Thursday, June 4, 2015

Take a walk ... but not for granted!

One of the most amazing things most of us do most every day is to walk. It is so much a part of life that we rarely think about it (unless we face an injury of legs or feet) and mostly take for granted.
Playing taiji I have had to relearn to walk and not to take the simple action for granted anymore. In taiji forms we walk, ever so slowly, from one position to the next. Slowing walking down reveals the complexity of the task. Most of us have learned to walk poorly—more or less throwing our bodies off balance and catching ourselves with a step before we fall over. In taiji every foot step is deliberate, always moving from a rooted position, never stepping out "off balance." For beginners, it is frustratingly and tantalizingly impossible. Check out any newbies at class and you see folk trying to walk again for first time and looking at sixes and sevens, unable to balance, disconnected from their bodily functions, and uncertain of mother earth. In time movement becomes more fluid as the taiji player learns to relax—song—sink the area around the hips—kua—and understands the flow of yin (rootedness) and yang (movement).
Taiji walking (like much else in taiji play, such as standing or sitting) transfers into everyday life and you find you begin to walk differently—more centered, more balanced.
There is so much to say about walking—Robert Chuckrow has a great book Tai Chi Walking—but I want to dwell on the root of the walk, the feet. If we take walking for granted, by and large, we ignore our feet. Our feet are just "there," at the end of our legs. We learn early in life that to walk without shoes is a bad thing. We cover our feet in layers of stiff protection and support in the belief (I now think mistaken belief) that our feet above all need to be protected and, God forbid, should never touch the earth unclothed.
Recently, I was looking at the delightful two year-old young son of a friend of ours. He was playing, showing off a little, and entrancing the group of adults seated in a circle around his "stage." His sneakers caught my attention. Little replicas of the sneakers adults wear—heals at least twice the height the rigid soles, and arch supports. the sneakers were inflexible. I observed that already his little walking had taken on the gait of the adult, falling forward and catching himself before the fall, feet little stiff planks at the end of his legs.
Several years ago, suffering from undiagnosed "plantar fasciitis," I did some research on why feet hurt. Much of the literature churned out the standard western view that feet need protecting, that the whole underfoot needs support, that softness from the harsh ground is required. Then I discovered a whole subculture of barefoot running and walking and a very different understanding of feet and their function. In brief, this literature suggests that the whole epidemic of foot complaints has its root in a very wrong understanding of the needs of feet. Instead of being encased in shoes, feet need to move freely, to develop and strengthen the myriad muscles, to build naturally strong arches. It made sense to me and I gradually explored walking barefoot, or as near barefoot as possible. Since my early explorations, when the only barefoot shoes were strange toe shoes, a whole industry of "barefoot shoes" has sprung up, and even the major corporations are now offering their own range of minimalist, barefoot footwear.
The advice of the barefoot folk is to walk barefoot as much as possible, but when necessary to wear shoes that give the feet the most freedom to develop naturally. In simple terms it means a flat footbed, no arches, no heals (Zero drop is the jargon), wide toe box, thin sole to allow for ground feel. You should be able to feel every ridge, stone, twig and undulation. Feeling the ground helps your feet develop and strengthen, and gives the added advantage of a wonderful foot massage just in the action of walking.
Since my early explorations, I have transitioned to all barefoot/barefoot shoes. Foot pain is a thing of the past. My feet have grown a half size and spread out nicely, without the restriction of traditional shoes. I did try on a pair of my old sneakers with large heals, tons of cushioning, and arch supports—it was unbearable!
So what shoes do I wear? My only shoes now are produced by Softstar Shoes—an amazing eco-friendly company in Oregon. I have tried other minimalist shoes, but these are, in my opinion by far the best. I cannot speak too highly of their product, their customer service and their ethos as a company. In the picture at the head of this blog, you can clearly see my footprint on the sole of the shoe. These shoes are the closest to walking barefoot you will find.
Go on, take a walk!

Here's a link to Softstar shoes

And Robert Chuckrow's book:

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