Before you read any further, I invite you to watch this very thought-provoking 5 minute video by anatomy expert and yoga Instructor Leslie Kaminoff:
Ever since I was a young child, I have been wearing some sort of arch support in both my shoes. I was so flat-footed as a little girl that the man at the Stride-Rite shoe store would put a little lift in my shoe (called a "cookie") to keep my foot from pronating (ankle turning inward due to no natural arch). But then I got to be a teen, and being hip became more important than comfort. I kicked off my supportive shoes, and as I went through my rebellious hippie phase, I wandered barefoot on the concrete sidewalks of Manhattan. it's no wonder that at about age 19, I began to experience chronic pain in my knees, as my pronated feet pulled the rest of the joints in my leg out of alignment.
Eventually--after hobbling into my twenties--a chiropractor fitted me for orthotics, which realigned my leg and took the torque out of my joints. I wore those devices faithfully and found some relief.
Fast forward several decades, and I found myself in yoga teacher training at Kripalu Center in Lenox, MA. We were barefoot for at least six hours daily, either doing postures on the mat or walking through large spaces where shoes weren't allowed.
At first I felt a recurrence of that old familiar joint pain, as my bare feet collapsed inward. I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of the training. But about two weeks into the program, I noticed that my arches were getting stronger, as I practiced consciously using those muscles that had atrophied over the years.
In Tadasana (the mountain pose), and in any standing postures, we engage the arches of the feet. We pull them upward, as if we were drawing life energy up from the earth and inviting it to come streaming into our bodies to enliven us. Doing this over time strengthens the arch, which in my body had become weak due to reliance on orthotics.
Our feet are amazing structures of Nature's design. They contain 52 bones, 66 joints, 40 muscles, and hundreds of sensory receptors, tendons, and ligaments--collectively forming two of the body's most beautifully efficient mechanisms.
Feet are excellent at collecting information. All those neurological receptors send valuable information to the brain to tell your body where it is in space and what the terrain is like. Actively stimulating these receptors improves balance, increases circulation, and enhances overall foot health.
My time practicing on my mat--or even better, outdoors on the grass--gives my feet an opportunity to remember what they were designed to do by nature--to feel the direct connection with Mother Earth, and experience all the variances, irregularities and textures of the natural ground.
It's interesting to note that in this shoe-oriented culture where we've come to associate the phrase "just do it" with Nike shoes, barefoot running is now becoming an increasingly popular fitness craze. Vibram's FiveFingers shoes (which I am not endorsing but am simply curious about) are a bold alternative to the highly-cushioned running shoes that have become the convention in the athletic world.
To be honest, I haven't completely weaned myself of using arch supports. I do wear them when I walk and run, and even around the house on my hardwood floors. But I do notice that when I'm on my mat, my yoga practice has cultivated so much more awareness of my feet, ankles and knees. I feel great gratitude for all the many miles they've carried me, and all the hours of energetic dancing they've endured.
"Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."