Let’s hear it for some unsung heroes of life, our feet!
Yes, our feet.
One of our most important body parts, the foot is also one of the most under appreciated. So let’s appreciate our feet! Our feet are our foundation. They connect us with the ground physically and energetically and form the base of our standing and walking support. Life begins with our feet. Just like the foundation of a building or the bass player in a great band, we may not notice our feet while they are working well. Almost no one walks into a tall strong building and looks down and says, “Wow, what a great foundation!”
However, when our feet are not functioning properly it can cause big problems for our life, just like a shaky foundation will threaten the stability of a building or a bad bass player can kill a groove. Bad foot health can cause problems all the way up our body, including in our hips, spine, lower back, shoulders and neck. Do not underestimate the need for healthy feet in a healthy life. Just like in everything, foundations are of critical importance. Therefore in my opinion all alignment and pain issues with the spine call first for a look at our feet.
For example, take a look down at your feet when you walk or stand. Is one or both of your feet turning out towards? Many people turn their their toes out while walking and standing. This changes the way the leg interacts with the ground while walking and transfers much of the work from the intended large leg muscles to the hip flexors and other small muscles on the sides of the leg. Tight and stressed hip flexors can cause hip tightness, lower back pain, and problems all the way up the spine including neck and shoulder pain and headaches.
Our feet are some of the most abused body parts in modern life and the #1 abuse that feet encounter today is bad footwear. Much footwear in modern society works directly against foot health and proper alignment and functioning. We imprison our feet in tight and ill-fitting shoes and disrupt the way the foot interacts with the ground by wearing a heel that is higher than the toe.
While as a man I have to admit I do like a pretty girl in high heels, I also know the high heel is bad for that pretty girl’s health. Smashing the toes together in front and then raising the heel up several inches is a terrible idea. It’s like sticking shims under one side of a building to raise up one side of the foundation. If it was architecture or engineering this would be considered crazy and reckless, yet we wear shoes that do exactly this. Seriously girls, high heels are very bad for you.
And don’t get me started on running shoes. The running shoe industry is built on lies, fake studies, and a bad shoe design paradigm which has been ruining runners’ hips, backs and knees for almost 50 years since Nike first made their first waffle shoe. Despite any shred of scientific evidence proving that their design helps anyone run faster or avoid injury, Nike and their competitors have made countless millions running sweatshops and celebrity ad campaigns foisting their destructive and unnatural shoe design on trusting and gullible runners. In fact since the invention of the modern running shoe, more and more runners get injured more often. Many more runners struggle with shin splints, knee and hip problems and a litany of other painful and nagging injuries today than ever before. This is the fault of Nike and other manufacturers’ shoes which are designed by marketers and charlatans instead of anyone with any understanding of proper foot functioning and running form.
Look at the foot and its most prominent architectural structure, the arch. As I remember from my high school history classes on medieval European cathedral architecture, the arch is a miracle. The more weight you put on top of the arch, the stronger it becomes. However the opposite is also true- if you put force upwards from under the arch, it kills the arch almost immediately.
Yet what do the running shoe companies advertise? “Arch support”! What? The arch doesn’t need support! That’s the last thing it needs! I could go on all day on how Nike has ruined running, but instead I recommend the excellent book “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall. McDougall shares the opinion of the importance of foot health and his book is eye opening and potentially life changing for those who absorb the message fully that modern shoe design is ruining our health.
One area where the importance of the foot is recognized is by traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese doctors have understood the importance of foot health for thousands of years and have developed the modality of foot reflexology which can diagnose and treat many health problems.
According to the reflexology tradition, each major organ in the body corresponds with an area of the foot. Practitioners of reflexology believe that they can improve functioning of the organs by treating the feet alone. Another tenet of reflexology is the belief that practitioners can relieve stress and pain in other parts of the body through the manipulation of the feet. One explanation is that the pressure received in the feet may send signals that ‘balance’ the nervous system or release chemicals such as endorphins that reduce stress and pain.
Here’s a diagram of the foot reflexology to give you an idea of the perceived importance of the feet in reflexology:
From an energy perspective the feet are of of of primary importance. In today’s high stress and stimulation world, we are all greatly overcharged, over stressed, and in need of a way to release the extra charge in our nervous and energetic system. The feet are our primary contact point with the ground and the primary way our body is designed to ground and release that extra stress downward while also drawing energy upwards from the earth. Here’s an article and meditation where I discuss this issue in more detail.
The feet endure so much abuse, with bad shoes, thousands of reps of bad walking form and alignment and extra unneeded weight from obesity, yet only complain when the situation gets completely unbearable. Instead I suggest taking foot health seriously before it becomes a debilitating problem. We will all benefit from a overall program of improving foot heath. Try it for and see how everything in life improves from taking better care of these humble appendages.
The first step to foot health comes from the understanding that the foot is a genius and perfect design. Millions of years of evolution have given to us a miracle of engineering.The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons. Strong and flexible, the foot can absorb up to 5 times our body weigh in impact while running, handle almost all terrain, and is light and durable. No robotics or other man made technology has yet been able to match the performance of the foot. Yet we look down on our feet in more ways than one. We recognize the great design of the human hand, celebrating the opposable thumb as a major reason for the human dominance on this planet. The foot however is treated like some sort of evolutionary mistake that we need to fix, with expensive “high tech” shoe design, orthotics and other abominations that cripple the foot’s original design.
Understanding that the foot is designed perfectly provides our intellectual foundation for thinking about foot health. In my opinion, the best way to improve foot health is to begin using our feet in way that corresponds to the original design. This means many things including wearing shoes that are more naturally designed, or even better going barefoot. Walking around barefoot at the beach for a week or two is one of the best ways for someone to feel much better in life- more grounded, balanced, calm and natural.
I like to wear only “barefoot” design shoe. These are shoes that does not change the relationship between the heel and the toe height and is light and flexible, allowing the foot to move freely. I also wear Vibram Five Fingers shoes which also permit the toes to operate freely. The toes obviously exist for a good reason and are designed to be and big part of the balance and locomotion processes. Liberating the toes to do their job is a big improvement in foot health and natural movement.
Switching to a barefoot lifestyle is not something that can be done all at once however. A lifetime of wearing badly designed shoes causes the small muscles and tendons in between our foot bones to atrophy and and become tight and weak. So it’s a process of teaching ourselves gradually how to go barefoot. I suggest starting by going more often barefoot at home and then gradually expanding the time and situations where you let your feet do their jobs. Easy does it in this transition as we have many years of damage to undo.
To improve foot health it is also good to get regular foot massage, lose weight, and stretch regularly. In Asia this is understood and there is foot massage everywhere. I try to go once every week or two to one of the local places in Hong Kong and it feels great and super relaxing. If you don’t live 2 blocks away from a handful of foot massage options, you can give yourself a foot massage.
To get started here is a video with my good friend and Qi Gong teacher Maika Tao. It is a basic foot self-massage and opening with a little work on stimulation of a few key acupressure spots of the body as well. Thanks to Maika and Tomer at Yoga Kuukan in Chiang Mai, Thailand for all their teaching and friendship in the last few years.
Another important technique is learning how to open the feet in meditation. So many of our inner foot muscles and tendons are locked up from years of inactivity and tension, and have to gradually be opened and thawed out. I realized when I started taking my mind inside of my feet that my feet were a terrible claw of tension. No wonder my feet hurt and were stiff, as so many of the intended flexible connections inside my foot were tight balls of tension and energetic blockages. To see if this is also true for you, rub your foot and feel for pain and tightnesses. All of those pains in the foot are blockages that can be opened and released and provide big time life improvement as our foundation opens.
Sometimes when I am feeling very tight and stressed in the hips or shoulders, I will lie down and do a foot relation meditation and as I relax my feet it sends waves of relaxation up my body all the way up to the top of my head.
Here is a guided meditation I made for foot opening. Give it a try and enjoy the relaxing effect on your whole body! After these 38 minutes on the floor relaxing our feet our whole body and mind will feel much more open and more relaxed.
Today, let’s take a little time to thank our feet. They work hard under bad conditions for you and despite the abuse still do a pretty good job. As a foundation of our body and life, improving our relationship with our feet will improve much more in all of life.