Thursday, May 13, 2010

My New Barefoot Shoes -Coming Home to Bipedal Locomotion

I used to hike to my teaching job at the local elementary school, covering about three miles of dirt trails in the local state park here in Topanga, California where I live. Sometimes on my way home I would take off my shoes and walk the trails barefoot. Walking without shoes I noticed that a change occurred after about the first mile. Initially, I was somewhat uncomfortable with these relatively tender feet plodding along over seemingly treacherous terrain. Alternating between uneven dirt and scattered large-rock protrusions, the trail felt alien and unaccommodating at first. By the second mile however, I would start to feel that my individual toes flexing with each step. Freed from the dark, restraining coffin of my shoes, the complex array of toe muscles would come to life, helping to steady me and propel my forward motion. It felt quite literally as if my toes were pulling the earth towards me with each step. It was a delightful sensation. The unevenness of the ground was no longer an annoying challenge to my bare foot, but a wonderfully varied and stimulating exploration of texture. On uphill portions of the hike, I would stride across these large steep boulders, ‘grasping’ the rock with my foot to hoist myself up and over. On down slopes of the trail, my toes would help put on the brakes and guard me from slipping. Walking shoeless in one’s home, as most of us do, simply can’t produce this sensation. The floors are just too flat and smooth, and moreover, we don’t walk for long in the house; we don’t cover enough ground to sink into that long-striding motion of a good stroll or jaunt. As I hiked along without shoes, my feet became these active beds of muscle, engaged in subtle, yet nimble and deliberate movements in response to the terrain.

Last year, a friend bought me a pair of ‘barefoot’ shoes called Vibram Five Fingers that allow for separate articulation of toe movement. I was interested to learn if these strange-looking foot gloves would allow me to feel more connected to the earth. I am pleased to report that when wearing these shoes I do feel as if my toes are actively ‘grabbing’ the earth with each step, much like the experience I had hiking barefoot. Whether walking on streets or sidewalks, on grass or over curbs, up stairs, or across thresholds, carpets, and tile –I feel the textures and irregularities of every surface much more keenly, and my toes are instinctively involved in navigating and propelling my locomotion. With these ‘shoes’ on I am more conscious of the earth underfoot, a simple result of my toes being liberated, able now to engage the ground as distinctly independent digits.

These glorious ten toes evolved to be separate and active participants in our uniquely human bipedal locomotion. For close to four million years –or over 99.7% of our history as fully erect hominids- we walked and ran across the uneven surfaces of our earth with our natural sole to the ground. New studies are suggesting that our modern shoes are responsible for a number of orthopedic problems, and a good body of evidence indicates that barefoot runners experience fewer of the joint problems associated with running because they do not strike the ground heal first, like shod runners.

I’m not surprised at the number of medical studies which confirm the positive health benefits of foot reflexology –the practice of applying pressure to different parts of the foot believed to correspond to nerve endings associated with the healthy functioning of organs and systems of the body. Evolution would certainly have designed optimal health benefits of our physical interface with the earth, taking advantage of the varied, forceful, and consistent ‘massage’ applied to the feet of our ancestors -those shoeless nomads who spent millions of years treading millions of miles, foot to the ground.

Why this long story about shoes? Well, shoes have done to our feet what agriculture has done to human culture. People with shoes on their feet have a layer of sole marking their physical disconnection from the very ground upon which they walk. They do not feel the earth underfoot, neither physically nor emotionally. In the same way, people living in agricultural times have varying degrees of disconnect from wild nature. Instead of shoes, there are history, culture, and concrete which shield us from our tribal connection to the wild earth. History separates us because it does not adequately reveal the story of our long evolution as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Culture separates us because it lacks stories and myths that embed us in nature and in our fellows. Concrete protects us from any intuition or inkling of our real home in the tangible raw earth and its myriad wild things. Agriculture and the cultures it has produced buffers us from our own history and from sensing our human inheritance as tribal peoples. The movie Avatar was not successful because we all admire tribal peoples, but because each of us come from a long tribal past. Tribal existence is in our blood. Our history books have lied to us, deceived us into believing that learning the names of the Egyptian Pharaohs is more important than knowing when we invented fire or hunted the first game. We learn that modern native peoples engage in odd rituals and hold to strange superstitions, rather than learning that we all have a mythic mind capable of fantastic journeys to the soul of Being. Our readily synthesizing Right mind is wildly disenfranchised under the prestigious shadow cast by the rational and linear Left Brain. We have thick shoes over our very Souls, both shielding and blinding us, muffling the voices of many ancestors who had guided us for 99% of our history. Dare we go barefoot again?

My new barefoot shoes have brought me home to a more organic bipedal hominid gait. I love 'em. (Thank you Andrew!)
Vibram Five Fingers. Highly recommended.


  1. Love it Paul. Next you'll be hanging out with one of our Neanderthal cousins loping through the parks chasing deer! Seriously, thanks for the insights. I'm off to REI! Buzz

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