Tom Brown, Jr. put it quite starkly: "Our walk is devastating, not natural. Little babies have shoes like cement boots. Our feet are ruined from the first step we take in shoes." Walking barefoot, most of us naturally adopt a very different step: the knees are bent, rather than locked; the outside ball of the foot touches the ground to test it first, before applying any weight; then, if it's safe, we roll the rest of the ball in and flatten the heel; only then does the weight come down. This is what Tom Brown and his students called "fox walking".
This kind of walking can be difficult for people who've spent much of their lives in shoes. It uses muscles that "cow walking" has allowed to atrophy, perhaps most notably the gluteus maximus. The largest muscle in the human body is barely involved in civilized walking, but exercised with each step in a "fox walk." It is similar to the "empty stepping" of t'ai chi. You might also notice similarities to models on the catwalk; we still have an innate response to this kind of walking as "sexy". This kind of walking will reduce the strain on your body and the damage to the countryside you walk over; beyond ecological footprint, it will lighten your own body's footprint. Children who learn to walk like this can walk much farther.
Corns, bunions, and in-grown toenails can only grow inside the dark dampness of shoes. We have to watch where we step, and even so frequently step on people or hazards like nails, thumbtacks or just sharp, pointy rocks. We trip, fall and have accidents because the very first movement in the "cow walk" commits our total weight to the step. Fox walking commits weight only at the end, after the foot has touched the ground and knows what's there. For that reason alone, fox walking practically eliminates the accidents, trips, falls and other problems we so often encounter in our "cow walk." Moreover, fox walking develops a keen sense of balance that cow walking neglects. There are more systemic health problems associated with it beyond accidents, though. With each step in our normal "cow walk" we pound our legs into the earth, sending shocks up the leg and into the lower back. Back pain and foot pain follow from that kind of constant pressure; fox walking helps alleviate both.
Fox Walking has affected me in several simple but profound ways. When fox walking my lower back, which was injured, seems to relax and in turn relieves the pain. Even more profound is the feeling of soft energy currents that seem to flow down my legs. I feel my feet make contact with the ground in a new and pleasurable way. The energy literally flows from my feet into the ground. With this new grounding of the energy to the earth it brings with it a new awareness or "contact" both with my own body sensations and my surroundings. In this relaxed and energetically flowing state I simply function in the moment, in the pulsation as it were. Not thinking in the future or in the past and not thinking at all as we normally think of thinking. The fox walk is like what church people call walking in grace, a feeling of gratitude in each step, an intense alive feeling, a deep understanding that comes from your entire organism.There is certainly plenty of accounts of native populations that could perform feats that seem almost superhuman to us with our modern "cow walk." In his 1936 Gospel of the Redman, Ernest Thompson Seton, who largely started the "Scouting" movement (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts), wrote:
The subjective difference between fox walking and regular walking is analogous to two men at work. One man hates his work from 8 to 5 and dreads the thought of ever coming back. He leaves work at five exhausted and without experiencing any pleasure in his day. The second man loves his work, does not want to leave after 8 hours, is in the groove, and has more energy after work than he did when he started. Being "in the groove", so to speak, with fox walking might shed some light as to why the Indian scouts could fox walk or fox run such long distances, and not only not be tired, but be exhilarated at the end. It was not simply that they were in good shape but that they were energetically "in the groove" or "pulsation". (Akido is another clear example of this.)
The most famous runner of ancient Greece was Pheidippides, whose record run from Athens to Sparta was 140 miles in 36 hours. Among our Indians, such a feat would have been considered very second-rate. In 1882, at Fort Ellice, I saw a young Cree who, on foot, had just brought in despatches from Fort Qu'Appelle (125 miles away) in 25 hours. It created almost no comment. I heard little from the traders but cool remarks like, "a good boy", "pretty good run". It was obviously a very usual exploit, among Indians. The two Indian runners, Thomas Zafiro and Leonicio San Miguel, ran 62 1/2 miles, i.e. from Pachuca to Mexico City, in 9 hours, 37 minutes, November 8, 1926, according to the El Paso Times, February 14, 1932. This was 9 1/4 minutes to the mile. The Zunis have a race called, "Kicked Stick." In this, the contestants each kick a stick before them as they run. Dr. F. W. Hodge tells me that there is a record of 20 miles covered in 2 hours by one of the kickers. The Tarahumare mail carrier runs 70 miles a day, every day in the week, carrying a heavy mailbag, and he doesn't know that he is doing an exploit. In addition, we are told: "The Tarahumare mail carrier from Chihuahua to Batopiles, Mexico, runs regularly more than 500 miles a week; a Hopi messenger has been known to run 120 miles in 15 hours."If our modern walk is maladaptive, then this begins to make sense; rather than such feats being superhuman, we can see that they are perfectly human, and it is we, domesticated humans, who have been diminished. And why not? Homo sapiens has been as finely tuned to bipedalism as a shark to hunting underwater.
The noted anthropologist Frederick Wood-Jones states, "Man's foot is all his own and unlike any other foot. It is the most distinctive part of his whole anatomical makeup. It is a human specialization; it is his hallmark, and so long as man has been man, it is by his feet that he will be known from all other creatures of the animal kingdom. It is his feet that will confer upon him his only real distinction and provide his only valid claim to human status." To that, Donald C. Johanson, paleoanthropologist and chief of the Institute of Human Origins, Berkeley, California, adds, "Bipedalism is what made us human," Thus, man stands alone because only man stands.Horses and dogs can easily beat humans in an initial sprint, but over long distances, humans prevail as endurance runners by keeping up our pace long after faster animals have stopped.5 Many hunter-gatherers, particularly before atlatl, bows or slings, ran their prey to death. The key to such feats is walking properly, the way we evolved to walk. That largely means walking barefoot; it is almost impossible to fox walk in shoes, and when barefoot, most of us naturally begin to slide into fox walking. It is certainly possible to fox walk in shoes, although some have compared that feat to teaching the deaf to speak, since you lack the tactile feedback of the nerve endings in your feet. The physiological effect of shoes is similar to that of a cast.
Shoes act like casts, holding the bones of the foot so rigid that they can't move fluidly, Steven Robbins [MD and adjunct associate professor of mechanical engineering at Concordia University, Montreal] explains. "The foot becomes passive from wearing shoes and loses the ability to support itself."Another doctor describes his own revelation about the effect shoes have on the human foot:
At last I began to understand the cause of fallen arches and the origin of foot trouble. With his toes continually pressed together in his shoes, his body had to improvise a brace - instead of leaning on his weakened, squeezed-together toes, the inner sides of his feet were turned outward for balance. I realized then why people persist in leaning on their strained inner arches, which were never meant to support continuous leaning, and why they have to push off painfully from their arches instead of their toes, at the end of each step.Walking, the most fundamental human activity, can become an isolating experience bound in such a cast, and painful, as well. Each step pounds a knee-locked leg into the ground and into the lower back. The mythical dualism of "mind" and "body" deadens us to the effect such ubiquitous, constant pain can have. We feel and even think with our whole bodies, and the constant pressure, shearing and pain that the "cow walk" puts us through with every step eventually seeps into our attitudes, beliefs and outlooks. The "Barefoot Bard" recounts how this happened to him:
Going barefoot had made this boy's toe area broader and stronger. When he stood, his stronger toes were now able to spread out, giving him a broad forward area on which to support his weight. Now he used his toes in standing and walking-he would even stand on his toes frequently while playing. His fallen arches were cured. With better foot balance, he rarely fell. He no longer begged to be carried, and he seemed tireless in his activities.
My feet hurt, and this chronic pain was growing in intensity, making even simple walking painful. The pain soon spread from my feet to my knees, into my low back, and eventually my neck. I was walking in the forest less and less, missing my stress relief workouts. And yet, I persevered into more shoe remedies, podiatrist consultations, inserts, homeopathic, chiropractic and hands on healing ... still no relief.He goes on to notice even more strongly the similarities between shoes and casts, and the Chinese practice of foot-binding, so often decried in the West as barbaric - and yet, so similar to the high heels and various shoe-based torture implements into which we wedge the female foot.
At the same time another pain that was growing in me. I was uncomfortable, not with just the pain in my feet, but in my life, in the life I was living. I was feeling disconnected, lost, confused, bored and frustrated. It felt like no one was listening. Maybe it was me?
Something was wrong with life, the way I was living, and it had to do with the pain in my feet. This pain was trying to tell me something. Some how this pain in my soles wanted me to look at my whole life. I knew that I had to follow this pain.
So I was sitting in my cabin, with a fire, my feet casted. There was a stack of National Geographic Magazines left there by my grandfather. I picked one up and opened it to page on Chinese women who had their feet wrapped because of a cultural story. I just stared at the pictures stared at my feet. Until the realization came to me and the words popped out of my mouth. "What have I done?" A question that came deep from in my core. I looked at all the shoes in a neat line, under the cabin window, and the most obvious shoe on the end of my feet, casting!There is nothing mystical at work here; any creature in constant pain will begin to develop a sour disposition. We are put out of touch with the very ground we walk on, cut off from our own senses and the synaesthetic experience of a simple walk.
By morning I had taken my hunting knife and cut off those casts and was out walking around in the old growth forest with a couple of deformed white puffy feet. Feet that had been distorted and crippled from wearing shoes and walking on flat square surfaces. I walked around for several days, confused, horrified as to what I had done to my feet.
I finally came to a clear pool of water, looked down at the reflection of my body, strong muscles and feet that did not fit it. I vowed to make things right. I would walk, barefoot in the old growth forest and grow my feet back on to my body, and I was in the best place in the world to do it. The old growth forest know how to grow things. I took my first steps.
Being barefoot makes you more aware of your environment. Having your feet unprotected means you are aware of their vulnerability and pay more attention to where you are going. Not only this but you have a whole extra sense engaged. Normally we see, hear and ocasionally smell things on our travels - we don't feel them.The "Barefoot Bard" puts a similar experience in other terms, contrasting the effects of clod cow walking, and unclod fox walking:
When recalling yesterday's walk to my friends house I remember not just how the journey looked, and sounded but how it felt too. The roughness of the gravel near the mosque; the pressure of the knobbly non-slip paving near the traffic lights; the coolness of the iron manhole cover.
Try a small experiment. Take off your shoes, plug your ears, and walk across the space you now occupy. Then listen for the thud in your body. If you are a heel walker you will here the impact of your step. You are walking "ON" your bones. You are walking "ON" the earth.Shoe-wearing civilized people have remarked on the "fear of man" exhibited by other animals. Even experienced hikers walking through wilderness areas will often complain that they never saw a wild animal. Of course, other animals have senses as finely tuned as our own, and still use them. They experience the world synaesthetically, and communicate frequently with one another; other animals will react to the alarms raised by bird calls, and even plants will eavesdrop on one another. The shoe-clod, cow-walking, domesticated human sticks out like a sore thumb; the unnatural gait and jerking, half-falling movements are alien, terrifying, and produce signs from quite a while off. Animals run and hide from such an unnatural aberration long before the hiker has a chance to see them. But the very same people, fox walking, report a very different experience.
Now, stand with your feet together, fall forward and land on the largest part of you foot, the front pad, get a feel for this. Then once again with no shoes and ears plugged walk across the floor in this forefoot manner, Then listen to see if you hear the thud. You are stepping "IN" your joints. You are stepping "IN" the earth.
There is stepping in and stepping on. Focus on it, work on it, connect with these two varieties of walking and then read on, and take this practice out into the natural surface areas.
When you walk heel first, you pound your bones. When you step more into the forefoot, you step into your joints. I call this Integrative walking and it is a posture that you will grow and feel your way into. Changing your body posture.
Also when fox walking, wild animals are not as afraid of me and at times it feels as though I am almost invisible. In fact, the animals "appear" all around me rather than me looking for them. Domestic animals, such as dogs or cows, on the other hand, are alarmed and seem to feel danger when you fox walk and are relaxed when you cow walk. Its almost like they sense the wild animal in you.
When humans fox walk, we're identifiable as animals, because we're walking like animals. Other animals recognize this. This is the value of fox-walking to trackers and hunters: it is the first element of successful stalking. By using the nerve endings in your feet, fox walking allows a hunter to keep his eyes up, using wide-angle vision to catch any sign of movement, instead of watching the ground in front of him to make sure he doesn't step on a dried twig or some hazard. But even if you're not hunting or stalking, fox walking remains the normal human mode of walking, with extensive benefits for health and general well-being.
But as George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." We might say with regards to fox walking that in times of universal pathology, walking like a healthy human being will draw a lot of attention. We already mentioned "No shirt, no shoes, no service," and the cultural commitment to overcoming our humanity implied in that standard.
Did you know that fox walking in the city is a suspicious activity? There I was on the Monday after class quietly, and slowly walking through a small neighborhood park in suburban D.C. From a fox walk I went into a stalk towards an all-too-suspecting robin which immediately flew away. I resumed my fox walk and, using my splatter vision as I neared the road, I noticed that I was being followed by a car. It pulled up beside me and the man inside flashed a badge and said, "Chevy Chase Police Department!"The "Barefoot Bard" brings this basic hostility to a healthy human gait into clearer focus, as he describes the concern his walking left among friends and family, and one friend in particular who put that concern in very blunt and honest terms.
"What're you doing?" he asked.
"Just walking," I said.
"I can see that," he snapped. "What're you, into trees or forestry or something?"
"Yes," I replied.
"OK," he said. "Just checking."
And we said goodbye and off drove, and off I (fox) walked. So watch out fellow trackers, your activities will seem a bit strange to others!
One of these concerned friends, a religious man, joined me in [the] forest for a walk. On the trail, he was in his boots, I was on my soles. He began to share his concerns about me. He remarked that I was "walking like an animal." Yes, he said, "You walk like a animal!" I stopped in my tracks.When Moses approached the burning bush, he had to take off his sandals, because it was holy ground. Hindu temples and Muslim mosques alike require the faithful to remove their shoes. We have a basic understanding that we must meet holy ground only with our soles. To an animist, the entire landscape is alive, and the earth is holy ground. The shoe isolates us from the living landscape that sustains us, it cuts us off from the soil we're rooted in, and inflates our ego to make us think that we are "free," by which we mean isolated and disconnected. We're not; we're just crippled inside our casts.
He went on about how, "walking on your paws, is the way an animal walks, savages walk, primitives walk and we are no longer animals. We are highly evolved beings. We are civilized beings!" He walked along side me, landing on his heels, pounding on the path, stepping on a banana slugs, stomping on plants. The more he preached his concerns and marched on the path, the more I could see the difference in our walk. The less I trusted the talk, not him, but his talk. ...
Could it all be so simple? Opening my soles to the earth, walking in this way, I would step into and uncover my original talk. A talk that I began as a child when I took my first steps.
My religious friend, scholars and historians agree Buddha and Jesus walked barefoot. Primitive man walked barefoot. Most children take their first step barefoot. Using the dynamic touch and agility of the naked foot to stabilize their balance and move forward, forefoot first. Have you ever seen a child walk heel first?
At the same time it is exhilarating to be reminded that our humanity was never so far away at all. We think and feel and live with our whole bodies, not just as disconnected brains; to step in the living soil, to walk with our soles on holy ground, to walk as humans evolved to walk. We're two-legged creatures built by evolution for walking, and we've lost even that. It can be depressing to realize that we don't even know something that basic; yet, a moment's reflection should serve to buoy your spirits as you remember how much of your humanity you can reclaim just by learning to walk.