Brief anatomy lesson…
Your feet are a brilliant combination of structural and functional complexity and power, with an ankle that functions as a ‘stabiliser’, ‘shock absorber’, and ‘propulsion engine’ for your whole self. There are 26 bones in each foot and ankle (our feet make up a quarter of all our bones), 33 joints, and more that 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons, all of which can also be (possibly better) understood as a “complex system” of inter-dependent, indivisible, and integrated soft tissues of varying densities.
Our feet have evolved to be able to sustain enormous pressure – the equivalent to several tons over a one-mile run. They are our foundation, providing us with the dynamic stability required for us to stay balanced despite our high centre-of-gravity, and with the potential for enabling us to maintain full mobility into old age – and yet many of us take them for granted, stuffing them for much of the day into constricting and inflexible shoes, so that the natural spring and bounce of our step is negated, and the inherent flexibility of our feet deteriorates steadily over time.
I am not going to go on about shoes in this post (much), because Adam Sternbergh has written an article for the New York Times of such depth and intelligence that I feel it cannot be bettered, and it has great illustrations as well – when you have finished reading this I hope you will take a good look at “You Walk Wrong”, and seriously consider limiting your use of cushioned and/or more-than-minimally heeled shoes. Happy, healthy, fully operational feet support the fitness and functionality of our whole skeletal structure, and pain in any other part of the body – not just knees and hips, but the back and neck also – can be triggered when our feet are not being used the way they were designed to be used – bare, and on all different kinds of surfaces.
Baby, We Were Born To Run!
Our feet were “designed” by the demanding lives of our primate ancestors. First they wanted to paddle, then they wanted to move around on solid ground, next they were drawn to life in the trees, which requires an ankle that will flex so far forward it can almost touch the shin. Finally they went for upright walking – perfect for a hunter, not just for chasing down your prey, but also extremely efficient when it comes to spinning around 180 degrees and escaping from any creature that might want to turn the tables and eat us instead.
I love watching Parkour,* but my whole body tends to shudder in sympathy when those spring-loaded guys leap from great heights and hit the ground running; my mirror neurons produce a sympathetic response to the impact – it’s why it has taken me years to learn to enjoy slapstick comedy.
In actually our skeleton yearns for that impact; it makes our bones grow strong and true, and when we are deprived of it we increase our effort in order to sense it again. Walking in cushioned shoes and landing on soft padded mats is so unsatisfying for our skeletal structure that we increase the force with which we hit the ground unconsciously.
Foot Binding For The 21st Century
As someone who has been a feminist her whole life, and who mostly hangs out with other feminists – why would you want to spend time with someone who thinks men are better than women and are undeserving of equal treatment? – I find I don’t spend a lot of time around women who try to walk in crippling shoes on a daily basis, but we girls like it when boys think we look cute, and I can see the attraction, I just can’t over-ride the pain. On stage lower heels rarely look right, and at wedding gigs I would often wear my girly shoes for the first set and then spend the rest of the gig barefoot. I do however have enough glamorous mates to have been told fairly often that these kinds of shoes are comfortable.
Hobbling women has always had an appeal to a certain kind of culture; the modern high heel looks positively liberating if you compare it with foot binding as practised in china – not so far back into the past that you cannot see colour photos and X-rays of the end result. I found a truly disturbing blog post and a short but detail video on this subject, but please be warned it is not for the squeamish – you can see both the resulting bound foot and an X-ray of the damage done as well:
All Feets Can Dance
Carla, my friend and tai chi teacher, has the most beautiful feet I have ever seen. When I commented on them she told me about her regime of regular love and attention, including massage and creams. I think many of us lack affection for our feet, finding them awkward and unappealing. As we get older they become harder to reach and easier to ignore. My most successful blog post by far has been the one about sitting on the floor, not only is it a brilliant strategy for keeping your hips and knees in good condition as the years go by, but it also brings you closer to your feet. Next time you are down on the floor be sure to give them some love, and they will pay you back in dividends.
Here is an example of the sort of Awareness Through Movement lessons we will be exploring in the next workshop on this topic (Improve your Knees) – try it out when you have a few minutes to spare, you will be amazed how quickly you will feel the difference.