To shoe or not to shoe… that is the question.
I’ll just say it right here so everyone knows exactly where I stand on shoes at Zen. My goal is to make Zen Fitness 100% barefoot! I’m not saying that to exclude any shoe enthusiasts out there, but I’m a barefoot enthusiast. And I want to spread that message as far as my reach, starting in my own studio.
When I started my own personal barefoot movement I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I started training martial arts over 10 years ago when my boyfriend at the time was an instructor in town. Like any new relationship you just want to know the person and their passion so I dove right in. I got hooked. I started to notice changes in my entire body. Being on the Jiu-Jitsu mat all the time my core got stronger, my abs more defined, my back leaner and more powerful. The last thing I noticed, something I never thought to monitor or gauge, was my feet.
In Jiu-Jitsu, we call it ‘white belt feet’ which affects the tops of them. When you are just learning how to move and grapple you end up dragging your feet across the mat as you work your way through the different positions, takedowns and submissions. Imagine a rug burn on your big toe knuckle that you just keep opening up again and again…that’s ‘white belt feet’. As technique improves and movement gets more fluid, we graduate to just strong, mobile feet.
So at first, all of the mat burn was distracting me from any changes that were happening to my feet. When I started to notice, they looked more muscular. They looked stronger and more grounded, more connected to the earth. They supported me more, allowed me to be more agile. I credited it to the time on the mat. A soft, cushiony surface that allowed my foot to move in all different ways. I thought that was enough for me, to just be barefoot when I was on the mat. Until I was introduced to a Biomechanist, Katy Bowman, on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Her barefoot lifestyle, which I later learned reaches so much further into innate living that just barefeet, instantly intrigued me. It seemed to go hand in hand with the JIu-Jitsu lifestyle I had been living.
A fact that she presented that blew my mind was ‘25% of your muscles are from the ankle down’…25%! That’s ¼ of our body’s muscles in such a small area. Katy Bowman talked about these ‘casts’ that we put on ourselves. The casts we have on our feet, being shoes or the man-made surfaces we walk on. The casts we put on our body – chairs and couches that we sit in basically doing the job of our muscular system so we don’t have to. The casts we put on our eyes with our electronics or even the walls in our homes, limiting our distance vision. I started to wonder what other casts I was putting on myself and how I could start to remove them.
I felt the easiest place to start was my choice of footwear. Being barefoot on the mat is one thing, but what about when I stepped off the mat? When I left the academy and stepped into the street, a place where footwear is needed for protection? I started to look at my shoe choices. Were the soles allowing my foot to move with the earth? Did my shoes have a heel or an unnatural lift? These thoughts took me back to a foot injury I had. When I was recovering I would put on my moccasins (not knowing at the time they are the best barefoot shoe out there!) and hit a nature trail. The natural terrain moved my foot in such amazing ways and it definitely sped up my recovery. What if I did this all the time?
Right after listening to Katy Bowman on the JRE I was heading to Manitoulin Island for a week vacation. I stopped at the trading post in Espanola and decided to buy a pair of mocs without a sole. Just leather bottom and decided these would be my vacation shoe. As we hit the trails, walking around the island, getting right in with nature, I noticed some interesting things happening. I was exhausted at the end of a walk. And not the usual way of being tired because you just exerted yourself, I was drained. It was like every rock I stepped on, every tree root I walked over released the built up tension in my feet. I had to coach myself through my walks at first, like Bruce Lee says be adaptable like water and move around the rocks and tree roots so instead of tensing my feet and my body when I stepped on these surfaces, I just imagined my foot was water, flowing around the bumpy trail, allowing myself to relax and my foot to just melt over top of the objects.
When I got back from my trip I went to see my Reflexologist and she noticed a huge difference in my feet. She had always previously commented about the amount of stress and tension I carried in my feet. This visit she reported that my feet were less tense and I could tell in the treatment that some of the stress was gone. I get addicted to positive results and I was hooked. I started to downsize my footwear collection, getting rid of anything that didn’t have a flexible sole, anything that had a raised heel (other than my fancy shoes for special occasions, because life is about balance) and ditched my flip flops since they made my feet work in an unnatural way, forcing me to grip the flip flop with my toes, a subtle movement that over time can cause damage to our feet and posture.
So what did I wear? Mocassins, mukluks, chuck taylors, toms, and sandals that had a back to them like Sanuks. Here is a list from Katy Bowman’s website with all of her approved shoe brands for summer and winter months – httpss://nutritiousmovement.com/shoes-the-list/
Shoes are just one ‘cast’ we put on our bodies and were just the beginning of my journey. My goal is to slowly remove all the others one step at a time.