For as long as I can remember, I have relied on my toes for the majority of my balance. This was magnified and made extremely obvious during my first “all in” year of Yoga. I carried the weight of my inner turmoil in my toes, they were a strong and obvious source of tension both physically and emotionally.
Realising this was a landmark event in my journey so far. Learning to be aware of my toes has opened up my physical practice in indescribable ways.
I first noticed this curious effect during lunges, looking down at my toes I would see a bunched up mess of skin and bone desperately gripping for dear life. I would look around at other feet in the class and judge my feet for not being perfectly poised and relaxed like the ones I was seeing. I carried the entire effort of the poses in my toes, they were working very hard to keep their secrets safely locked away. This was limiting in many ways physically, but the self judgement was the worst. I knew it was wrong, but was operating on a familiar autopilot that has followed me my entire life. A self soothing mechanism when anxiety and social tensions arise, or the familiar self judge comes to play. My poor toes would grip for dear life.
Honestly, I didn’t know for a very long time how to overcome this gripping. I don’t know why I didn’t just ask one of my teachers, I guess hindsight is 20/20.
Until one summers day, I was in some kind of a rush for a forgotten reason. I couldn’t find shoes.
Well, they’re more sandals than shoes but that’s neither here nor there.
I was already running late for my yoga class so I made the decision to go barefoot. Now, I ride a bicycle most places. Not the spandex wearing road racing type, it’s an off-road mountain bike. So you can imagine the pedals looking like a bear trap with sharp protrusions around the edges. This bike was a beast if I don’t say so myself and as I soon found out, a great teacher who’s lessons are still presenting themselves today.
Lesson one: If you’re riding a bicycle barefoot, stay off the arches of your feet. It hurts.
Have you ever noticed the anatomy of quadrupedal creatures? They’re foot is extended quite long and looks like a leg segment on its own. This was the strategy to reduce the sharpness in my feet. At first I tried placing my heels in the centre of the pedals, thinking the toughness of the skin there would soften them – But that changed the entire gravity of the ride and was too awkward to manage. So, naturally the next step would be the balls of my feet.
This is where it got interesting, as far as ride performance and overall oneness with the bicycle, riding on the balls was superior. It felt intuitive on a physical level. I had ultimate control over the machine which meant I could release the mental control and trust my body to do its thing.
But, my toes were gripping. Every time they gripped, they dug into the bear traps on the front of the pedals which would stab right into the fleshy knuckles of my inner toes. It hurt like hell. But I wasn’t going to be late. So I did the most natural thing possible, I lifted them up and pulled them back. Which had the interesting effect of forcing my entire body weight through the ball of mainly my big toe and into the bike. At first this felt extremely unnerving: There’s something about flying through peak hour traffic and object laden sidewalks barefoot on a bike that does that to a person. This element of dire physical consequences caused my toes to desperately want to grip, but I had the little guys in checkmate due the pain and potential injury it caused them when they did. It was the perfect circumstances to learn to release the tension in my toes and it worked phenomenally.
The ride was relatively drama free although I did slip off the pedals a few times, I like to think I’m a competent street rider but the distance between safety and trauma is vanishingly small these days with the whole driving and texting epidemic in full swing.
Over the rest of the warmer months I spent honing my barefoot riding abilities and training my toes to relax, and the lessons I learnt on the bike translated directly to the yoga mat. I can happily say that my little guys are mostly free from gripping and it has the added benifit of making me habitually look into other aspect of my routine, to see if there are teachers waiting to be found.
My bicycle continues to teach me a great deal, but those stories are for another time.