Spring in your feet

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Maybe it’s not quite yet time to run barefoot on summer lawns, but it’s possible that you’re not reaching for your slippers the moment you put a foot out of bed in the mornings…

So let’s consider our feet as they emerge out of their winter confinement.

Helping my mother find a pair of shoes in the hall cupboard, I was struck (again) by how un-foot-shaped shoes are.

In my 20s to 40s, like many women, I spent a lot of time in high-heeled shoes. I still have the squashed in little toes to prove it! We all know how bad they are for you – changing your posture, throwing your weight forward and so on. But they can be irresistible.

However, the real issue in the long term might just be that they help us lose touch with our feet. And that’s true with any over-tight shoe, boot or even sock.

When our feet are held still and our toes are compressed, they lose sensation and we become less aware of them. Then we walk (run, hop, march, dawdle) on very hard surfaces almost all the time. The confinement and stillness of the feet mean that they get little stimulation, and so they send only small signals to our awareness.

Most of us hardly notice our feet unless we get a blister, turn an ankle, or just have a general ache. And when they do hurt – we tend to avoid thinking about it – a quick rub, a plaster, and then on with other things.

And for many of us, our feet seem a long way away! Perhaps when we were young we could fold ourselves into a pretzel and examine our toes closely, but it’s probably harder now.

But if we want good and improving balance as we age, which is entirely possible, then we need to love our feet!

Good balance is a complex interplay of sensors and signals in our body – a network that tells us our position and movement in space, then sends out instructions to muscles about the next movement and monitors the effects. Even sitting here on my sofa writing this, my balance system is constantly at work, checking that my head is upright and helping me sip my tea.

Your foot is a complex and beautiful architecture of bones, muscle, connective tissue and nerves…it will tell you what kind of surface you’re moving on, its surface texture, angle of slope, and ‘give’.

When it can, it will absorb and cushion your weight as you move and then send back some of that stored energy to make the next step easier. It will share and ease the impact of walking, running and other movements on your knees and hips, and help you gauge the orientation of your entire body.

Losing touch with your feet compromises your balance and mobility. But it also deprives you of the great foot pleasures that you enjoyed as a child. The sheer enjoyment of walking on different surfaces – the different textures of carpet, matting, lino and vinyl. The way people’s lawns can feel so extraordinarily different underfoot – some dry, hard and unyielding, some lush and springy. (On that note, my mother’s lawn, heavily shaded by trees, is almost completely moss these days – that feels wonderful, apart from the little twigs and bits of beech mast that keep you lively!)

 With all this, a few suggestions for your feet, now that it’s a bit warmer (safety reminders below):

  • whenever you can, try wearing thinner-soled shoes, just socks or even going barefoot from time to time
  • put your attention in your feet as you move in this easier-to-feel-through footgear – flex your feet deliberately and gently, roll through from heel to toe as you step forward, noticing how the sensations change – in your soles, your foot, ankle and leg
  • try moving as slowly as possible – like a chameleon stalking a praying mantis in a nature programme! It’s interesting to put the ball of your foot down really really slowly, trying to feel exactly which part of it touches down first, and how it feels as it takes the increasing weight
  • do your tai chi in the lightest (safe) footwear you can – go through your set with your mind in your feet, really feeling the weight shifts as you make them. Notice how this tends to make your movements very stable and comfortable. People often focus on their arm movements in tai chi, but the feet are even more important.
  • enjoy your feet in the shower or bath – give them special attention, really look at them and check their condition – I have to wear my glasses to do this, since I’m very short sighted, but it’s a chance to scrub them! My feet like having the shower directed at them, rather than just getting the overflow from the top. I’ve been known to sit on the floor and play the water jet over them, changing temperatures a bit to give them a treat. I have friends who have a little stool to sit on in their shower and do this sitting. You can see how unusual it is, because shower hoses are not generally quite long enough to make it easy to do!
  • get a foot rub, massage, reflexology treatment or something along those lines – or, if you’re limber enough, do it yourself
  • if you can, take your shoes off at intervals during the day, and gently flex and wriggle your ankles, mid-foots and toes. Try to separate your toes a little and move them more independently
  • build awareness of your feet by seeing how much detail you can feel. You can probably feel your heel separately from the ball of your foot. But what about the left side of the ball of your foot and the right? Can you put your mind in your big toe? little one? what about the 3 in between? Can you feel the tip of your big toe, its ‘knuckle’ joint, and then the intermediate joints? Explore a little while every now and then, and more and more detail will come into focus.

And finally, foot baths:

My Chinese friends are always recommending soaking your feet before bed – I’m not qualified to say whether it’s medically recommended, you’d have to check with your health professional. And people make all kinds of claims about toxins and things that I know nothing about.

But I have to say it feels wonderful.

I use a washing up bowl (dedicated for the purpose, not our everyday one!), and water as hot as I can stand. Sometimes I add a drop of lavender essential oil, though people tell me that Epsom salts are good, and I imagine there are lots of things you could use. Sitting there, gently swishing your feet and trying to not to make too much mess, you can feel any stresses left over from the day dissolving in the water.

While your feet are in there, don’t abandon them, even if there’s something good on the tv! (I tend to have mine in the evening, watching telly or reading a book.) Wriggle your toes, swish your feet gently – feel the water moving across your skin. Try to identify (without looking) the exact place on your ankles or lower legs that the water stops – surprisingly hard!

Try swishing water between your toes – unless you’re a lot more mobile in the toes than me, you’ll probably find that tricky too. Most of us have quite deformed feet with the little toe pushed inward toward the big one. We’re so used to this that it seems normal. But a healthy foot that hasn’t worn tight shoes is actually more triangular – with the little toe pointing slightly away from the big one, and the strength and  flexibility to create space between the toes.

This doesn’t mean that there is anything very wrong with our feet – it just reminds us that taking them out of their shoes, giving them an airing, paying attention to what they are telling us, and taking care of their needs  – is a good thing to do from time to time.

Thanking them is good too! You don’t need to do it aloud when there are other people around, and footpath time is a good opportunity.

I have a flask nearby to top up, but it’s not necessary. Bring your feet out while you’re still properly warm (don’t let the water cool too much), and give your feet a thorough drying – it’s a great time to check them over, do some gentle massage, and if you’re that way inclined – thank them for their fine service to you.

(I’ve been talking to people about sleeping better recently – there are lots of things you can do.  Along with having a simple enjoyable routine that slides you down a gentle slope to unconsciousness, footbaths are one of the things I recommend most.)

As with most things, the more you investigate and practice, the more there is to notice and feel. If your feet have been locked away all winter, this would be a wonderful time to let them out, show them you appreciate them, and let them help you improve your movement, balance and of course, tai chi.

Safety reminders

(Of course you really need no reminding, but just for completeness’ sake):

Barefoot/thin sole walking:
    •    Choose safe places and keep your eyes open for unexpected hazards
    •    Check your feet carefully afterwards, especially there’s a chance you might have cut your feet or picked something up
    •    Keep your barefoot/thin soled sessions short to begin with – not having a thickish shoe sole shifts your weight and movement pattern, so give yourself time to adapt – it’s an interesting process, so enjoy noticing how adaptable you are!
    •    Don’t let your feet get cold, especially if your circulation is not good. Our changeable British weather can go from sunny to chilly in a moment – keep socks nearby!

Foot baths are great for gently helping your circulation and, taken in the evening, they improve sleep. Stay safe, though:
    •    check that the water is at a safe temperature for you. If you have poor circulation, diabetes, etc, it may be worth checking with a thermometer to be certain.
    •    Take care topping up from a flask – the water temperature can change surprisingly fast.

If you have any doubts at all about trying something, check with your health professionals first – stay comfortable and stay safe!