Healing Power of Being Barefoot
I’ve been an athlete all my life. Over the last 10 years I have walked various routes of the medieval pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago across the north ofSpain. I bought into the notion of wearing expensive high performance shoes and boot. Apparently, I over-pronated and wore my shoes out unevenly so I was convinced by various experts that I needed the extra support of expensive technically engineered shoes. Over time my feet got bigger too. I wore a size 8 all my life and in my 30’s started wearing a size 9. I thought it was because I had three babies and the weight had flattened my feet! I had several injuries but always managed to work through them blaming my issues on everything but the shoes I was wearing.
Once into my 50’s, the soles of my feet were so tender that I had to wear slippers at all times around the house. If I stepped on an electrical cord on the floor, it was as though the pain went all the way through my body. It was excruciating. My feet and body were constantly cold. I noticed that there was more inflammation in my body. My stomach bloated easily, my legs swelled without apparent cause and my face was puffy. I had a patch of Eczema on the back of my left leg for over 14 years and no matter what I, medication I tried, it wouldn’t heal. With arthritis in my hands, it was painful and debilitating as a writer. My allergies to dogs and cats would easily flare up, often resulting in asthma followed by a cold that would last 3-4 weeks. My body was breaking down and I thought it was just old age.
In 2010, I walked1000 kilometersacross the north of Spain, on the pilgrimage route known as the Camino, in my favourite heavy leather hiking boots. The soles of my feet were so tender as I stepped that I would often be reduced to tears. I had walked this path many times, completing different distances and in all fours seasons. During the last couple of walks, the bones on the soles of my feet felt as if they were being bruised with each step I took. My feet ached and I truly wondered if I would have to stop walking. I also experienced a crippling pain in the balls of my feet that forced me to stop walking several times throughout the day. I blamed it on my boots and my age. Hey, I was in my 50’s now.
In the summer of 2011 there were two words that kept repeating in my mind: BE STILL. Whenever I get a strong message like that, I listen to it. I decided that sitting by the water was a good place to be still. One day while sitting on a rock by the water, I casually took my socks and shoes off and put my feet on the ground. There was a very mild vibration that I noticed right away, though I discounted it. Each day, I repeated the same ritual and found that I loved walking around in the grass feeling the wonderful tickle of nature’s carpet on the soles of my feet. It reminded me of the freedom I felt as a child playing barefoot. It felt so natural I decided to go for a short walk down the limestone covered road, even though the bottoms of my feet were tender. After only a few minutes I had to return home discouraged because it was too painful. Driven by the message to BE STILL, I returned to the rock everyday and offered gratitude, offered forgiveness and unconditional love. Day by day, I walked a little further.
A few months earlier I had picked up a book called Earthing by Clinton Ober, Stephen Sinatra and Martin Zucker, though I never got around to reading it. I found the book, read it while sitting on the rock barefoot and found out the reason why I was so determined. My shoes were killing me. Okay, that’s a bit drastic. That book changed my life. In it he explains that bodies are electrical and that there are negative electrons in the ground that we need to survive. We have positive free ions in our body that produce inflammation, heat and more blood to the area needing healing or repair. Once the healing has taken place the positive ions need to discharged by the negative electrons. They come from the ground.
I wondered if all this focus on an organic diet, daily exercise, yoga, meditation, holistic medicine and more, was missing an important ingredient for healing: maybe something as simple at touching the ground with our feet. He also suggested that Eczema was actually inflammation. I always thought it was a rash from stress. After reading the book, I decided to try it out. I added a few minutes to my walk everyday and tried to go to the forest as much as possible. Right away I noticed that my feet, calves and legs ached. It wasn’t like I had sore muscles it was a different sensation I had never felt before. I continued to walk barefoot everyday trying to spend as much time touching the ground, rocks and roots. I walked in streams, in mud, dirt, moss and wet leaves. It was like I was playing like a little girl again. My inner child felt free and it put a big smile on my face.
Over time I noticed that my feet were “seeing” where I was going. Instead of feeling pain when I inadvertently stepped on a sharp stone, I watched with awe as my feet wrapped over the rock, spreading the weight out perfectly so there was no discomfort, let alone pain. At times I would stub my toes. I learned that my feet were in the process of adapting to the barefoot position of landing on the balls with the toes lifted up. Once that became natural for me, I stopped stubbing them. Again my feet, ankles, calves and legs ached after I had been out bare-footing. It didn’t hurt, it was more like a dull ache. It made me wonder what my body was up to. Was it healing itself? Was my posture shifting over my entire body?
One day while walking in the forest with a friend, I hopped over a fallen tree trunk and when I landed, my foot slipped in the mud. I fell down in slow motion, landing on my hip with one hand touching the ground. Without hesitation, I bounced back upright in a dreamlike fashion. It was as though I was being carried along by an angel or some other force. I looked back at my friend and said, “Did you see that?” He assured me that he had noticed the uniqueness of my recovery from the fall though there was no explanation for it. I was sure it was because my entire body was working to keep me in balance. Before I had completed the fall, the signal from the sensory nerve endings in my feet had made it to my brain faster than my logical mine. My body had already begun the recovery process to take me back to an upright position before I could think about it. My feet were sending messages to guide my entire body to be balanced.
Watch a video of me walking barefoot in the forest.
After 3 months of barefoot walking in the forest, these were some of the changes in my body that I noticed:
The eczema (I had for 14 years) on the back of my leg had completely healed.
I had incredible balance and could easily stand on one leg for several minutes at a time.
I had more energy.
I wasn’t as hungry as usual.
I lost weight and inches.
The skin on the bottom of my feet continued to peel away.
The soles of my feet were sometimes tender.
I was developing a leather-like skin that could withstand difficult terrain.
Felt a vibration in my feet after walking.
Mud stained in the cracks of my feet and I couldn’t get them clean.
The skin on the bottom of my feet became shiny.
My feet would be very hot for at least a couple of hours after walking/running in the cold.
I felt lighter.
There was a strong desire to dance around the house, again.
I was more productive.
Had a clearer mind.
My arches were higher and I had trouble buying boots that I could get my foot into.
I was more flexible.
I could lift my legs up higher as I ran.
Running seemed to be without effort, yet I would run out of breath.
I noticed that I moved across stones, roots, rock with ease. I was not afraid of pain.
If I looked down I was more clumsy. If I looked ahead or up, my feet found there way on the trail in the forest.
When I was in high school I used to do gymnastics. The track and field coach approached me and asked if I would be interested in joining the track team as they needed people. He assured me that I would enjoy it and do well. I agreed. The first couple of times out we had to run around the track field. I ran with my toes pointed, on the balls of my feet with a gentle, light, ballet-like style. When I got back to the start a few of the girls were laughing at me. I found out that they were laughing because of my odd style saying I looked like a dancer on the track. I quickly adapted to a different style that involved striking my heel first, and pushing off to extend my foot forward for a longer stride. What I didn’t know then was that my style was more natural before I adapted to what was seen as good technique. I ran 200 and 400 meters races for that season and never went back to the sport. Many years later, I attempted to train for a marathon but injured my IT band and had to stop. For 7 years I ran when I rowed competitively as cross training, but hated doing it. I always had some little annoying injury after I ran and never really trusted it even though I bought the best footwear available. Funny that I intuitively know then that running in shoes wasn’t good for me.
Two months had passed since I took my shoes and socks off. One day I went into the forest at Kahshe Barrens to walk. After about 5 minutes I began to run. It was out of my control. My legs just decided to move more quickly and I felt like I was dancing in the forest. I did a split leap, like I would have when I was in high school. I spun around like a child. Up high on my toes, running upright, I felt light as a feather. It was as though I wasn’t even touching the ground. Around me, the birds didn’t fly away. They watched. I was free and for the first time in years, I loved running again.
Another day, it was 7 Celcius when I set out to walk. The forest is always much cooler and the leaves and pine needles hold the wet cold more easily. My feet became numb rather quickly, especially my toes. I was upright running and felt like a cougar winding through the jungle. My feet moved nimbly, shifting direction, weight, with the terrain I was on. I watched my feet, completely out of control about what they were doing. They had a mind of their own and worked in precision with all of my body yet without the direction of my conscious mind. I relaxed and trusted that I would be guided along the path and I was. My feet moved faster and faster, out of control. I heard the words, “Stay focussed” and my arms immediately stopped swinging. I ran in stillness reminding me of the message I received earlier that summer to be still. Instead of worrying about falling or tripping, I went along for the ride. It was animal-like, wild and free. I was in nature, alert and quick. Sharing the land with the animals and the trees, only the sound of my deep breathing reminded me that I required oxygen to run further. It was exhilarating. The ground wasn’t uncomfortable under my feet even though I was running over leaves, ferns, branches, rocks, stones, roots and hard dirt. I couldn’t feel the sole of my feet, only the movement of my energy that happened to be wrapped in the physical body that moved along with me.
After this experience, I discovered the spiritual aspect of connecting with Mother Earth, barefoot. It’s not about being in pain, because I couldn’t feel it, but rather about a spiritual connection with her. I felt like I was a part of it all. A knowing that I was not alone. It was like moving prayer. I was praying for the world, for peace, for love, for healing, for compassion, and for me.
The experience of technically training my body in the sport of rowing gave me the chance to learn how to let go of consciously controlling it and instead get out of the way. But, barefoot running was not something where I had spent years of technical training, coaching and racing experience. I had just started to read Barefoot Running by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee but I was nowhere near an expert athlete, if this was a sport. Was it possible that I was made to run? Could my body know what’s good for it and take control leaving me as an observer of this incredible feat? Deep within me, I knew it was so.
My calves would get really sore after running in the forest. Like I had been doing squats in the gym. Some days the muscles in my feet would become tight, though it was nothing serious. Each day I walked or ran barefoot, my body got even stronger and now I can run on gravel, though I prefer the forest floor.
After writing about my experience walking in the cold mud, water and river, someone mentioned to me about the act of kniepping: one of the oldest forms of naturopathic healing treatment that started in Germany. People would go for a walk to arrive at a natural cold spring. They would walk around in a circle lifting their knees up high so their feet were out of the freezing cold water and then drop them back in. This action allowed the blood cells to open and close quickly. I started doing kneipping in the lake in front of my home. It’s a perfect depth and it was becoming very cold. It created a reaction in my body that I believed presented itself as a form of hypothermia. It would take up to 20 minutes for my feet to begin warm up and several hours for my body to regulate its temperature. Often I would go through periods of cold shivers and hot sensations. I would observe this and let my body respond naturally. Then my face and my feet would stay flushed for hours afterward.
Running in the Cold
One weekend I went to Ohio and walked a labrynth barefoot at Serpent Mound on a windy day. It was perfectly clear to me that I received a message: I was given the wind. That day I spent 4 hours walking barefoot on grass and felt very comfortable. Finally I was able to go barefoot in comfort.
I continued to walk/run barefoot at least every other day and did kneipping every day. I continued to get stronger, have more flexibility, and felt and incredible connection with the earth. I’m running up to an hour now. Because I don’t have shoes on, the sensory nerves in the soles of my feet signalled to my brain to ask my body to send more blood to my feet to keep them warm. At the same me, fat was also delivered to the soles of my feet to protect them from the cold. When I step onto the snow, I can’t feel the temperature right away and therefore I’m not discouraged by the cold ground. Our body knows how to take care of itself, if only we would let it by exposing the senses we have in our feet.
Most days I would experience what I thought was a form of hypothermia when I got home. First I was very cold and then I would have hot flashes, followed by shaking. I have a bit of asthma and often I could hear heavy laboured breathing. My toes got very cold and stiff. The pad of fat on the bottom of my feet changed in consistency. It became more hard and whitish in colour because of the fat that was building there. The sensory nerve endings signalled to the brain to send more blood to my feet, to keep them warm. The fat on the bottom was similar to brown fat, that builds up when we are in cold weather.
Here I am running in the snow in my Zems
Four Months of Barefooting
In my fourth month of barefoot, it had become a part of my life. I couldn’t stop talking about it. It was clear to me that this is the next level of work for me and I want to share it with others. I can do an arabesque again, raising my leg stretched out to the back, toes pointed and lifting over my head. I haven’t done that in years since I did gymnastics. I still have a clicking sound in my left hip at times. I wonder if it will heal.
It was arround this time that my writing partner and I finished the final draft of the screenplay adaptation of My Camino script. What a relief and a joy to complete the story. Before I went for a walk that day, I smudged the cottage with sage as a cleansing to begin a new part of the journey. Being barefoot allowed me to be free to begin a new journey.
Now I notice that when I’m driving the car barefoot, I sit upright without the support of the back of the seat. My posture has improved and I can only assume how much that must affect the efficiency of all my organs and spine. It’s now freezing or below freezing and I’m being tested. I noticed the snow is warmer than the cold water on the path. Leaves are warmer than pavement. Grass is warmer than stone. Dirt is my favourite.
I notice that my arches are really high now. So high, that I can’t fit into any boots because I can’t get them on over my arch. Strange! My left foot Achilles inside tendon is slightly pulled. My posture is very upright when I run. At times I go into a unique kind of meditative state.
My feet often become numb in the cold. I can’t feel them. My toes get stiff but have a different sensation than the soles of my feet. The ball of my left foot is puffier than my right. Wonder why? At times I get a burning sensation in my toes and sometimes a tingling. My heels seem to stay warm. My arches and the top of my feet are warm to the touch. My toes are cool and the bottom of my feet are cold. One day I went out for 12 minutes at minus 6 degrees and 12 minutes with my Zems on and I thought I had frostbite. The staff at the hospital gave me proper heck for going out in the cold. I left with my pride a little bruised but determined to do it again.
I walked 225 kilometers in July 2011 and I took a pair of minimalist shoes made by Merrell, thinking that maybe something more natural would be beneficial. I ended up wearing my boots because my feet ached more terribly in the shoes. When I got home from the Camino, I continued to wear my minimalist shoes, determined to be comfortable in them. It wasn’t until I tried Zems that October that I found the comfort I wanted in a minimalist shoe. Ideally, I love being barefoot.
In May I walked225kms on the Camino with a group that I led and most of it barefoot. ON September 29, 2012 I completed a walk of 425kms on the Bruce Trail to raise awareness and funds for a project called Vision One Walk, a foundation to support artists! You can see pics and read about the journey at www.indiegogo.com/visiononewalk.
And so the barefoot journey continues.
Now I have invented a pair of Barebottom Shoes™ that are the only soleless shoe ever invented.
Find out more and order a pair here.
Barefoot author, pilgrim, speaker and life coach.