Awareness of Feet: Sensing the Hands that Touch the Earth

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

This month we are researching the feet, which I find to be one of the most amazing parts of anatomy. No other part of the body touches the earth throughout the day like the feet do. One of the most sensitive parts of the body, our feet are not only designed to support us from the ground up, but also to speak to us through the voice of sensation to help us move safely, comfortably and efficiently. Your feet deserve time and attention, love and respect. How often, if ever, do you workout for your feet–to condition and strengthen them? How often do you even think of your feet? Do you ever consciously use your feet? Do you like your feet? Get to know them, and you can have a healthy relationship with them for a lifetime.

Feet create a foundation for your whole body. When your feet are healthy, you have a base you can count on to do everything you want to do. With a solid base beneath you, you can relax, let loose, and move and live more fully.

Think about this: 

  • Your foot is a masterful network of approximately 35 joints and 28 bones, held together by 120 ligaments and activated by at least 20 muscles
  • Today you will take about 18,000 steps
  • By age 70, your feet will have logged 70,000 miles
  • More than 7,000 nerve endings in each foot constantly send messages throughout your body

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "Why don't we wear shoes in Nia class?" For starters, our feet are platforms upon which we spread the stresses of standing and moving. To be steady and reliable, our feet must be pliable, strong and resilient enough to provide us with both stability and mobility. Shoes box feet in, constrict their circulation and hinder the mobility of their joints and thus the full strengthening of our foot muscles. Working out in barefeet gives our feet a chance to breathe, stretch and become more flexible. Without shoes, we can begin to strengthen our feet and ankles, increase the foot's circulation and dexterity, decrease foot cramping, and even heighten the arches of our feet.

Feet never lie. They’re wonderfully forthright and let us know instantly if something is wrong. Through direct contact with the floor, our feet send us spontaneous, accurate readouts on the efficiency and safety of our movements.

If you’re a longtime aerobics/exercise student, you may hesitate to take off your shoes. Not to worry. Nia movements themselves are your protection. Unless you have structural foot problems, your bare feet will become a positive addition to any workout, helping you move the way your body is designed to move: from the ground up. In the beginning, if you develop blisters, take this as a gentle cue from your body that you may be dragging your feet rather than purposefully placing them. 

Exercising in bare feet can help you:

  • Monitor your body's alignment and positioning
  • Increase foot and ankle flexibility and dexterity
  • Strengthen the relationship between your feet and ankles
  • Increase foot and ankle mobility and circulation
  • Decrease foot cramping
  • Improve your feet’s Sensory IQ
  • Develop the ability to read and interpret what your feet are communicating to you 

Tips for creating healthy feet:

  • When you move, think about stepping lighty. Imagine magnetic force pulling you up and naturally directing the crown of your head toward the ceiling.
  • Be easy on your feet. If you sound like a herd of stampeding elephants when you walk and dance, that's a sign you should touch the earth more gently with your feet.
  • If you wear shoes, make sure they fit. Proper footwear is critical to healthy feet. Stand on a piece of paper and draw an outline of your feet. Then place your shoes on top of the drawing. If your feet show, your shoes are too small.
  • When dancing in place, limit the amount of jumping, as jumping sends three times your body weight crunching down through your shins to your feet and ankles. Without strong resilient feet and proper landing techniques, jumping can break down the musculoskeletal system.
  • Consciously place your feet. Become constantly aware of your feet and how they elegantly carry your movement.
  • If you’re wearing shoes, take them off for at least a half an hour a day. The better you get to know your feet, the safer your workouts, body, and life will be.
  • Tap into your own rhythmic ways of moving from the ground up. Move and take time to stop, sensing stability in feet and ankles.
  • Include foot motions, setps, stances and kicks in your workouts to condition your whole body, from the ground up.
  • Avoid lifting or pulling your body up. Use your feet based on their design and function. Push your feet into the earth to move, shift, rise, sink, jump, and land in a more efficient and safe ways.
  • Give your feet some love. Wash and massage them. Thank them for all they do. Give yourself a pedicure.
  • Use all pain signals to make changes in how you use and treat your feet.
  • Say “yes” to foot pleasure and respect the design of your feet.

Barb Wesson, Nia Trainer, says:

I begin each day on journey towards structural alignment. I ask many questions. What direction are my feet going as I walk? In what areas am I wearing out my shoes? Can I sense all my toes? How do the arches of my feet feel? Do I rest into the front, back or center of my feet when I am standing still? Do I breathe through the soles of my feet? Do my feet like the shoes I buy? Are my feet tense? Have I rubbed my feet and toes yet today?

I heard Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas say, in my first Nia White Belt Training in 1997, that feet are the hands that touch the earth. I love that. It made me ask the question, “Do I sense with my feet as intimately as I do with my hands?” I strive to every day. I also remember Debbie saying that the earth rises up to meet my feet, just as I place my feet down into the earth. Because of this, I have a relationship with the earth that is much different now. I sense that earth and I walk. This brings about a sensation of tenderness as I move.

In my Nia classes, I encourage all my students to “step lightly” and float up and out of their "bases" while staying “plugged in” to the floor. This dynamic creates a sense of stability for me that is strong and soft at the same time. I believe it was Nia Trainer Winalee Zeeb that invited me to “plug in” each time I take a step. This creates a sense of instant stability for me.

Nia taught me about the complexity of my feet. I am amazed each time I remember that one quarter of all our bones are in our feet. These bones are some of the smallest in our body, and yet they carry so much weight. I stay in a state of wonderment and love for my feet when I think of these things. The Anatomy Coloring Book ignited my curiosity about the structure of the feet and the delicate, amazing connection between my feet and ankles. When I consider that my whole body rests on my feet, my appreciation deepens for all that my feet do.

In Nia classes, we honor the feet by providing them with a large variety of movement. We honor the toes, the edges, the arches, the balls, the heels, the tops and the bottoms of our feet. Another gift from Nia to me is “barefoot movement.” Going barefoot is the best way to experience the full range of motion my feet can provide. I used to wear shoes all the time, inside or outside. Now that my feet have experienced the joy of being free from shoes, they express quite often that they would prefer that I take my shoes off. I comply with a smile.

The take home message? Honor the feet, massage the feet, stretch the toes, and sense your connection to earth through your feet.

Jeanne Catherine, Nia Trainer, says:

“Relaxation starts with the feet,” says Brian, a reflexologist at Atlanta's airport massage center. I am interviewing him about the feet. As he touches different points, I cringe and relax. Sore as these spots are, I am soon floating in a swoon of relaxation hormones, and they are telling me that I am safe, secure and seconds away from sleep.

When it's over, I dread putting my comfortable, wool Haflinger shoes back on. I walk with socks, sensing my 27 bones, 33 joints and endless number of nerves in my feet. I am relieved that no one shames me for this luxury of shoe-free walking in the airport. Then I begin to wonder, “What else did I not know about my feet?”

Apparently, a lot. After doing a bit of research, I learn that the phenomenal nerves in our feet cannot feel through the bottom of thick shoes. In fact, almost all shoes have soles that are simply too thick to allow the feet to sense. This affects more then my pleasure of walking. It means that my feet are often struggling to navigate, measure or otherwise understand my surroundings, which in turn, means that they cannot send alert signals to my brain. Warning signals me know when it’s not safe or when I might fall down. These kinds of alert messages activate the same hormones that made me drowsy in the chair, but these hormones are for alerting me of danger.

Occasionally when this happens, my body can handle it. However, these types of alert messages are being sent from our feet all the time–first when the feet can’t sense where they are going, and second, when the shoe constricts the 33 joints. Stuck, jammed or misaligned joints create the same physiological response as being put into a "fight or flight" situation does.

The popular notion of putting cushioning on to “protect our feet” actually does more damage, because our feet can no longer sense how much pressure to use when navigating. And in an attempt to find these sensory markers, our bodies use more force then necessary for walking, running or dancing.

So what can you do to improve your awareness and create a healthy environment for your feet?

  • Pay attention to your body. Your ability to be aware of body sensations allows you to be present to what is happening with your feet. Unconscious reactions can become conscious responses.
  • Pick shoe-free exercise. Activities like Nia, yoga, thai-chi, aikido, and even barefoot running can provide a healthy environment for your feet.
  • Take off your shoes as soon as you walk in the door. This is an easy way to increase your shoe-free time tremendously, and saves you unnecessary cleaning of dirt and grim around the house.
  • Choose flexible soles. Shoes with thin and movable soles, such as moccasins or those with 5-finger technology, allow you to maintain mobility and spread through the toes.
  • Prioritize foot care. Massage your feet every evening before bed to help yourself relax and sleep better.

Danielle Eastman, Nia Trainer, says:

It is generally believed that each foot has more than 7,000 nerve endings that talk amongst themselves and with the rest of your body. Some nerves are there to activate the muscles. Some communicate via the language of pleasure and pain. Some nerves let you know which part of your foot is currently supporting your weight or contacting the ground. Some are more reflexive in nature, signaling the detection of heat, cold or weakness. Some nerves are more subtle, telling your body that more fluid is needed in your knees due to the current force being put on them. What’s my point? Our feet are awesome.

My students often ask me, “Is that why we dance in bare feet?” The answer is, partially, yes! Shoes may actually dull, impact and inhibit some of these signals. Dancing in barefeet therefore eliminates potential, rubber interference. Dancing in barefeet allows us to utilize the full range of motion in the ankle joint, which is very important for moving in ways that are healthy for the body. My feet were a little shy at first, but now I love that when I come to class and take off my shoes, my feet get to breathe, spread out, wake up and touch the floor. I simply feel more invigorated and alive with my feet so free!

That being said, we do live in a shoe-wearing world where (most of the time) footwear is important for protection. It helps us avoid injuries sustained by stepping in glass, and ensures we don't get kicked out of buildings. It is therefore very important that we ease our feet into dancing in barefeet, and that we do so with a lot of awareness and focused attention. Check out my Heal Lead video, Whole Foot video, Ball of the Foot and Releve video and Stances video for tips, along with the advice listed below.

Tips for happy, dancing feet:

  • If you are new to barefoot movement, start small. Do less than what the rest of your body may physically want to do, in order to give your feet time to adjust to the new demands being placed on them. They will love it, as long as they are not asked to do too much too soon.
  • If you notice your toes begin to grip the floor, try taking smaller steps, so your feet can feel calm and relaxed. This will help your toes spread out.
  • When holding a stance, allow your all of your toes to lengthen and take up space. Imagine they are big, gooey pancakes. Rest evenly on both feet and allow your feet to melt outward in all directions.
  • When stepping forward, explore the Heel Lead. Allow your feet to relax and roll from heel, to ball, to toes, easing into every step.
  • When traveling laterally, imagine stepping over puddles and lift each foot individually. Avoid dragging or sliding your feet. The skin of your feet will thank you!
  • When practicing Stepping Onto the Ball of Your Foot, allow the ball to be as wide as possible. Gently push the floor “down” to rise up with ease, sensing a strong, stable ankle joint.
  • When balancing on one foot, focus on rooting deeply into the earth. You can even imagine your foot is 2, 3, or 10 times its size! Rest. Seek the sensation of peace. Allow your whole foot to support you.
  • When “rumbling” your feet, allow your body to be bubble upward. To avoid falling down or stomping, allow your body to float up with spring-loaded ankle joints! 
  • For more intensity without jumping, explore moving through Nia’s three planes of movement: high, middle and low. Sink and rise in any Nia move to increase your range of motion along the vertical line. This is a great way to strengthen your muscles and cardiovascular system without over-stressing your feet or joints.
  • When kicking in class, allow your standing leg to be powerfully connected to the earth. Stand up by pressing down through your standing foot, adding more umph to your kick!
  • Be kind to your feet. Stay focused and let each and every step create the sensation of a lovely foot massage as you dance.
  • Get to know your feet and take good care of them. Scrub them, massage them, pamper them, rest them, elevate them, nurture them. Most importantly, listen to them.