Guest Post by Rebekah Goldstein-Hawes of Harmony Healing Arts Center in Shepherdstown WV
Feet are our first point of contact with the Earth; the beginning of the support system for our entire structure. As they push against the ground our feet give us the propulsion and foundation we need to counter gravity and stand erect as channels between heaven and earth.
Many of us are completely unaware of how complex the movement of the foot can be. We think of each foot as one unit. Perhaps we give the toes the possibility of independent movement, perhaps not. Few of us allow the full range of motion inherent in the foot, with its multiple bones (26 of them in fact!). Each of these small bones is capable of small movement, allowing the foot to be incredibly complex.
The foot has the ability to connect with the Earth in a myriad of ways, absorbing impact from the ground so the rest of the skeleton is supported and cushioned. The bones and muscles can shift in tiny ways to help you keep your balance on uneven surfaces balancing the entire structure of our bodies almost effortlessly as we move. Forward, backward, whichever way we choose to go. We can hop, leap, land, tip-toe, or stand balancing in tree-pose. So many options!
Shoes offer useful and sometimes necessary protection for the feet. At times, shoes provide additional support when the bones and muscles of our complex feet have become weak/tight/out of alignment etc. However, we lose much by encasing our feet as a matter of course, from birth until our lives end. Our arches suffer, our feet don’t get to do the graceful job for which they were designed, our poor bodies may become injured as they struggle to compensate, and we become quite literally disconnected from the Earth.
Imagine the complex arch of the foot is like a dry stone arch bridge, with no mortar or concrete used. Each stone must be perfectly stacked to create a smooth arch. When arranged correctly, gravity and the arrangement of the stones themselves holds the structure stable and keeps the arch intact. If you were to build a supporting structure under the arch, you would effectively reduce the strength and integrity of the bridge. There would be no downward force to keep the stones in perfect alignment, and on removal of the support, the entire arch would likely collapse. Within our feet we have the additional benefit of muscles and connective tissue to support our arch. However, over time with constant use of shoes which either provide too much arch support, or flat and stiff shoes that inhibit the natural curve and movement of the foot, these muscles and connective tissue can no longer hold the bridge together, and it falls. At this point, in order to walk comfortably and effectively, we MUST continue to support the feet through the use of correct shoes.
Many people walk without involving their toes in the process at all, the toes becoming a mere afterthought, perhaps intended only to look nice in sandals. The jarring impact of planting most of the pressure on the heel runs up through the legs, and settles either into the knees, pelvis, or somewhere in the low back. We end up with “bad knees,” hip problems, back pain, heel spurs, etc., and don’t understand why. Many shoes actually train us into this style of walking. They restrict movement in the toes or squash them together into one unit.
Feet have yet another unique design feature. Our soles contain reflex points for all of the major organs and structures of the body. This is the basis of reflexology, which is the healing tradition that makes use of special foot massage to treat conditions of imbalance throughout the system. These reflex points are wonderfully positioned, so natural walking in bare-feet or thin-soled shoes like moccasins constantly stimulates the reflex points as we walk over different textures and uneven terrain.
Many of us crave a deeper connection with our natural environment. I believe that feeling the Earth through the bare soles of our feet can re-establish and deepen this connection. To feel the real support that our Earth mother has to give us, to feel that luxurious connection through skin, damp grass on feet, soaking up the dew, and feeling the texture of the terrain through the nerves and senses of our feet can be a very healing experience. Children often know this intuitively and will resist wearing shoes, and rightly so!
In yoga, we are encouraged to learn to inhabit our bodies more fully through careful self-study. We are guided to spread the toes and feel the four points of contact with our feet, naturally enhancing our arches. We allow the strength of the feet to support all of our standing poses like Virabhadrasana (Warrior) and Trikonasa (triangle). We also work to maintain the flexibility in the feet and ankles to bend and move for poses like Virasana (hero).
So reconnect with your feet. Reconnect with the Earth. Try it! Take your shoes off as often as you can this summer. Run on the grass. Feel your whole foot; let your weight roll your foot along the ground pushing off with your strong toes as you feel the forward momentum. Feel the muscles of the feet getting stronger, as they work for perhaps the first time in years. Feel the texture and quality of different surfaces with your feet. Notice how they feel in different shoes. Notice when your feet feel connected and able to move freely and when they don’t. Feel the mud between your toes on wet days, and wash your muddy feet lovingly, giving them some extra rubbing and attention while you do, honoring them for all the wonderful work they do in supporting you, every step of the way.