I meet Laurie Broderick-Burr as she rides her bicycle to our table at 11th Hour Coffee. I had chosen a quiet table for the interview; yoga instructors are a reserved, soft-spoken lot, right? I had imagined we would whisper about the fears people my age have of falling.
Broderick-Burr does not whisper, nor does she describe body/mind issues with negative words. Rather than focus on seniors’ fear of falling, the Santa Cruz geriatric exercise educator reframes “embracing the wobbles” with a story about the absence of fear she saw in a 20-something who was balancing on the edge of a fence. Broderick-Burr looks around, “It was a fence just like this brick flower box here.”
She jumps up from our table, lifts her right foot to the top of the flower box, and pushes down with her leg until she is standing on one foot, above me, on the edge of the brick wall.
As she balances on the toes of her right foot, she looks down and says, “Embracing the wobbles means learning to accept that losing balance can be a learning opportunity.” She leans back and drops to the ground.
“The more ways we can find to move, the more access we have to continue moving,” she says as she sits down.
Broderick-Burr has been a one-woman movement revolution her entire life.
“I was lucky enough to fall into dancing as a teenager,” she says. “I felt equanimity in my entire system when I was moving. Dancing required my mind to focus, to consider and remember what came next, to remember patterns, to use all parts of my physical and mental being.”
She stands, turns to a chair, and lifts her foot onto the seat. “My passion deepened for strength training, and I began training people to use whatever they have in their lives,” she says, constantly moving up and down with her foot on the chair.
Broderick-Burr is a dancer, dance teacher, yogi, aerobics teacher, weight trainer, hiker, swimmer, skier, bicyclist and triathlon competitor with a master’s in kinesiology. I’ve never met anyone who has studied more modalities of movement.
“I’ve always been concerned that I was not only teaching yoga and dance, but also teaching aerobics, strength training, fitness. I worried that I didn’t fit into the dance world because I taught yoga. Then I felt I couldn’t be a yogi because I taught aerobics. I wasn’t a purist. But since I turned 60, I no longer feel like an imposter. I do what I do. What I’m doing is good and valuable. I’ve been doing it long enough.”
She looks down and smiles, her eyes twinkling. “In my 40s, I took up backpacking,” she says. “My husband Jim is on a High Sierra Mountain tour now; I’m preparing to join him for seven days. We’ve done the John Muir Trail many times, the Himalayas; we’re high mountain hikers. Nothing more we like than climbing a 13,000-foot peak!” She slaps her leg and laughs.
Broderick-Burr says that in her 50s, her work cohered with her master’s degree in kinesiology. “With an emphasis in geriatric exercise science and orthopedics rehabilitation, I can scientifically assess movement. I can see what’s happening and what needs to be built up.”
I start thinking, “This woman analyzes congealed slabs of protoplasm like me. Maybe she can help me.” I tell Laurie about my humiliating encounter with a basketball hoop the day before. I’d been walking the dog with my wife, Julie. We came to a basketball hoop hanging over the sidewalk. It was a low hoop, maybe 9-and-a-half feet high. The old desire to soar high burned in my belly, and I wondered how far over the rim my hand could go. I gathered my body, bent down and leapt upwards, throwing my arms up towards the rim.
Nothing happened. My feet were buckets of cement. Straining towards the rim, my arms flailed overhead like an advertising air-tube dancer.
“Whatever you’re doing, stop it,” my wife said.
“I’m jumping to touch the rim,” I told her.
“Your feet did not leave the ground.”
She was right. A credit card would not have fit under my shoes. I used to catch air, now I catch sick burns from my wife.
Broderick-Burr has ideas about why I can’t jump. She calls my hiking boots “coffin shoes.” Then she reminds me of her class in the morning and rides away on her bicycle. Full disclosure: when I took this assignment, I did it for the money. Now, I can’t wait for her class.
At 9:45am the next morning, I’m at Swift Street Fitness. Broderick-Burr is high energy, having a ball; the class vibe is relaxed and playful. Some of the participants have been practicing with her for 30 years.
I’ve taken enough yoga classes to know not to make noises, either voluntary or involuntary. The class is not so hard, and I manage to control the grunting. I’m strong enough to at least attempt Broderick-Burr’s poses. It’s a good class, but it is not helping me with my white-men-can’t-jump complex.
Then, Broderick-Burr works her magic.
She starts talking about jumping. She has us put the balls of one foot on a block and lift the heel. I see everyone else rise on their toes. I do not rise. I can stand flat-footed but have no lift. Zero. I’m shocked—my plantar fascia (bottom of the foot), ankles and calves cannot lift my heel one inch. Laurie suggests it is because of the big hiking boots I wear all the time. For 20 years, I let my foot bones fuse in my hiking boots while sitting in front of my computer, only taking breaks to drive long distances. They live in toe tombs.
Broderick-Burr’s assessment got me to own my feet. What’s weird is that I hike—not only is it the best exercise, but when you’re done, you’re somewhere else. But she tells me I hike without my toes.
“You have atrophied ankle muscles and plantar fascia,” she says. No wonder I’m so slow on the trail. And now here I am, not only unable to jump but incapable of pushing my heel off the floor to stand on my toes.
With military urgency, Broderick-Burr tells me to get on my toes. “Dorsiflexion of the big toe, plantarflexion of the ankle!” She tells me to go barefoot, get up on the balls of my feet and work my calves every day.
I’m on my toes now, lifting my heel as high as possible. My calves feel like lost spirits, annoyed to be summoned after all these years. My ankles and plantar fascia are trying to remember their purpose. I have dementia of the feet.
My failed attempt to jump showed me that something was wrong. Broderick-Burr figured out what it was and showed me what I might do about it. She warns me it will take a while to get my ankle and calf muscles back. I buy lightweight, thin-soled running shoes and like them so much I buy a second identical pair. Throughout the day, I put the balls of my feet on a 4 x 4 block and struggled to push up onto my toes. Now my heel rises an inch, more or less. OK, less.
One of her longtime students tells me, “Laurie’s approach to yoga combines classical teachings with contemporary science in a way that makes asana practice meaningful in the modern world. With sensitivity and a good sense of humor, she blends her deep knowledge of the mechanics of the human body with the traditions of Hatha yoga to provide practices that extend beyond the yoga studio into daily life.”
It’s working for me; I’m part of the movement revolution now. Free the feet! Broderick-Burr has a vast knowledge of movement and is passionate about helping her clients find new shapes. She insists she is not a physical therapist but says, “You can teach an old dog new tricks because neuroplasticity is possible in an aging body. You can bend the aging curve, but it takes embracing the wobbles and working with them to elicit change.”
By the time you read this, Broderick-Burr will be with her husband Jim in the High Sierras, dreaming of their next 13,000-foot mountain peak. I’ll be doing my prescribed heel lifts, dreaming of jumping over a credit card. She will bend her aging curve; I will bend my toes. She inspires people to move and is moving up that mountain right now.