeing problems in relationship to a whole is something that Western medicine doesn’t always do so well. The scientific method has given us miraculous drugs and virtuoso surgical procedures, but these are often applied without balance, discrimination or boundaries. They are almost always used to banish symptoms, rather than to solve core problems.

And creative problem-solving is my favorite exercise. Pain is the manifestation of a problem, and healing the pain could lead anywhere. That’s what makes my work interesting–not the rigid application of a set of techniques to an unresisting body.

So perhaps what I am is a ‘balancer.’ I listen. I ask questions. I do research. I offer creative solutions to overarching problems. I give you a nudge here, a pull there, and often you feel better. Balance enables joy.

Stephanie Lee Jackson is a licensed massage therapist, founder and owner of Practical Bodywork in Philadelphia. She received her massage therapy certification at the National Holistic Institute in Emeryville, CA, and her second-level Reiki attunement from Uma Schaef.

Stephanie is also a fine artist, with a career spanning twenty years. She is best known as the art blogger and provocateur, Pretty Lady; her portfolio and writings may be found at stephart.com.

How to Heal Your Space

What does your environment say to you?

Does your space say, “I am free, healthy, wealthy and safe,” or “I live a life of bleak, pointless drudgery”?

I’m not asking what it says about you. Psychology is not my field. I’m asking what kind of messages your mind receives from your surroundings on a regular basis. Are they positive, negative or neutral?

Too often, we behave as though we are brains in a vacuum. Just as we ignore our health until it breaks down, we can overlook the fact that our surroundings play a huge part in how we function. If we complain about such things as loud noises, bad smells or fluorescent lighting, we acquire the dread label, ‘sensitive,’ as though we were too weak to handle reality.

But whether or not we are aware of it, we live in a continual feedback loop with our environment. When we’re in our ‘ideal habitat,’ we are maximally comfortable, productive, relaxed, energized and happy. When our surroundings are less than ideal, they can drain and exhaust us.

Some of those negative elements are things we can’t fix. We can’t control traffic, or our co-workers’ conversations, or the music they choose to play at the corner café. Most of us don’t have the resources to remodel our houses and offices, or to move to new ones. We’re even restricted as to what type of light bulbs we can buy.

But often we overlook simple ways to maximize the good things about the places we live and work, and mitigate the nuisances. So if you suspect you might be operating in a space that sabotages your health and productivity, read on.

Step 1: What do I need, really?

The Eastern principle of feng-shui can be summed up in one sentence: Have nothing in your home which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. Bonus points if it’s both.

If you’re holding onto something because it might turn out to be useful someday, get rid of it. If you’re keeping something out of guilt, give it away. If it’s ugly, broken, substandard, past its sell-by date, hopelessly outmoded–you get the picture.

This isn’t easy for a lot of people. There are whole industries springing up to address hoarding and related problems. But if you just need a way to get started, ask yourself some more questions.

Step 2: What do I do in here?

It may seem obvious what the kitchen is for: cooking. So why is the mail piling up on the counter? An object is only useful when it lives in the proper context.

I once altered the whole character of a friend’s room from “crazy person” to “eccentric genius” by putting the (hundreds of) books on the bookshelves and the laundry in the closet, instead of vice versa. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, do a little bit of sorting. You don’t have to decide the final resting place of every stray item in your home. First decide in what general area it belongs, and take it there.

Step 3: How do I want to feel when I’m in here?

You don’t have to be June Cleaver to have a kitchen that says, “I am healthy, grounded and inspired,” rather than “I am a miserable drudge.” You may hate cooking, but you still have to eat; might as well nourish your spirit at the same time.

So go through each room of your home and note the things you actually do there (as opposed to the things you think you ought to.) Then ask whether the space supports the activity. Is your bedroom a restful place to be, or do you close your eyes merely to shut out the mess? Does your office say, “I am brilliant and inspired,” or “I am drowning in pointless minutiae”? Is your dining room a haven of nourishment and good cheer, or a bleak, semi-functional filling station?

Once you’ve got a general idea of what you want your space to accomplish, you can work on adjusting the mood.

next: working with light and color.

An excellent resource for those who are overwhelmed: FlyLady.net


Why Are Rehab Centers So Ugly? (Part II)

I’ve been a professional fine artist for half my life. The aesthetics of my surroundings are as important to me as the quality of the air I breathe. A vast empty wall in my living space makes me feel as though I am in prison. I can make a case for the notion that kitsch is morally wrong.

But is this just about my personal quirks? Do the aesthetics of surroundings really matter enough that hospitals, rehab centers and doctor’s offices ought to be concerned about them?

It has been established that the environment of psychiatric hospitals plays a significant role in both patient and staff functioning. The recommendations read like a manual for holistic health–natural or full-spectrum light, access to nature, calming colors, comfortable furniture, and access to private spaces. Artwork (soothing, not exciting) is recommended.

So it would seem that the converse–bright or fluorescent lights, bare white walls, ‘highly reverberent spaces’ (a psychiatric hospital no-no), and windowless rooms might be stressful for patients and staff alike. When we are in stressful environments, our bodies produce stress hormones which inhibit immune functioning.

‘Self Care for Back Pain’ Free Download!

I’ve written my first e-book. It was a blast. I compiled all my favorite tips for dealing with back pain–neck, shoulders, upper back, lower back–took a bunch of pictures of myself in silly poses, learned some epub software and put it all together. You can download it for free by subscribing to my mailing list.

(I’m using this groovy software called Mail Chimp to manage the list, which allows you to unsubscribe at any time, so you don’t have to worry about getting spammed, and I don’t have to worry about spamming you. This gives me great peace of mind.)