September 9, 2010

The Art and Science of Being Barefoot

The connection with our bare feet helps promote health and flexibility.

I used to be amazed by former roommates who would spend most of their time wearing shoes. Over the course of four years I watched two different roommates relax on their futon with laces tied up and the TV on. I’ve had a longtime love affair with barefootedness, and if I lived somewhere more tropical than Brooklyn, would need nothing more than my ten-dollar sandals year-round.

This wasn’t always the case. For eight years I wore orthotics thanks to a broken femur creating a sublaxation in my hips and a shortness of my right leg. I struggled with the idea that I could not be barefoot, ultimately conceding to science, which was tough considering I spent my summers as a lifeguard. I learned to walk near the fronts of my feet and dealt with the oddness of movement. Eventually I felt that these shoe lifts were doing more harm than good and tossed them.

I also quit chiropractic care, as I tired of going one to three times a week for eight years. I was told time and again I’d have to be a lifelong customer. I turned to yoga to heal my body, and haven’t been to a chiropractor (or podiatrist) in over a decade. My leg difference was the result of not stretching properly (or at all, as my therapists never promoted that), and once I began a regular asana practice, my lower back stopped hurting and my feet felt more grounded.

Residual effects of my femur break lead to a torn labrum two years ago, at which time I had to stop jogging. I’ve long had a hate/hate affair with running, often thinking it an unnecessary form of healthiness. Yet the runner’s high is addictive, so I continued, until one morning two Augusts ago, when I felt a sharp pang on the treadmill. A few days off turned into a few months, until finally getting an MRI. I picked up studio cycling and fell in love with that, minus the hip pain.

Yet many of my yoga students are runners and marathoners, and as much as I dreaded the run, I missed the high. Earlier this summer I started spotting Vibram Five Fingers on the feet of fellow gym goers, and was intrigued. Not only an advocate of barefootedness, I love to stretch my feet. It seems odd to me that humans are on them all day and yet many people never stretch, massage or oil their feet. I know this by the looks of anguish and terror on my students’ faces when we get around to sitting toes tucked on our heels.

This spring I was doing a deeper investigation of my erector and psoas muscles, finally feeling my labral tear subside. When I saw that the Five Fingers were made for running, I decided to give it a shot. Funny thing is that when I got fitted, the woman told me that Vibram actually developed them for water sports. They never caught on with surfers, but runners championed them, so a quick marketing change reinvented the company’s wheel. I have no proof of this, but it wouldn’t surprise. Regardless, they proved to be the best thing imaginable for my body.

I’ve had very little recovery time running with them. Granted, I’m not a marathoner; I run 3-5 miles four times a week right now, and I’ve never had one issue with the shoes. That’s not the case for everyone. One student told me a tale of bloody feet after a Central Park run, while my fiancé’s calves doubled in size after her first Prospect Park loop. Being that I am accustomed to having my weight forward in my feet, these shoes provide the most comfort possible without being barefoot, though that may not be the case for everyone.

More interestingly, however, is this passage from The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, regarding neural pathways and brain maps:

According to Merzenich, shoes, worn for decades, limit the sensory feedback from our feet to our brain. If we went barefoot, our brains would receive many different kinds of input as we went over uneven surfaces. Shoes are a relatively flat platform that spreads out the stimuli, and the surfaces we walk on are increasingly artificial and perfectly flat. This leads us to dedifferentiate the maps for the soles of our feet and limit how touch guides our foot control. Then we may start to use canes, walkers, or crutches or rely on other senses to steady ourselves. By resorting to these compensations instead of exercising our failing brain systems, we hasten their decline.

It always unnerved me that being barefoot was associated with hippie-ness. It’s about a level of comfort, not to mention intelligence. I’m sure there’s perfectly good science behind the idea of a certain amount of cushioning, but there was also plenty of science behind my doctors constantly telling me that they could not heal me, and that I’d have to keep returning. They were right about the first part—it was me who had to heal me.

Doidge also points out that as human beings age, we begin to fall more often for the same reasons mentioned above: the loss of connection with our feet. I ran for years in running sneakers and always suffered lower back pain afterwards. Now, outside of the occasional sore hamstring from pushing my mileage, all that is gone. I’m in no way suggesting that this will be the case for everyone, but I will state that the more time we let our feet do what they do without assistance, the better they’ll treat us as we grow older. They are our direct connection to the ground beneath us, and there’s something to be said for staying in touch with that.

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