In June of this year I was at the Small World Music festival in Kent, in the South of England. The music was great the crowd superb and many of us enjoyed wandering barefoot on the grass.
A lot of the positive feelings were down to the general ambiance but I took particular notice of how vital my feet felt, the coolness of the dew, the playful tickling of the grass, the warmth of the bare earth in the sunshine.
Three days barefoot and my feet felt alive and energised. The experience stirred memories of how often I was barefoot while growing up in Durban (my grandmother would always make me wash my feet before letting me in to the house) I would often go for weeks at a time without shoes.
Returning to Johannesburg and wearing shoes again felt extremely uncomfortable. I had no connection to the ground and my feet felt uncomfortable and sweaty. So the shoes came off and have remained off for the past 3 months.
The experience has been educational, delightful and profoundly liberating, except for a pair of flip-flops and one now rather dusty pair of trainers, all my shoes have been tossed. Friends and family who don’t fully understand why I am now barefoot suspect a strange form of rebellion. The strongest reactions have ben from Black South Africans who find a barefoot mlungu a little bizarre but nod their heads in agreement once I explain things. Luckily I work as a freelance writer and storyteller so I have a lot of freedom in what I wear. No restaurants or shopping centres have asked me to put shoes on, yet.
What about the dangers? Broken glass? Disapproval? Astonished glances?
Well a smile and your own confidence soon handle the disapproval. And feet get pretty tough don’t they?
Did humans not survive millennia without shoes?
The first shoes
New research suggests shoes first came into use in western Eurasia between 26,000 and 30,000 years ago. Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Physical Anthropology, derived those dates by analyzing anatomical evidence of early modern humans, which suggests a reduction in the strength of the smaller toes in Upper Paleolithic humans. Use of protective footwear has been difficult to document because in most cases the footwear does not survive the test of time. Lacking such physical evidence, Trinkaus analyzed the foot bones of ancient humans and found that the structure of their feet began to change starting around 26,000 years ago.
“I discovered that the bones of the little toes of humans from that time frame were much less strongly built than those of their ancestors while their leg bones remained large and strong,” Trinkaus said. “The most logical cause would be the introduction of supportive footwear.” During barefoot walking, the smaller toes flex for traction, keeping the toe bones strong. Supportive footwear lessens the roll of the little toes, thus weakening them.
So why go barefoot? Apart from “it feels good”?
Barefoot feet soon become free of corns, bunions, ingrown toenails and any other ailments caused by rubbing of the foot on the inside of shoes.
Fungal infections cannot cope with the air and sunlight and quickly clear up. I had a persistent toenail fungus on my right big toe which had resisted tea-tree and all sorts of anti-fungal creams for years, it has now cleared up and the damaged toenail is growing out.
Toes liberated from narrow confines begin to strengthen, spread out and get used much more during walking. My feet have become tanned and muscular! Even when they are relaxed you can see the tendons and definitions of the small foot muscles. My pinky toes have already started to straighten out after lying slightly on their sides.
Shoes act like casts, holding the bones of the foot so rigid that they can’t move fluidly, Steven Robbins [MD and adjunct associate professor of mechanical engineering at Concordia University, Montreal] explains. “The foot becomes passive from wearing shoes and loses the ability to support itself.”
Gait and Posture
Shoes alter our natural way of walking. We have evolved to be barefoot and over time the heels of shoes and the heel-toe walking action they enforce alter the positions of our legs and spines. In a natural barefoot gait the ball of the foot touches the ground fractionally ahead of the heel.
Bad posture and gait is the cause of a multitude of problems and the main cause of bad posture is shoes. Support for going barefoot is coming from the ulikliest of sources—Nike. Yes, that Nike, the guys who sell running shoes. Nike is now marketing a line of running shoes and trainers called Nike Free. The footwear is designed to emulate the motion of running barefoot.
During the course of their conversations with athletes and coaches, some Nike designers ended up talking to Vin Lananna, who was then the track coach at Stanford University. While discussing the Stanford program and his success there, Lananna mentioned the unusual training he did with his athletes: He had them run on grass without shoes.
Nike is planning to parley this information into another blockbuster product by designing a shoe with a flexible sole that emulates running barefoot. Of course you could save yourself about a thousand rand and simply run barefooot.
“Wow! Your feet have no tension at all!” exclaimed my friend Greta while giving me a foot massage. Recounting my barefoot exploits had inspired Greta to give me the massage in the first place, “Your feet look so free I want to touch them—would you like a foot massage?”
Being barefoot is healthier in many ways—not just for the feet but also for the back, the gait and posture. In fact, walking barefoot continually stimulates the reflexology meridians and is good for your whole system.
Being barefoot makes you more aware of your environment. Having your feet unprotected means you are aware of their vulnerability and you pay more attention to where you are going. Not only this but you also have an extra sense engaged: normally we see, hear and ocassionally smell things on our travels, but we seldom feel them.
When recalling yesterday’s walk to my friends house I remember not just how the journey looked, and sounded but how it felt too. The roughness of the gravel near the mosque; the pressure of the knobbly non-slip paving near the traffic lights; the coolness of the iron manhole cover. Without shoes I find movements are more delicate more nuanced, and it suddenly feels like this body of mine is five kilograms lighter.
I see the search for the eternal as the purpose of existence. Ideally the spiritual path is not separate from everyday life and I have found being barefoot is immensely supportive of integrating the two.
Holy ground is meant to be trod barefoot. Hindu temples, mosques and many other sacred sites require that devotees remove their shoes. Yet if we truly accept the presence of the sacred is not all ground holy? The Kogi people, believe that to wear shoes is to cut oneself off from the Pacha Mama (Planet Earth) and become deaf to her.
Jesus sent the disciples out two by two and barefoot. (Luke 10:1-16)
“I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Take neither purse nor pack, nor sandals…”
Bare feet are prominent in many other religions, often appearing in contrast to shod feet as a mark that distinguishes humility from pride, spirit from flesh, or sacred from profane.
The famed Beedie Baba of Bombay, Nisgardatta Maharaj, in the immediate aftermath of his enlightenment set off to walk barefoot to the Himalayas. While en route he decided that, since he was one with everything there was no need to go anywhere!
Being barefoot makes me feel free. Liberated from shoes and also liberated from caring about approval or disapproval of society. My feet love the feel of the ground.
Like anything worthwhile being barefoot carries some risks, after three months barefoot I must say most of the dangers are exaggerated.
Stepping on something unpleasant/dangerous—Being barefoot really improves your peripheral vision/awareness. For the first few weeks you do spend a lot of time looking at the ground but after this one makes do with an occasional glance. In 3 months of barefooting I have had just one small piece of glass which came out after a day and some work with a needle.
Most barefooters report years between injuries. After a few months of being barefoot feet become very tough and resisant to punctures, gravel and hot pavements.
We are lucky in that the South African climate is so mild. So far the Johannesburg winter has been no trouble at all. Last year I remember having to wear socks to bed, but it seems that my feet are now much more comfortable with the cold.
Wounds—I’ve had a couple of scrapes on my toes (in the house!) and these have healed very fast in the fresh air and sun.
I remember having a cut between the toes last winer which took ages to heal in the moist environement of shoes.
Scorn from the barefoot hostile—Well being different and following your truth is not always easy.