One of the best things about being a yoga teacher is getting to work barefoot. While my husband lives in work boots--all day, err day--I kick off my footwear the very first chance I get. It was a real boon to find a variety of shoes that mimic the freedom of naked feet, so I could enjoy that feeling even when "No Shoes = No Service."
I first got interested in alternative footwear when a relatively sedentary coworker recommended a book about running to me. Born to Run introduces readers to the speedy Tarahumara people of Mexico while illustrating the complex anatomy of the foot and spinning a page-turning tale about a once-in-a-lifetime footrace. But the thought of possibly stepping on all manner of things while shoeless on my neighborhood jog concerned me. After all, at the age of five I screamed myself right into the emergency room when I lodged a piece of aptly named razor clam shell into my foot on our first day of vacation in Daytona Beach ... and that was in my bedroom. So the idea of wearing shoes that wouldn't feel like wearing shoes intrigued me.
After attending a lecture about minimalist footwear, I took the plunge and bought my first pair of Vibram FiveFingers ... and haven't given the open-mouthed stares of onlookers a second thought since. In fact, I've graduated from a plain, grey model to a fun, bright turquoise head turner. My individually encased toes revel in their compartments, while my soles don't even miss all the extra (unnecessary) arch support and cushy-yet-unstable padding. For me, it's the best of both worlds.
Running and walking in minimalist shoes require a stride different than that used when wearing traditional athletic shoes, as well as a generous break-in period ... for your feet, not the shoes. Your arches need to learn how to support your body in a way they've never had to if you've worn shoes for most of your life.
I admit that this change is not for everyone, but if you have the opportunity to try on a pair of FiveFingers or similar shoes, it's worth the experiment. If you're looking for something a little less drastic, perhaps you'd be interested in a pair of toe-separating sandals. Your toes still need to get used to the newly created space between them, but they are so similar to regular flip flops that you may find them easier to embrace.
Still not eager to go public with air between your piggies? You can hide these toe separators inside regular footwear, or use them around the house or during your practice. All of these options still give your toes the chance to spread naturally, counteracting the effect of the fashionable foot-prisons we usually wear. This release provides your body with additional sensory information from the ground up, creating a better sense of balance.
Even if you're not ready to make a purchase to support your new interest in foot freedom, you can increase the awareness of the sensation in your feet during your practice:
Begin in Mountain Pose (Tadansana), noticing the right and left sides of the balls of your feet, along with the heel in each foot. It's as if you're standing on two triangles, with the energetic lift of your arches in between. Once you've grounded down in these places, lift the toes, then gently place them back down. Notice the pad of each toe, and how it contacts the earth ... rooting, but not gripping. Those feet awake now? Good. See if you can bring that same awareness to your feet in every pose, whether you're standing or not.
This simple exercise may change your practice and, over time, the look and feel of your feet. Granted, a wider toe spread and greater foot awareness may not be a goal for everyone, but it will help your stability as you age. And isn't that something we can all use?