Barefootin’: An Essential Element for Health and Healing

Think about this: your foot is a masterful network of 35 joints and 28 bones held together by 120 ligaments and activated by at least 20 muscles. Over 7,000 nerve endings in each foot are constantly sending messages throughout your body. Today you will take some 18,000 steps. By age 70 your feet will have logged 70,000 miles. Feet are often the most neglected, taken-for-granted part of our bodies, in spite of the fact that we rely on them for nearly everything we do.

When I first asked my aerobics students to take off their shoes, I was nervous. Our minds raced as we unveiled the Nia Technique to our Bod Squad aerobic students and waited in the tomblike silence of the recreation center before the first students began to trickle in. What if they thought all this lyrical stuff was a bore, the imagery hokey? Would they be disjointed without a hard rock beat to follow? Would their heart rates get up into their aerobic target zones as ours did?

Hesitant at first, they removed their shoes. The thought that they could strengthen their ankles and feet by not relying on the support of a shoe did little to alleviate the awkwardness of naked ground contact. Having paid more attention to shoes than to the feet within, they encountered those marvelous sensors of stability for the first time.

The classical and soft blues music soon grew sweet, relaxing, calming, helping to melt tension and quiet their minds as they opened to a new awareness of their bodies.

Slowly at first, one foot at a time, they stepped out, the heel extended, the toes drawn back, sinking and rolling through the foot. They moved rhythmically, back and forth, sinking and rising, becoming in synchronicity with the rhythm of the body. They began to feel the heat rising up from the feet, through the legs, into the hips, and now sweeping upward with arching arms, feathery hands floating around and around, while their torsos lilted up and down and swayed side to side.

The memory of the hard yank of conventional, linear aerobics gave way to the soothing flow of circular movements that tone more muscles and take the strain off otherwise overused ones. Little by little, we could see them gaining new freedom of motion, their bodies becoming more flexible, responsive, and agile. Inhibitions gave way to soft sensuality and a playful wriggling of fingertips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders, all the way down to the toes, until the whole body was engaged. Reluctantly at first, they expressed their exhalations, working up to a full chorus of that karate, “Yeet!” grunts that help protect the lower back and tighten abdominals.

At the end of class, one of our devout jump-aerobics students felt the glow of a full-body massage; but she couldn’t understand how something so wonderful could really be aerobic. Fortunately, the answer wasn’t to be construed in a subjective sort of way. Pulse rates are inarguable. We now have to caution students that because they work so many more muscle groups, they can easily slip over their aerobic target. That same student, who had also been running six miles a day during her jump-aerobics days, found she could get her heart rate higher and steadier with the Nia Technique without feeling that her body “had just taken a royal beating.” Later, at the Center for Sports Medicine, St. Francis Hospital, San Francisco, we would test Carlos on an EKG to validate the Nia Technique conditioning on an already highly fit person and discover that his heart rate maintained at a steady aerobic target, whereas traditional aerobic dance rates can zigzag up and down.

Soon we were hearing a new language from our students. They spoke of internal strength, control, and mental as well as physical power. They spoke of agility, grace, and increased range of motion. They spoke of groundedness and emotional as well as physical balance. Simple daily tasks like playing with the kids, cleaning the house, even turning around in the car, were becoming easier. Best of all, they began to equate fitness with movement, not simply isolated exercise, to see that fitness was not confined within the walls of a health club or recreation center, not bound by the large hand of a clock. Nia Technique was carrying them through the entire day, through their entire lives, with greater ease and grace.