by Ian Bysh
My teacher Ruth White always recommends starting each pose at the bottom, where you connect with the ground, and working your way up. For a good proportion of poses, starting on the ground means starting with your feet. Last week I was teaching yoga to some teenagers at a youth club and some guides in a field, and on each occasion this advice came to mind. It began when one of the teenagers asked if they might do yoga in their trainers. I explained I needed to be able to see their feet in order to give appropriate instruction. It is difficult to separate a teenager and socks, so I let them keep their socks on: I could see the feet after all; but something about it offended the yoga teacher within.
The guides were a bit different. They were doing yoga in Stoke Park but were unwilling to let their bare feet touch the grass. They were worried about dog mess and broken bottles. Again the inner yoga teacher cried. There is a reason we do yoga barefoot, and there is a reason I love to walk barefoot in the dew. The three great Abrahamic faiths say God created Adam from the dust of the earth. We certainly are made from the same atoms you find on the e/Earth – hydrogen, oxygen and carbon mostly. Such esoteric considerations aside, bare feet allow me to concentrate fully on the effect walking or standing is having without my feet being squashed in unnatural ways by footwear. There are as many nerve endings on your feet per square inch as there are on the palm of your hand. Evolution endowed us with very sensitive feet for a reason.
This has practical ramifications. Firstly, we walk all wrong. Think about it. What’s the first bit of you that habitually strikes the ground when you’re striding about. I bet it’s your heels. Now, would you be so keen to assault the ground with your heels were you not wearing an inch or so of polymer between them and it? My guess is you would probably tentatively put something further away on the ground first – like your toes; and then if your toes noticed something sharp – like broken glass – or squidgy – like poo – you’d have time to adjust before you put the rest of your weight down. Look at every other mammal you can think of. Which bit of them touches the ground first? How do you run? On your heels? My gosh that would hurt, wouldn’t it? If every step you took, you imagined grasping the ground ahead with your front foot and flinging it behind you as you propel yourself along; how would that change things? Shoes turn our springy reactive muscular skeletal structure into stolid lumpen flesh. Don’t even get me started on high heels.
Another consequence is that us shoe wearing humans have become a sub-species – one that is crippled if you take away its footwear. And walking boots are a non sequitur if ever I heard one. What sort of lives do we lead that we need special equipment for walking – our feet encased in contraptions that deliberately constrain our ankles lest we twist them and that insulate our soles from the earth as if we are afraid to come into contact with it? But who wants to walk on tarmac or concrete bare shod? Is it any wonder we have become disassociated from mother earth? I wonder how our attitude to life would change if we started going bare foot a little bit more.