Why I Changed My Mind About Barefoot Qigong and Tai Chi

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

There are some really strange rules for qigong and tai chi. My favorite is: tu tan wu di.

It means, “don’t keep spitting.” True story.

Actually, it’s not a bad rule. The immune system activates when practicing qigong and tai chi, and saliva forms in the mouth. It’s better to swallow it than keep spitting it out.

Anyway, one of my masters had a strict rule about not practicing qigong or tai chi barefoot outside.

Another master told me the opposite – that it was good to practice barefoot.

Which one was right?

I’ve been on a 10-year journey to find an answer to that question. 

My Flat Feet

First of all, you need to know something about me.

I have flat feet. Like, completely flat. Like, it’s-amazing-that-I-can-do-tai-chi-at-all flat.

Over the years, I’ve searched for ways to strengthen my flat feet. I knew that healthier arches would improve my tai chi.

How did I know that healthy arches would help? That takes us back 10 years to the start of this fascinating journey.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Structure

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When I was in acupuncture college, I learned that the physical structure of the human body is important. Poor structure not only blocks energy flow, it also blocks the effectiveness of acupuncture.

We were taught to address some of the structural issues first in order to make our acupuncture treatments more effective.

By then, I had been practicing these arts for nearly a decade, and I had seen the importance of structure. For example, the first of the Eight Brocades Qigong (pictured left) helped a lot of students to improve their structure and thus get more out of the art.

I have pretty good posture, but terrible feet. I started to think about how healthy arches might change the angle of my ankles, knees, hips, and pelvis.

In other words, I realized that structure starts at the very bottom, right where the body actually touches the ground.

And that’s the moment that I began my journey down the proverbial rabbit hole.

The Reticular Activating System (RAS)

I want to switch gears and briefly talk about the RAS, or Reticular Activating System.

Have you ever noticed that when you buy a new (or new-to-you) car, you suddenly start seeing that model everywhere?

That’s your RAS in action. People didn’t suddenly start driving that model car. Instead, your brain just started noticing it more.

Once I started looking into the barefoot world, once I activated my RAS, I started seeing all sorts of fascinating things — things that had previously been off my radar. That’s why I started to feel a bit like Alice going down the rabbit hole.

The Barefoot Running Movement

When I first heard about barefoot running, I thought it was crazy. “Just another fad,” I told myself.

But then I heard about someone fixing fallen arches with barefoot running, and I instantly perked up.

Apparently, a growing number of people are running barefoot. I’m not talking about barefoot shoes, or Vibram Five Fingers. I’m talking about 100% barefoot running.

After some googling, I found a book called Running Barefoot (that’s an affiliate link, which means I get a tiny commission if you buy, at no extra cost to you). In the book, he talks about healing his own flat feet with barefoot running.

I was looking for solutions to my flat feet, so I kept my mind open. I was skeptical about barefoot running, but my RAS was activated, and I continued to investigate.

Barefoot Anatomy

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Did you know that many barefoot runners have fewer injuries?

This blew my mind. How was that even possible?

As I investigated deeper, I learned that the human foot is basically a supercomputer. It is designed to take in a ton of information from the ground, and transmit it to your brain.

When you wear shoes (often called “foot prisons” by barefoot enthusiasts), you block a lot of that information.

With less information coming from your feet and toes, you’re more likely to lose your balance, roll an ankle, or wrench a knee.

This was an “aha” moment for me. It matched my own experience.

For years, I had been searching for the perfect tai chi shoe. Without any understanding of the barefoot movement, I had found that I preferred thin-soled shoes.

I suddenly realized that thin soles gave me more feedback from the ground. With better feedback from the ground, I found it easier to align myself in the tai chi postures.

The Earthing Movement

Not long after this, I stumbled on another movement called “Earthing.” In spite of its sensationalist title, I bought a book called Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever!

The book  argues that being grounded — literally being barefoot on the earth — naturally discharges and prevents chronic inflammation in the body.

At the time, I had a sore knee from a tai chi sparring injury (yes, we spar in tai chi). So there was inflammation in my knee.

I was very skeptical of the book, not only because of the title, but because, at the time,  I subscribed to the “barefoot qigong is bad” rule.

But I started walking around my yard barefoot, just for fun.

And you know what? It actually helped. My inflammation went down, and my knee healed faster than usual.

So I tried a few qigong sessions barefoot outside. Because I’ve practiced for over 20 years, I’ve developed some sensitivity to energy. (I was extremely insensitive to energy in the beginning, so if I can become sensitive, so can you.)

And what I felt was that there clearly was some sort of energetic exchange between me and the ground.

But which direction was the energy going?

Bubbling Well or Gushing Spring?

In the tai chi world, there’s a lot of talk about the “bubbling well” energy point (Kidney 1 for the acupuncturists) on the bottom of the foot.

People talk about the energy bubbling up from the ground.

This never matched my experience.

After I learned Chinese, I investigated deeper. I found that the word for the energy point is as follows:

Yongquan
涌泉

Another translation could be “gushing spring”.

Again, something clicked. The idea of a “gushing spring” matched my experience.

As I continued to investigate, I could feel the energy gushing out of the yongquan energy point and into the ground.

Don’t Be Callus

This was an exciting discovery for me. I could clearly feel the energy “draining” down into the ground.

But I wasn’t sure if I was also absorbing some negative energy up from the ground.

When the ground was cold (yes, it gets cold in Florida!), it felt uncomfortable to go barefoot. Not only did my feet get cold, but I felt the energy getting stuck as well.

Around this time, I met a barefoot runner, and I noticed that his feet were covered in thick calluses. He basically had a natural shoe on the bottom of his feet.

“So your feet don’t get cold?” I asked.

“Nope. I can also walk on hot pavement without getting burned.”

This was fascinating to me, and new questions started to arise in my mind.

How might the calluses change things? Could it affect the energy transfer, just like a regular shoe? Would it protect us from negative energy from the ground?

Why I’m Keeping My Mind Open

Maybe you’re expecting clear answers to these questions.

Sorry. I don’t have them yet. I’m still exploring.

One thing is clear — there is some benefit to practicing qigong and tai chi barefoot.

Whether there are also negative side effects, I can’t yet say. For me, the positives definitely outweigh any negatives I’ve noticed.

Even if I did have conclusive answers, I’d still encourage you to experiment for yourself rather than taking my word for it.

They say that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

In my case, my personal journey taught me the importance of investigation and inquiry, and that’s the most important thing I’d like you to take away from this article.

Start your own investigation. Here are some questions to help you along your journey:

  • Can you feel a difference between practicing barefoot on grass, sand, and dirt?
  • Can you feel a difference between rubber-soled shoes and natural soles (like hemp)?
  • Can you feel how the ground temperature affects your energy?
  • Does simply walking barefoot alleviate any of your chronic pain?
  • Can you notice any negative side effects, like feeling fatigued or drained?

And here are a few cautions:

  • Remember that what works for you may not work for others. That’s a basic tenet of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
  • Watch out for insects. Ticks are definitely a form of negative energy.
  • If you’ve never gone barefoot, then your feet will need time to adjust. Go slow.

Today, I practice barefoot, and also with a variety of barefoot-style shoes.

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Left to right: Vibram Five Fingers, Merrell Vapor, Shamma Huaraches

But most importantly, I enjoy the process of investigating. Rather than just accept rules blindly from past masters, I like to explore for myself.

What is your experience with going barefoot? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.

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17 Responses to Why I Changed My Mind About Barefoot Qigong and Tai Chi

  1. George Lambert March 17, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    Great advice! I like practicing barefoot on the beach. It gives me much better balance and adaptability throughout the forms. And I can definitely tell the difference when I switch to shoes during our cold snaps here in south Florida.

  2. David Young March 17, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    I was taught by you that barefoot practice on wet surfaces IE: Moist grass etc. Wasn’t good for the practice. I am wondering now if that still applies.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 17, 2016 at 10:37 am #

      Did I teach you that, David? Either way, that rule is probably about the Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of dampness. If it feels bad practicing on damp grass, I say don’t do it.

      • David Young March 18, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

        Yes you did, or at least we were told at the time not practice Barefoot under certain conditions, such as Dampness. But in the spirit of your questioning certain traditional teachings. I will take your advice; If it turns out that my practice doesn’t give me certain results or if it does not feel right. I will continue as I was taught with shoes outdoors. My own barefoot practice is indoors at home. I have never really had any problems with practicing anything barefoot. Kind of like our Karate days when shoes weren’t allowed inside the Dojo. I suppose it was a programmed habit . .

  3. Kazi (@Medicine_Life) March 17, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

    Great article. I’ve been wearing Merril Barefoots daily for about two years now and go barefoot if I’m on grass. I’ve felt a big difference in the sense of grounded security.

    I remember visiting family in Panama when I was about 6 years old. All of my cousins walked barefoot. They only wore shoes/sneakers for school and church. I tried it one day and had to run to my grandmothers home after about half a block. The street was burning my feet like I was standing in a barbeque pit. Unlike my cousins, I had moved to the U.S. with my parents when I was one year old. No calluses= no barefoot on the tar. : )

  4. 99mars March 18, 2016 at 2:30 am #

    Don’t know if you recall, but pretty sure I posed this question to you far over a year ago! I believe barefoot is amazing, and when I did it religiously, I was much healthier. Even in practice. Have not been able to for a variety of reasons, and i can feel it! So happy to see this written about finally, especially in this realm, where it was dismissed!

    Cheers!

    btw, I just found VivoBarefoot. Love them, and I love Lunasandals.com, and Earth Runners.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 18, 2016 at 7:29 am #

      I love my VivoBarefoot shoes, and I had the original DIY Huaraches kit from Lunasandals from way back when!

  5. Angela Rainey March 20, 2016 at 10:15 am #

    This article is fascinating. I am a barefoot girl – or rather woman! – I was barefoot before I discovered T’ai Chi – and yes I was an original hippy!! Even nowadays the only time I wear shoes of any kind is when I have to go into town. At home, no shoes! My neighbours tell me I’m crazy, but you know I feel a huge difference between shoes and no shoes – I don’t feel connected and the minute I get home shoes come off!! I always practice my T’ai Chi in bare feet, even in class and when it’s cold I wear socks – I definitely feel a difference. My feet may not be ‘as soft as a baby’s bottom’ but I’m more than happy with the job they do.

  6. Steve March 27, 2016 at 5:32 am #

    Hi Anthony,
    Nice article, I prefer to were shoes outside and enjoy shoes or bare feet inside. I think a big consideration is grip. It is much easier to relax if your feet or shoes are well secured to the ground, particularly in stance training.
    After sometime into stance practice my leg from the knee down seems to blend into one with the ground. My feeling is that the energy is going down into the ground and makes no difference if I have shoes on or not.
    If the Qi is travelling down and passing through the soles of my shoes, then it must be able to travel back up the same way, so maybe on that level shoes dont make a difference.

    I would recommend shoes outside, it can be a away of illuminating a few distractions and increase comfort.
    Warm Regards,
    Steve.

  7. Catherine March 27, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    I teach yoga and I always tell my students “the best thing about yoga is bare feet”. It is so important to work our feet. Shoes became more supportive over the years and our feet got weaker and weaker. If you wear shoes most of the time, eventually they won’t hold you up. Work and strengthen your feet (and your toes), massage them, balance on them, go up on your tip toes, and always connect them to the earth energy. If you live in a cold climate, step bare foot into the snow (not for long of course). 😊 It’s mind blowing.

    Focusing awareness on feet and toes will strengthen mind/body connection. The toes are the farthest away from our brain and we’re the most disconnected from them. Wiggle your toes when you’re stressed. I could go on……..

    Love your feet and appreciate them. 💜 They hold you up all day long.

  8. A. July 8, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

    You should give iron shin a try. It will work on the bones of your legs and feet.

  9. Shea Caperoon September 7, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    I live in Washington State and love to practice barefoot alongside (and even within) our beautiful rivers here. Just slow meditative walking on smooth river rock, I’ve found, can be both healing and strengthening for the feet.

    I grew up in Hawaii and never wore shoes until I was an adult. I had flip-flops for school etc. but didn’t like wearing them – and as I recall – got scoldings on a regular basis. I had such strong feet and callouses that I could run and jump around the sharp black lava rock in Hawaii without even thinking about it. Steaming-hot pavement was not even noticed.

    I read recently that cultures that never or rarely wear shoes have zero reports of plantar fasciitis – it appears to only be prevalent in people who have worn shoes most of their lives.

    One note of warning however… if you are going to try barefoot anything (running, walking, tai chi/qigong) you should transition very slowly. Most of the bad experiences reported by people switching to barefoot are believed to be caused by quick transitions – take it slow, little bits at a time to adjust your feet to the real world. If you are going to switch to very thin soles (like vibrams etc) try to only wear them on natural surfaces. When walking/running on pavement or sidewalks – stick to your normal soles until you feel your feet are fully transitioned.

  10. Rob December 11, 2016 at 11:46 pm #

    A few years ago my shoulder would always hurt and one day I was going to the gym (this was before I practiced taiji) and when I got there I realized I forgot my gym shoes so I looked up if barefoot running was bad for you and then learned how good it is for you. I feel like the human body is designed to move on a bare foot. So when I finished running my whole body felt amazing and my shoulder was pain free! Grounding is great too I’ve only been practicing for a little over a year so I’m just starting to get a feel for sensing the energy around me but I’d like to try and see if i notice a difference. You can even buy a grounding blanket online so you can be grounded all night as you sleep!

  11. Rob December 11, 2016 at 11:47 pm #

    I meant I’ve been practicing for a bit over 2 years*

  12. Stan Cohen February 13, 2017 at 11:04 am #

    As with most of my experience with Tai Chi and Qigong, there is no “right” answer to this question. One day you may feel better with shoes, the next without. There are so many circumstances.. weather or ground conditions, your own energies, time of day etc.

    I find it best not to have expectations and to let it flow into shoes or no shoes. I know indoors is a shoes off deal for me. Outside, ya just never know till you try.

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