Movement Can Be Smoother With Bare Feet

Last week I had the extraordinary experience of participating in a traditional Sri Lankan Buddhist ritual: the climbing of Adam’s Peak...

It began at 2:00am in order to reach the summit to witness the brilliant sunrise.

This experience, grueling though it was, thrilled me on two levels: firstly, I'm a hiker, so I love the challenge of a hard climb. Secondly, I had the opportunity to observe the movement of the local Sri Lankan pilgrims as they climbed - the most amazing part of which was that a majority of people climbed the 5500 steps to the peaks in bare feet. Old women, young children, mothers carrying babies in their arms. Bare feet or flip flops. Nothing more.

I know it sounds crazy - here I am in beautiful Sri Lanka and I'm looking at people's feet, but I was amazed at something else: the older men and women had good looking, sturdy feet; no bunions, no hammertoes, the toes weren't mashed together as are many of the toes of my clients. Walking barefoot or in flip flops allowed them to use all the muscles of their feet! They had to feel the ground and negotiate their movement in a more efficient manner.

One old woman nimbly ran by me down the mountain, holding her saree up so as not to dirty it. I suddenly became very aware of my sneaker-clad feet that were thunking down the mountain, so I decided to go barefoot myself. What a difference! I observed a lot of barefoot walking in Sri Lanka, and I was impressed not only with the relative beauty of their feet, but by their movement: smooth, and even.

I'm convinced that the more we practice barefoot walking, the more adept our movement will become and the less our feet will hurt. 

When you walk barefoot you're more likely to pay attention to your gait; rather than heel-striking first, you will tend to walk with more of the foot, quieter, and more smoothly. This will, in turn, affect the way you hold the rest of your body. Believe it or not, just walking barefoot can begin to help alleviate back and hip pain. Your feet might even look better and you might be able to avoid a trip to the podiatrist! Have a look at the video clips.

Please excuse the fact that this video is sideways! I'm an iPhone beginner, so bear with me.

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Using the Feet for Better Movement

I have a client who complained to me that she can get down on the floor, but she can't get up. She loves to garden, but has resigned herself to bending over at the waist, with knees bent slightly, in order to plant, dig ,or pull weeds. This, she admits, only causes back pain.

Use full body movement to get up off the floor.

Last week I taught her a simple way of getting up off the floor. She can get onto her hands and knees with no problem. It's getting from her knees to her feet that poses the challenge. I taught her to tuck her toes under (like a runner at the starting line), then rock herself back and forth, from her hands to her toes - sensing the shift in weight from her hands to her feet. Then, when she felt balanced, she pushed with her hands and rocked back onto her feet, and slowly came up to standing. She did it twice and was very excited!

Get to know your feet. They're a crucial part of the sensory motor system.

When she returned to me last week she told me that she had a lot of trouble with the exercise and wasn't sure she could do it. She also mentioned "I absolutely hate going barefoot, even at the beach. It's torture!"  Sensing the root of her problem, I immediately segued into a lesson about her feet. For 20 minutes I had her play with her toes: stretching them, pulling them, seeing how far apart she could get one from the other, slowly pointing and flexing. I told her that the feet are one of the body's most important sensory organs, and that, when constantly confined to shoes, they lose muscle control and sensation.  Loss of awareness of one's feet, and the wearing of cushioned shoes is also implicated in an increased number of falls in senior citizens. I suggested taking every opportunity she could to walk barefoot.

When you can sense your feet you will move more easily.

Finally I had her stand up. She was shocked at how she was able to sense her feet and move them easily. She exclaimed, "I can lift my toes! I can't remember the last time I did that!" She wondered if "making friends" with her feet wouldn't maybe make barefoot walking more pleasant. I assured her it would.

Then I explained that, in attempting to rock back onto her feet to get up, her feet hadn't been able to feel the ground and help her out. She'd been missing a crucial part of the movement! Without feeling in her feet she hadn't been "grounded" enough for the muscles of her feet to flex and push to help her get up. Once she regained voluntary movement in her toes and feet, then she her "getting up off the floor" exercise would be a breeze! Reeducating her feet would improve her balance and stability as well.

Take a few minutes and play with your feet.

Stand and slowly roll up onto the balls of your feet, and then come down. Pull your toes, and notice how far up the leg the sensation goes. Then take a walk. Your feet will thank you.

Being able to sense and move the muscles of the feet is another factor in relieving back, hip and knee pain. Remember that the body is connected as a whole. When we walk, if we're unaware of how our feet meet the ground, we may be pounding down in a way that actually contributes to knee and hip pain. This pounding can, in turn, work its way up to the back.

Three Steps to Improved Posture

In my last post I discussed the Top 3 Myths About Posture. If you looked in the mirror and thought, "Oh dear! I need to do something about my posture," here are three simple things to address.

1. AWARENESS

Stand in front of the mirror. Take a look at yourself. Are you balanced? Notice your shoulders. Are they level, or is one higher than the other? Look at the center of the body. Do you tilt to one side or the other? Are your arms of equal length?

Stand in profile. Take a look: where's your neck and head? Is it thrust slightly forward? What about your lower back? Is it overly arched? Are your knees locked back? Are your shoulders rounded forward - or maybe "pinned back" military style? If you don't know what you're doing habitually, it's difficult to change things.

2. PROPER SITTING

Most of us sit for a prolonged period of time every day - at computers, in cars, and watching TV. Long ago our days were filled with physical labor and activity and periods of sitting were the exception. Because we sit so much it's important to be aware of how your sitting affects your overall posture. Do you slouch? Do you sit up overly "straight", arching your lower back and pulling your shoulders back? Do you crane your neck forward in order to read the computer screen? Do you sit with more weight in one hip than the other? Read the full article on my website here: Effortless Sitting. See what you discover about yourself.

3. PROPER SHOES (or better yet, go barefoot)

Proper shoes are critical, especially for you women out there! The higher the heel, the more likely you are to over-contract your back muscles. It will also result in chronically tight calves, hips and thigh muscles. Walking with too much weight into the ball of your foot is simply not normal, and it completely changes your posture.

The muscles in your foot will compensate to accommodate tight shoes. Thick soled shoes do not allow your foot to feel the ground properly and will affect your proprioception. Soft-soled shoes allow your feet to sense the ground more effectively, putting less strain on your lower leg muscles and improving your awareness.

Walking barefoot is a terrific way to improve your posture. Feel the difference in how you walk when you're barefoot.

Now get out there and experiment!