The Bio and Spiritual Mechanics of Walking

On a weekly basis, students share with me an ailment that could easily be fixed by deepening your relationship with the Earth.  These ailments show up as either physical (gross body) or otherwise (subtle body).  Here we examine what it means to Earth.

Most of the conversations about feet start with a student sharing her discomfort.  I’ll ask about footwear, and usually there a story about helpful orthotics or arch support.

Remember when your elementary school rented a parachute and the students formed a perimeter? The parachute would lift up and down, dome and depress, the circumference in constant flux with every little movement.  Rather than think about the arches in your feet like the solid shape of a bridge, think of them like the elementary school parachute - as malleable and dynamic.

Now that we’ve reframed our perception of arches, how can we increase this malleability?

Mobility is like a non-native language: If you don’t use it, you lose it.  The more support your shoes have, the less work your aches have to do.  I can already hear some of you saying, “But I have…” high arches, flat feet, am uncomfortable in minimal shoes.  I have two anecdotes to then share.

When I was a middle school teacher, the principal instituted a policy that teachers should be standing the entire time, as a mechanism to engage the students.  Philosophically, I agreed then and still do.  However, my feet were killing me.  The first thing I’d do when I got home - at 23 years old - was put my feet up.  Wasn’t that what old men did?  So I saw a podiatrist and had custom inserts made.  My feet felt great and I could stand comfortably for hours.  A short term goal was met, and at the time it was fine.  Now I know better.

Sitting is fine - standing is fine - squatting is fine.  But our bodies are not suited to be stationary or excessively maintain a single shape.  Doing too much of anything is rarely good for the body.

One time my mom wanted to dodge out of eye surgery so she ate carrots, more carrots, and then some more carrots.  Her skin eventually turned orange.  The same lense can be applied to movement: a healthy body it isn’t so much about the shapes in which we organize our body, but the variety of shapes we assume and the frequency which we assume them.  Asana in the West, which typically has more standing poses, is more suitable for non-squatting cultures.  In the East, a lot more of the asana is seated, largely in part because seated poses are accessible to squatting cultures.

I’ve learned a lot about feet since teaching 8th grade.  Using an insert to support my high arches is not what I needed.  What I needed was movement and footwear that was less supportive and allowed for the body’s natural biomechanics to support me.  The pain I felt from standing was an internal alarm saying “MOVE!”  I didn’t understand the language at the time, nor did I think I had agency over the issues, so I paid $200 for custom inserts.  This was like taking Advil for a dehydration headache, when I could have just had water in the first place.

Since she says it way better than I ever could (in fact, she literally wrote the book on this, three times), check out Katy Bowman’s guide to shoes.  I bought Earth Runners and wear them every day.  My runs are more fun, faster, longer, and I feel so sore after.  The soreness is a reminder that I’m recruiting muscles that had previously been ignored.

 My trusty Earth Runners on a DC bus.

My trusty Earth Runners on a DC bus.

The second story involves a beach camping trip and one of my best friend’s attempts at transitioning to minimal footwear.  If your parachute has been underutilized for years, be thoughtful about your transition.  He slipped on his minimal shoes, ran his usual 4-5 miles, and came back to camp.  He was initially fine, but as the weekend of sleeping in tents moved along, his pain increased.  On the drive home, we stopped at urgent care and he was medicated to unlock and soften his muscles.  For him, minimal running was too much too soon.  Ease your way in, walk barefoot when you can, even if it is just around the house or to the mailbox. Gradually give up support as you transition to minimal shoes.  Trust the resilience of your anatomy. Walk more.  The more you walk in minimal or no shoes, the more mobile your ankles, arches, and toes become.

If you’re still not convinced, make a fist with your hand.  Lifting one finger at a time, find an open palm.  Then, make a new fist with the same hand.  Extend your thumb, then bring it back to the fist.  Extend your index finger, then bring it back to a fist.  Do this with all fingers.  This likely won’t be too difficult.  We’re used to our fingers having this mobility, but did you know your toes have the capacity for similar movement? If you don’t use it, you lose it.  When we walk through life accepting that our feet will always be a struggle, that part of us is limited, we miss out on so much.  Take a different perspective and realize that your feet are a blessing that move you around and are capable of so much more than they are given credit for.

Spiritual Mechanics of Walking

Some of the most revelational experiences I’ve had in recent years involve walking.  If you find meditation confrontational, mindful walking can cultivate a similar effect. One of the most famous pilgrimages in the world - El Camino de Santiago - has pilgrims walking 30-45 kilometers each day. While we don't always overtly label major hikes in the United States as spiritual journeys, anyone who as hiked the Appalachian or Pacific Northwest Trails will share their own revelational experiences. Many of them write books about it.

If you are sad, a long walk increases circulation and creates a safe space for processing your thoughts and feelings.  If you’re anxious, a slow walk with mindful breathing can drop your vibrations. If you want to improve mindfulness, pay attention to every step. My friend Dahlia swears by her 30-45 minute walk every morning.

You can use this time to call relatives of friends.  You can walk with a friend, have a business meeting with a colleague.  You’ll be shocked at how much easier communication flows when the body is in natural movement.  

You can increase your learning.  Even if you don’t identify as a calisthenic learning, that part of you is in there somewhere.  Download a podcast or book on tape, and if you want to up the spiritual mechanics, select material that will grow you in this direction.  Walking unlocks and opens the mind and heart.

In the same way walking helps the feet, walking helps the soul.  When confronted with a negative experience, our mind will scream, “How can I bypass this feeling?”  Just like the arches of the feet, if we bypass the spirit’s “parachute” malleability, the soul becomes increasingly rigid.  The combination of fresh air, endorphins, sunlight, moonlight, and variety in sensations are all forms of embodiment that enhance our spiritual malleability.

Even though it rarely feels this way, there is always a choice.  When you’re in the mud, do you deny it, or do you acknowledge it?  Do you stay rigid or do you grow?  Growth is not always easy.  The lotus flower is born in the mud and pushes through it before blooming, and only then does it reveal its beautiful petals.

 Lotus flower I saw in Bangkok. 2015.

Lotus flower I saw in Bangkok. 2015.

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