Why do we do yoga barefoot? (Do I have to?)
How much time do you spend barefoot? I guess we will all come up with a different answer to this but for most of us in the UK, I bet the percentage of time spent barefoot is pretty low. We stuff our feet into shoes, trainers, boots or slippers protecting them from cold, damage, dirt, and discomfort. We even get our babies into shoes as soon as we can. Spending some time barefoot each day has many benefits.
How is barefoot good for us?
Have you ever heard people saying they feel energised and “grounded” when standing barefoot on the earth? I particularly love standing barefoot on a dewy lawn in the summer. Having bare feet allows for natural movement of all joints within the foot and subsequently, natural motion of the body through natural alignment. We get to strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons in our feet by making them work to support us as we move, rather than relying on the support/scaffolding of our footwear. Strengthening the muscles of the feet, helps avoid dropped arches and other foot discomforts. We also receive a foot massaging effect.
Most shoes constrict our feet, preventing full range of movement of all joints. We are prevented from experiencing through our sense of touch. We cannot separate our toes allowing their free movement or allow air between the toes. The various contact points between foot and shoe creates pressure. Any comfy cushioning in the shoes can be destabilising. If we are wearing shoes, we place a barrier between our energy and that of the earth. Shoes prevent our feet from the full range of flexibility and appropriate use of sense of touch.
It is believed that there is a transmission of energy/energetic connection between us and the earth via the nerve endings in our feet, which is greater when we are in direct contact. This energetic transmission connection is believed to be beneficial in terms calming and relieving various discomforts and dis-eases of the body and mind.
“What does it mean to feel grounded” (I hear you ask)
To feel grounded can mean different things to different people, I am sure but I understand it to be feeling assured, at ease, consciously present, centred, clear, focused and strong.
Why practice yoga barefoot?
Bare feet enable us to better establish contact with the ground, therefore improving balance - essential in standing postures. Our feet feel grounded through subtle body connection with the earth during motion and stillness, allowing us to feel energised. We need good weight distribution through the soles of the feet, heels and toes to ensure good alignment of ankles, knees and hips. Dexterity of feet is improved so allowing gripping with toes if/when required.
Did you know there are 29 muscles in the feet and ankles? These muscles may be very small but as they are supporting our foundation, a small problem with a tiny muscle may create a ripple effect of misalignment much further up the body affecting quality of life.
Stretching through the feet is so valuable but stretching is compromised inside shoes. Plantar fasciitis can be relieved, reversed or avoided through stretching and strengthening of feet and ankles. Our touch sensation is more effective and heightened when barefoot. This can support us psychologically as well as helping us feel grounded.
When our feet are in shoes, we don’t get to exercise all of the small muscles in the feet and many of the nerves endings at the feet are not stimulated, meaning we lose some ability to feel the ground and maintain balance. You may hear me suggesting in standing postures “imagine sending roots down from your body, through your feet deep into the earth - rather like trees tethering themselves strongly and feeding from the earth”. With the busy lives we often lead, we can lose our sense of groundedness - instead feeling scattered, frantic, “airy”, unsettled with difficulty in focusing and stillness. Connecting firmly to the earth through bare feet, can help us gain greater awareness, settle the mind and feel more stable and grounded.
On our yoga mats, bare feet allow for better grip and slip avoidance than socked feet, so avoiding injury. Some postures require us to hold a toe - tricky when wearing socks although there are socks with toes are available these days.
It is surprising just how much the yoga teacher can tell by looking at a student’s feet in yoga poses. Advice on tiny adjustments can help the student achieve a safer or more comfortable posture. Socks often hide clues as to what is going on.
Traditionally, yoga was practiced by yogis wearing very few clothes. It was considered that too much clothing restricted free movement of the body and distracted the practitioner from connection with the present moment.
In a traditional yoga studio, you will notice people remove their shoes before entering. This is as a mark of respect to the studio owners, cleaning staff, fellow yogis and minimises the tracking of dirt into the room. This practice is rooted in history and Indian tradition where we do not enter any home, place of worship or even shops without first removing shoes.
I don’t want to remove my socks!
Of course I will not force anyone to do something they are not comfortable with - including removing socks. These days, we can buy engineered socks designed to wear for yoga. These apparently provide some grip/anti-slip fabric and enable greater flexibility than standard socks. There are some foot conditions that will make working barefoot very uncomfortable - do speak to your teacher about this.
There are some sections of a yoga class during which you cool down eg in meditation/relaxation when you will benefit from replacing socks or covering your feet with a blanket for comfort and to avoid distraction. Of course - go ahead be comfortable.
Staying safe when practicing barefoot in yoga
Most yoga practitioners these days have their own yoga mat. Many studios have mats available to loan out and these will be cleaned after every use to avoid transmission of bugs etc.
Washing feet before and after yoga is recommended and regular washing of a yoga mat will reduce the presence of any bugs.
If you feel the need, you could bring slippers to find your way to your mat space once you have removed your shoes.
Shoes/Socks/Bare feet - its all your choice ultimately but I do recommend we all try to spend some of our time in yoga class on our yoga mats in bare feet - if not in class, try it in the privacy of your home. You never know - you may become a convert!