Connect with Nature Project #2: Rediscover Your Feet

When I was a kid, I watched Kung Fu every day after school, and loved this iconic scene from the opening where Caine walks the rice paper without leaving a mark to graduate from Kung Fu college. Turns out Fox Walking is similar.

Last week we talked about Sitting. This week, we’re talking about Walking.

My personal rediscovery of my feet came from three sources:

The first was yoga. During an intense engagement with yoga a few years back I learned to spread my fashion-cramped toes in order to ground myself during difficult asanas. My toes opened wide, taking on a permanent, natural splay. My foot size also increased by an inconvenient half size, making it newly difficult to find shoes which fit.

Next came barefoot walking. As has been oft mentioned in this blog, Erik is a barefoot runner. I don’t run, but I am a barefoot walker. Barefoot walking woke me to a world of forgotten sensations: the warm softness of asphalt, the fresh coolness of a sprinkler soaked sidewalk, the delicate slide of wet leaves beneath my toes. Feet are as sensitive as hands. It’s easy to forget this when shod.  This new stimulus was addictive. It enriched my walks. It connected me to an entirely new realm of sensory input.

The third stage was learning a technique called Fox walking through nature awareness classes I take through a great outfit here in SoCal called Earth Skills. Fox walking is a kind of mindful walking where you let your toes lead your foot and your foot leads your body. I’m going to teach it to you. Fox walking allows you to walk quietly and smoothly though natural settings. It’s primary purpose is stalking animals, because the gait you assume, ideally, does not startle them. Basically, they do not recognize it as human. It also allows you to walk while scanning the environment, instead of worrying about your steps.

Since I’m not a hunter, what Fox walking has done for me is waken my feet even more than barefoot walking. I now consider my feet antennae. In class, I’ve walked blindfolded through difficult terrain. I now can walk confidently in darkness. This opens a whole new world of night-time nature appreciation. When you are blinded by your own flashlight, your field of vision is confined to a small circle of light. The world outside that ghostly circle seems mysterious, even threatening. Walking without light allows you to see the stars, and the shapes of things. You walk slower, yes, so you see and understand more.

To anyone seeking closer contact with nature, I’d recommend considering your own two feet. They are the primary interface between you and the earth, but they are often neglected and abused, shoved into hoof-like boxes, forcing you to clomp around as if you are numb from the knee down. How can you know the earth if you can’t even feel it?

The simplest way to reconnect with your feet is to just take short walk with bare feet. Grass and sand are great , but don’t wait until you have somewhere “nice” to walk. Go for a sidewalk stroll around your neighborhood. Now that summer is here, it’s a good time for it.

Don’t go very far at first, or your arches will ache later, or your tender soles may be sore. A half-block may be enough to start!  Let your feet toughen up slowly, over the course of weeks. If you want to take a long walk, but can only barefoot it so far, take a pair of sandals with you. If you’re dubious about the whole proposition, just kick off your shoes one day while you’re out on a walk and see how it feels. I think you might be surprised how much you come to enjoy barefoot walking.

For more advanced studies, I recommend the Fox Walk.

How to Fox Walk

  1. It’s best to do this with light, flexible foot wear, such as slippers or moccasins or fancy minimalist shoes or heck, go barefoot, if you can.
  2. Take a relaxed stance. Keep your knees soft and springy, even slightly bent.
  3. Take your arms out of the picture. No swinging arms. Fox Walking is not striding, it’s creeping. Clasp your hands in front of you or hold them bent softly at your sides. Whatever is most comfortable. Just keep them still.
  4. Lift one foot, transferring all your weight to your grounded foot. Lead with the toe. Let the ball of the foot, touch earth first. Before committing to lowering your heel, pause to feel what your foot senses. Don’t look, feel. Is the ground firm? Is there a stick beneath you toes? A hole? Maybe you will shift your foot over and around it. Maybe you sense your foot can bridge it comfortably. Make your decision, and lower your heel softly. Caress the ground with your foot.
  5. Now shift your weight to the committed leg, lift your rearmost leg  (now light and unencumbered by your weight), and reach out with that foot. Make the same determination regarding the ground. Let all your awareness sink into your feet, and beyond. Let it stretch deep into the ground and all around. Trust the sensations you are picking up.
  6. This is how it goes: reaching with the foot, sensing, committing, rolling down in a silent, caressing footstep. Remember, caressing, not stomping! Weight shift. Repeat. It becomes smoother, faster, more automatic, with practice.
  7. All the while, your head is up. Don’t look at your feet! If you do, they can’t do their job right. Keep your head high, scan around with soft eyes, taking in the beauty of the world. Your feet, meanwhile, are engaged in their own conversation with the earth, and feeding that information back to you. This is a magical kind of walking.

Obviously, you have to be very careful when you do this. This is a mindfulness practice. The goal is not to get somewhere fast, the goal is to experience every step of the journey in a completely conscious way.

And as to danger, I’ve never hurt myself during this practice. I’ve never stumbled while blindfolded or in the dark. I trust my feet. I stub my toes when I’m unmindful and in a hurry. I trip and fall in shoes, when my connection with the ground is severed.

Once you are comfortable walking this way, you can use your walk as a moving meditation. Instead of Sitting, you can move through nature, practicing the same quiet mind.

You can also use this method to walk softly to your Sitting place, so you don’t alarm the critters on the way in.

Enjoy!

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11 Comments

  1. Before I married, I only wore shoes to leave the property. The yard and house were barefoot zones. He disapproved. I had soft-to-the-touch feet. But, I could walk on gravel with ease. He could not. I never got “tough” feet, just “accustomed” feet.

    I have spent too many years in shoes. I am allergic to grass, so if I want to put up with intense itching…I don’t, but I do. I, like you, enjoy the feeling with my feet. Friends think it is weird.

    Being out of touch with the ground/earth/floor puts elderly people at risk of falling. Wearing shoes is when I hurt myself, stub my toe, run into something, or fall.

    I saw a man spit on the sidewalk and grass at least a dozen times in a few minutes. Bits of glass, screws, broken nuts hardened like glass are all around this very clean small town. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with walking where there is chicken poop? I tried to dodge it as a child, but no longer wish to wipe my feet before going inside. How do you deal with stone bruises when you walk much?

    “Stone bruises,” for anyone who is not familiar with the term, is the bruise on the foot from stepping on a rock. You can get it from anything that will bruise the sole of the foot. The “bruise” will not show, but it hurts.

    Fox walking sounds like sneaking. It is also what I did to walk through the house in the dark at night in order not to turn on a light and when toy cars or Barbie shoes might lurk.

    It feels so good to walk barefoot. The foot sensations are so stimulating to the brain. I wonder how many elderly people would feel better if they did not have “diabetic shoes” tied onto their feet their every waking minute. I have been told that elderly people cannot balance well and the shoes help them stay on their feet, upright. I dread the day someone makes me wear shoes.

    At 67, I am starting to disbelieve all the information published about elderly people. I know foot care is important for people with diabetes. It seems that a healthy, stimulated foot might fend off little cuts to the feet. There might be more circulation if the foot could sense anything.

    Sorry I went on so long! But, barefootness is dear to my heart.

    • Oh, I just now read your barefoot and elderly post. I had come to the same conclusions you had. My greatest fear of being elderly is someone forcing me to wear shoes! I figure they will sedate me to make me shut up about their suffocating my feet.

    • I completely agree with you regarding bare feet and the elderly. Keeping in touch with the ground keeps our lower halves alive. I’ll definitely be a barefoot old lady!

    • Diabetic shoes are needed because many elderly diabetics have peripheral nerve damage and cannot feel their feet. Diabetes also makes it harder for the body to heal. A small scratch on a diabetics foot can quickly turn gangrenes and lead to amputation.

      My father (age 73) has had diabetes for 27 years, and has not been able to feel his feet for 10 yrs. Diabetic shoes provide both protection from injury, but their width also makes balance easier, which as you can imagine, balance with no sensation in your feet is difficult.

      I, however, am a die hard barefoot person. I once even researched if there were any religions that forbade shoes, so that I could convert and then go shoeless at work on the grounds that it was part of my religion. Alas I found none.

    • Jen,
      I know all the “reasons” for diabetics needing shoes. I just wonder if there might have been a better solution before all feeling left the feet. I know that the nerve damage is irreversible. I am always wondering if intervention and different tactics tried before this would have resulted in a better outcome. If I tied a board to my arm and left it like that for forty years with little relief, might the circulation there diminish with the onslaught of diabetes? Just my thoughts on how things don’t have to go the way they do.

  2. Once I found barefoot life I almost hate to wear shoes now. There is so much more going on in the world when I can connect to it so easily! I will have to try this fox walking though. Thanks!

  3. thanks for these ‘grounded’ follow-ups to the age of limits discussion.

    now that school’s out for the summer and everyone seems to be traveling somewhere, I was feeling depressed about not going anywhere. but walking around barefoot sounds like a good compensation adventure.

  4. Love that you are suggesting connection to nature as a healing balm for our times. I could not agree more.

    There is a book, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, that is full of engaging exercises for reclaiming our roots in the natural world. This book is written as a guidebook, and contains exercises such as the fox walk. It is the manual of trainers for nature awareness, written by the amazing folks of the Wilderness Awareness School.

    Here’s a link to the bookstore full of amazing offerings for study, including Coyote’s Guide: http://store.wildernessawareness.org/

    • I’ve heard of that book–but had forgotten to go find it. Thank you so much for the timely reminder!

  5. ive walked barefoot whenever possible since i can remember.

    My huge thing is i CANNOT drive with shoes on…..i always drive barefoot.

  6. Pingback: Time to Touch the Earth | Shawndra Miller

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