At the busy downtown corner of 17th and Broadway stands a three story building that can only be described as “so Oakland.” Its base serves as a watch and jewelry repair store, its belly contains a hair salon, and topping it off in a cherry kind of way, is a new headquarters where Leah Gillman is starting a movement–through movement.
Standing at can’t-be-more-than five foot, Gillman is a behemoth of energy, with a pulled-back mop of dark, curly hair, slightly reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Elaine. She smiles widely and easily, and is obviously in her element in the airy space she’s deigned the Barefoot Movement headquarters, which serves as a studio for both flow yoga classes and teacher training, and Barefoot Bodywork.
All her life a dancer, Gillman transitioned to competitive cycling and yoga, then began practicing acupressure, and Ashiatsu. In a word, she’s active. “I tend to access my intellectual and my emotional self through my physical experience,” she explains. And just by doing so, Gillman has gained a bit of a following around the Bay, which she modestly claims she didn’t realize she was developing. “I had been in the business, practicing barefoot massage and teaching yoga classes. I was just doing what I did–raising kids…” But the demand for her instruction exceeded the capacity of her previous venues and, faced with an abundance of opportunities, she considered what would serve on a deeper level, and Barefoot Movement was born. “Teaching people how to practice is like teaching people how to fish, rather than handing them a fish. It’s a bigger, bigger spread.”
Gillman focuses on the well-being of the whole person, literally from the feet up. There are a few different modalities of massage that focus on footwork, or foot techniques. They tend to be from an Eastern lineage; for example, Thai massage incorporates a lot of foot massage, and is probably the most well-known modality. Gillman, a long-time student and apprentice of Edward Spencer–who also, lives, teaches, and practices in the East Bay–trained in originally in Barefoot Shiatsu, or Ashiatsu. “Ashi” means “foot” (“shi” means “finger”) and “atsu” is “pressure,” so it literally translates to “foot pressure.” Shizuko Yamamoto, the creator of Barefoot Shiastsu, is known for saying “you treat holism with holism.” In other words, “I use my whole self to treat your whole self.”
Gillman explains that by working through the feet, there’s more of the whole body involved, which is not only efficient, but also relieves significant strain on the upper body (from thumbs to wrists, elbows to shoulders, into the neck and down the lower back) caused by working with the hands. Gillman cites a common example: “There are people who come in and say, ‘I have this knot. I want you to dig at it. Can you go any deeper? Can you go any deeper?’” This type of client demand regularly obliged can lead to career-ending consequences for the masseuse, making the attrition rate astronomical. Barefoot massage is the long distance runner to Swedish and Shiatsu’s sprint.
Gillman is looking to promote the lesser-known practice of Barefoot Bodywork. “My idea is to more or less open up a massage school here, on top of the yoga. If more people knew about [barefoot massage], then more people would be requesting it and choosing to learn it. The more people who learn it, the more clients there will be, the more widely accepted it would become.” She intends to build up a community among the people who are already practicing various styles of barefoot massage and want to teach and share footwork techniques. Instead of practicing in their individual bubbles, she wants to bring them together, to create a movement. Gillman lives in Berkeley, but she chose Oakland as a homebase because of its energy. She recalls, “I looked all over Berkeley first, but nothing was quite right. And then I realized I actually didn’t really want to be in Berkeley, that Berkeley feels a little sleepy, a little settled. I wanted that vibrant, moving forward sort of energy. So I looked at a few places in Oakland and I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’”
East Bay Express - BEST OF THE EAST BAY 2012
Leah Gillman from Barefoot Movement Yoga and YMCA
Amazing instructor. I make sure I come to her class every week. She remembers everyone’s name, pushes people to their limits, and is incredibly attentive, patient, and hands-on. She was born to do this. Nobody compares to her! — Bianca Pardini