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
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.
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:
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.
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. From the heart, Sifu Anthony