They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
What Is a Foot?
It’s a common assumption that the foot is poorly designed – that it’s too rigid and too delicate to form the human body’s foundation. This seems to be born out by the statistic that 75% of people in the US have foot pain at some time in their lives (The New York Times Health Guide). But it’s the mechanical view of body structure that relegates feet to the bottom of the block pile. The conception of the body as a biotensegrity requires that we also adjust our assumptions about our feet. This will also change our understanding of foot problems.
When you’ve been standing on them all day long, it can be all too evident that your feet are structural support elements. But they are not platforms propping up a stack of blocks. Inherent in, and crucial to your tensional integrity, they communicate with your entire structure as you walk and move. Underactive, toneless feet put a drag on the whole tensegrity structure; rigid feet keep it strung too tightly.
Poorly supportive feet aren’t necessarily sore feet, however. Because your fascial network is adaptive, poor foot support can be expressed in other areas of the body. Tight shoulders, for example, can be a way of lifting the body up from feet that don’t provide a good foundation. Imbalance and pain in the neck can result from an imbalanced or non-resilient foot. Conversely, mobility and resilience in the feet contribute to body-wide fascial balance, and to the ease and freedom of everything above them.
In addition to their supportive role, feet are complex sense organs. There are 200,000 nerve endings in the soles of your feet. That means that your body is equipped to receive a great deal of information through your relationship to the ground. In your brain, the sensory representation of your feet is almost as great as that of your hands, lips, and genitals. Feet can gauge terrain for secure purchase, respond to thorns and pebbles with tiny adjustments to balance, and gather other sensory information that we wearers of shoes can hardly imagine. Eons ago a bare foot meeting the earth might read the morning news through touch, literally sensing the activities of other creatures in the neighborhood.
There are twenty-six bones in each foot (see Figure 1), each tiny bone suspended in a thin layer of gel-like fascia. Interstices between the bones make up thirty-three joints – in each foot. More than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments give these joints potential to move. The sole of the foot is cushioned with a fat-infused fascial layer, the so-called ‘fat pad’ that helps dampen both vertical impact and lateral pressures on the sole of the foot. The complexity of the foot’s design suggests that it should be able to conform to the contours and textures of varied terrains.
With each step your foot’s adaptation to the ground is transmitted upward through the fascia of the leg into the pelvis and lower back. This means there’s a direct relationship between movements your feet make and the mobility of your body as a whole. Each foot is a complex tensegrity structure in and of itself, as well as being integral to the tensegrity of the body above. If the foot is too lax or too stiff, then tensegrity is cut off at the ankles.
Because biologic structure is dynamic – not a stacking of objects, but a constantly morphing interplay of tensional relationships – it’s only logical that structural foundations must also be dynamic.
For nearly six million years human feet walked through grassy meadows, across pine-needle forest floors, and over volcanic rock. But, for the last several millennia, our feet have been shod, encased in what my colleague, Dr. Phillip Beach (2010, 3), calls “sensory deprivation chambers.” Further, thanks to the industrial revolution and the automobile, feet have been further desensitized by the convenience of walking on hard, flat, unvarying surfaces. Rarely do modern feet have opportunity to express their innate potential for mobility and sensory intelligence.
Sensitivity Training for Your Feet
The adaptability of your structure as a whole is married to the adaptability of your feet. Given the intercommunicative nature of your fascial system, heightening awareness in your feet will beneficially affect the tone and function of your entire body. Indeed, finding your footing – embodying your footing – is essential to maintaining healthy posture and movement.
Practices in this chapter help you sense the profound relationship between your feet and the rest of your body. You begin by using the sensitivity of your hands to remind your feet how much they, too, can feel.
Figure 1: The bones of the foot.
Interoceptive Hands Meditation
Standing comfortably, bring your palms together at waist level, thumbs and fingers pointing away from your body (Figure 2). Without pressing hard, make complete contact between the entire skin surface of your fingers and palms. Your eyes may be closed, or open with a soft focus. As you become aware of the ebb and flow of your breathing throughout your body, you can begin to imagine your bones gliding in their bed of fascia. They float inside your body, and yet they have weight. Sense the weight of your pelvic bones, your shins, and the weight of the knobs on both sides of each ankle. These are your malleoli – feel how heavy they are. Feel the broad footprints your feet are making on the floor.
Feel your rib cage as it widens and settles with your breathing. Feel the weight of your shoulder blades and let them slide down along your back. Become aware of the aliveness of your hands.
Now, appreciate the obvious – that your right hand is touching the left, and that your left hand is receiving sensation from the right. You feel this as a flow of sensation rather than as muscular activity. Consider whether the direction of that sensory flow from right to left feels familiar.
Now reverse the flow. Become aware that your left hand can give sensation to the right, and that your right hand can be receptive. There’s no muscular effort in your arms or shoulders because the tactile exchange takes place in your brain. But there’s an expanding sensation in your left arm as your hands connect. Your right hand is open and relaxed as it receives sensation. Observe whether the sensory flow from left to right feels familiar.
Focus on the communication of aliveness between your hands as they take turns giving and receiving sensation. Pause briefly each time you reverse the flow. As your hands trade roles, you may sense subtle changes elsewhere in your fascial body.
When you are ready, relax your hands at your sides, letting them remain present in the background of your awareness.
While offered as preparation for the foot practice that follows, you may want to take some time to integrate the Interoceptive Hands Meditation. It’s fine to postpone the foot meditation for another session. Take a walk. Appreciate the effect that sensory awakening of your hands has had on your posture, your coordination, and your point of view.
Interoceptive Feet Meditation
Stand comfortably in bare feet. Remember your midline. Let your eyes have a soft focus.
With hands together, briefly refresh your sense of sensory communication between your hands.
Now, transfer the experience of your hands to the contact between your feet and the ground. Become aware of the way each foot touches the ground.
Let your feet feel generous – all toes present, arches present, heels present. As you inhale, your soles seem to spread into the ground as the rest of your body opens.
As you exhale, each foot senses the certainty of the ground, and simultaneously receives the weight of your body. Savor these impressions. Continue for several breathing cycles – touching and receiving with your feet.
From there, begin a gentle sideways sway. Let your midline drift an inch or two to the right. Your body’s weight shifts into the outside edge of your right foot and the inside edge of your left foot. Feel the effects of this small movement in your legs, hips, pelvis, and spine. Go slowly to sense the details of the shifting fascial relationships.
Slowly reverse the motion, now settling your weight into the outer edge of your left foot, and inner edge of your right foot. Feel the response of your body as a whole. Perhaps you can feel the shifting tensions as far upward as your neck. Then bring yourself back to center.
When you walk around after this practice, you may notice that the ground seems to rise up to meet your feet. This can be the beginning of a new relationship between the presence of the ground and the capacity of your feet to receive that reality.
Restoring sensory awareness to your feet can be a challenging process. Modern feet are sensation-deprived because they walk entirely on flat surfaces, and because of the sensation-dulling effect of shoes. When humans stopped walking on dirt, we stopped using our feet as sense organs. This seems to have changed the collective body image of our species – feet became less integral to the body as a whole.
The distinction between the perception that your feet are on the floor and the perception that your feet are receiving the floor may be elusive at first. If so, keep coming back to this meditation. If receiving support from the ground is to become felt experience rather than a concept, your brain has some changes to make. You may even be aware of a mild struggle in your brain, or moments of awkwardness when you move. Such moments indicate that your nervous system is trying to incorporate new sensations and movements. What your feet are learning challenges your brain’s plasticity. Awkwardness can be a sign that your brain maps are being revised.
The new map takes time to develop. But you can practice at odd moments throughout the day – standing in a line, for example. And be sure to incorporate your newly receptive feet into your yoga practice or gym workout.
I love wearing my “five finger” barefoot shoes (Figure 3) when I hike on local trails. The shoes’ minimal foot beds let my feet respond to the varying surface of the path, and that invites the rest of my body to adapt and respond. My feet, legs, hips, and spine all feel in tune with one another. Of course, it helps that the tall pines urge my midline to join them in praise of the sky.
I love the feeling that each of my toes is independently awake. The shoes make my toe pads want to investigate the ground. When my toes press down onto the ground, activating the inner springs of my arches, I appreciate how delicious it feels to walk.
My friend, Harmony, wears her finger shoes every day and tells me how free it makes her feel. One morning I decide to wear the shoes on my neighborhood walk. Ouch! Going semi-barefoot on concrete feels nothing like walking on a trail. The concrete offers no ‘give’, and the impact of each step jars my lower spine. My feet are incredibly sore after only half an hour.
My experience differs from Harmony’s because, being a millennial, she still has fat pads on her soles. Thanks to seventy years of living on concrete, mine have worn away. So, while there are benefits to wearing minimal footgear, the benefits vary depending on the terrain in which they’re worn, and on the adaptability of the feet wearing them. I wonder whether my ‘Paleo’ ancestors suffered from fat-pad atrophy. Since they lived only to about the age of thirty, probably not.
Figure 2: Position of hands for Interoceptive Hands Meditation.
Our ability to stand upright depends on a triune balancing system that involves our eyes, the vestibular system of the ears, and the sensory nerve endings in the soles of our feet and ankles.
Humans have become increasingly visually oriented since the development of printed language and reading, and most people unconsciously over-rely on vision to stay upright. At the same time our feet have lost both resilience and sensory capacity. The relationship between impressions coming from eyes and feet is skewed even in childhood. As we age, the triune balance system degrades further.
Poor balance is one of the reasons elderly people look and feel unstable. Their heads crane forward as they strain to hang onto the world with increasingly poor visual and auditory systems. Imagine walking around wearing blinders and a noise-cancelling headset: you’d need to rely more on your feet to find secure purchase on the ground. But what if your ankles are shaky and your feet are numb?
As we age – and you don’t need to be old to be aging – we need to be as conscientious in our care of the feet as we are of our eyes and ears. We notice right away when our eyesight or hearing worsens. But because the feet are not understood to be sensory organs, their contribution to balance is ignored and their problems are addressed with mechanical solutions like orthotics and surgery.
The Digital Age is making many people increasingly reliant on vision, and urbanization has all but deafened our collective feet.
Your developing body consciousness is an investment in your future. How will you look and feel fifty years from now?
Seek Uneven Surfaces
The benefits of barefoot walking and running have been in the news since the 1990s when a study showed that barefoot athletes running on natural terrain had fewer running-related injuries than Western runners sporting high-tech footgear (Robbins and Hanna 1987). The sole of a bare foot responds protectively to small pebbles. This involves contraction of deep layers of foot muscles that feet in shoes don’t have to make. Because layers of rubber in the shoes mask sensation and eliminate the protective behavior of the foot, the shod foot functions with less refinement. It was in the wake of these findings that shoe manufacturers began developing minimalist shoes to replicate the experience of bare feet. But even if your feet and whole body are well-toned, resilient, and adaptable, repeated impact of bare feet on pavement is likely to result in injury to feet, knees, hips, or spine.
How, then, can we re-mobilize our feet and restore their sensory intelligence? Because we’ve spread pavement over the world, there are no quick answers. Most of us can’t relocate our busy lives to a rural setting. But we can seek as many opportunities as possible to walk on uneven ground. One study of people walking barefoot on cobblestones showed significant improvements to balance and mobility, as well as lower blood pressure (Oregon Research Institute 2005). Can it be that the perceptual experiences of your feet affect how you manage stress?
I try to give my feet as much variety of angles and textures as I can. During walks, I step on grass or pebbled surfaces in the strips between sidewalk and curb to offer my feet – and my body as a whole – the micromovements that help keep fascia healthy. I’ve put a pebble doormat at my kitchen sink and another at my standing desk. I fantasize about carpeting my kitchen with stones. Imagine toning your feet while you cook dinner.
Mary Bond trained with Dr. Ida P. Rolf in 1969. Formerly Chair of the Movement Faculty of the Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration, Mary teaches workshops tailored to the interests of Pilates, yoga, and fitness instructors, dancers, bodyworkers, and anyone afflicted with posture-related pain. She is the author of Balancing Your Body, The New Rules of Posture, and Your Body Mandala. She lives in California and blogs at healyourposture.com.
Figure 3: “Five-finger” barefoot shoes.
Beach, P. 2010. Muscles and Meridians. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.
Nw Yo r k T i ms Ha l t h G u i dw w w .y t i ms . c o m / ha l t h / g u i ds / symptoms/foot-pain/in-depth-report.html (retrieved 8/16/ 2016).
O rg oRsa r c h Is t i t u t2 0 0 5 . “ O rg oS t u d y C of i r m s Ha l t h Benefits of Cobblestone Walking for Older Adults.” ScienceDaily®, June 30, 2005. Available at www.sciencedaily. com/releases/2005/06/050630055256.htm (retrieved 8/19/2016).
Robbins, S.E. and A.M. Hanna 1987 Apr. “Running-related Injury Prevention T h r o u g h B a rf o o t A d a p t a t i os . ” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19(2):148-156.Sentient Foundations[:]