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Warum bist du barfuß?

By Kel Glaister

From the Melbourne in Motion blog

Why are you barefoot? 

I was asked this question while balancing barefoot along an abandoned tram track in a park in Leipzig, by an adorable five-year-old, asking the way children do, with a genuine curiosity rather than the I-already-think-you’re-an-idiot tone that adults can take. But speaking German, I scrambled for translations I didn’t know for words I needed, and in the end managed nothing but a kein-Deutsch apology and a smile. It got me thinking, though. It’s the same question I’ve been asked a million times in English, and one I’ve come to answer on auto-pilot in my Muttersprache. Those answers, though, they’re not the whole story.

I walk around barefoot a lot, and people ask me why I’m not wearing shoes a lot. When answering, I tend to rattle through a stock list of reasons. It’s better for you. It strengthens stabilising muscles in the lower leg, which are under-used by shoe wearers. It improves balance and landing, as any small mistakes and sloppy techniques won’t be covered up by a wedge of foam, but will be communicated instantly in the form of discomfort or pain, meaning you stop doing that pretty quick-smart. It increases the input of information, about surface, conditions, force, and so increases precision. Shoes change the way a human walks, encouraging longer steps and heel-striking with each step, which causes shock to travel up the straight leg and into the knee and hip, rather than being absorbed by a forefoot-striking leg, bent to take shock like a spring. Blah blah blah.

These are reasons why I should go barefoot, but not really reasons why I do. Similarly, I can list a bazillion reasons why I should eat a lot of fruit and veg. That’s all fine, sure, but I eat a lot of fruit and veg because it’s delicious and I like it. People are unlikely to continue doing something they should do simply because it’s the right thing to do; there are usually other reasons, tangible reasons. On some level, it’s gotta make you feel good.

So, why am I barefoot?

My question is, why is this question always framed as though naked feet are wrong, weird, or silly? Barefeet shouldn’t be weird, and looking at it globally and across the history of the species, shoe-wearing is the weird activity. It is true that shoe-wearing leads to atrophy of the muscles in the lower leg – you can feel them growing and flexing as you walk. Bare feet make you stronger.

It’s a real shame more people don’t go barefoot, at least once in a while, because there are things you’ll never know unless you do. The way wet grass tickles the sides of your feet on a cold morning. The way certain materials they use to repair roads can turn spongy-soft in the hot sun. The way your toes grip around the irregularities of a rock with surprising intuition. The tiny moment of chaos with each step on rain-slick cement, that miraculously turns into balance and control. Barefoot, you’ll get to know the upper and lower limits of what your body can handle, temperature wise, and I promise, it’s more than you think. You’ll figure out how to distribute weight evenly across the soles of your feet, so you can skip across gravel and rocks that you previously wouldn’t even look at without lacing up. I feel like I learn something about the world, about the peculiar material qualities of the world, every time I forego shoes. Bare feet increase knowledge.

One of the reasons that people think walking barefoot is inappropriate seems to be a form of Mean World Syndrome. This is a belief that the world is an inherently dangerous place that’s out to get them, and it’s the same thing you face when you’re out training and someone yells at you to get-the-hell-down-off-that-rail-you’re-going-to-hurt-yourself. People can overestimate risk. In this particular case, shoe-wearing sufferers of the syndrome tend to think that the world is composed almost entirely of dog shit, used syringes and broken glass, and that walking barefoot is an almost-suicidal undertaking. There are risks involved in walking barefoot, and there are certainly places where I wouldn’t do it. But the risks are small, the consequences largely reversible and they are far outweighed by the benefits. Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat – broken glass is not really a problem. Pieces large enough to be a real menace, you’ll spot instantly and avoid. Smaller shards will get into your feet, I’m not denying that, but they pop out as easily as they go in and rarely get infected. Furthermore, feet toughen up fast. Barefeet can seem scary at first, just like parkour training, but sticking with it will give you a much better idea of what actually poses a risk, and what you can take in your stride.  

Shoes seem to offer protection and insulation from the world. And, as someone who’s spent more time than I’d like with the black dog, I know the temptations of shutting everything out. It can feel like sanctuary to stomp around oblivious, collar turned up and headphones in, a way to disengage from the world. And true, that’s exactly what it is, but it doesn’t help. This just shuts you up inside your own head, with your problems and fears bouncing about inside there, getting louder and louder. Going barefoot can help you to feel centered and grounded – every step returns your mind to physical experience of the world, and any mental attempts to shut yourself in get that much more difficult. An integrated part of the world, not an interruption into it. The Cartesian conceit of a mind located in but distinct from the body is almost impossible to maintain when you’re not wearing kicks. It’s easier to notice the sun on your face when you can feel the ground under your feet.

It takes a little bravery to lower the defenses, and you do it every time you go training. Then you see the world isn’t big and scary and out to get you, but actually (if you’ll forgive me a moment of unrelenting optimism) a place full of wonders. And that you, your body, isn’t under threat from all sides and in constant need of protection, but actually strong and capable of more than you thought.

Why am I barefoot? Truthfully, because it’s harder to be unhappy that way.

 

Photos by Grant Webster

Fear Training

by Paula Flinn

Originally posted on her blog, Embracing Us.

I recently participated in a fear training workshop while at WamJam 2018 – the Australian Women’s Parkour gathering – in Adelaide this year. Our challenge was to walk along a wall, about 30cm wide, turn around when we reached the end, and walk back. Sounds simple, right? The catch was that the wall was high (by my standards at least)! It was bounded by a roof on one side, which was only about a half meter drop, while the other side fell away to a concrete carpark over 5 metres below.

Before we attempted the challenge, we walked along a section of curb which was considerably narrower than the ‘challenge wall’, but obviously a lot lower, at ground level. We were encouraged to observe what we noticed about balancing; what we could see, sense, feel, experience, within our bodies and around us. Whilst doing this, my body didn’t feel much different to how it felt when walking on flat ground. My heart rate wasn’t elevated, I felt relaxed within my body, and confident to balance along the curb without falling. And I wasn’t bothered by external noises around me – car horns, people chatting, general city sounds. There was no fear present. I told myself to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other – that that was the only thing I needed to focus on once I attempted the challenge.

After this activity, it was time to make our way up to the wall. We climbed a wire fence and pulled ourselves up on to a flat tin roof. At this point I could already feel the changes taking place in my body. My heart rate was increasing, and I could feel the butterflies starting to flutter.

Soon it was my turn to attempt the challenge. As I made my way out along the wall, my legs began to shake with each step I took. I was surprised that I was shaking so much – it wasn’t something I had any control over. My heart rate was elevated, and my breath was very shallow – that is, when I even remembered to take a breath! Fraz, who was running the workshop, called out to me to “slow down”. (I hadn’t realised I was rushing, but it makes sense that I was trying to ‘get it over with’, as that meant less time having to deal with these feelings within my body.)

So I took a deep breath and I slowed down. I tried to remember to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  But it was much more difficult to focus now, unlike a few moments earlier down at ground level.  Up here, on the wall, my senses felt heightened and chaotic all at the same time. The sounds of the city seemed to jump out at me, and my body’s movements seemed magnified. A car horn jolted me, and a tiny wobble of my leg felt like an almost fatal mistake!

“Relax your shoulders, relax your arms!” Fraz shouted out to me. My body was instinctively tight and somewhat frozen. I was trying to remain in the moment, but I just kept thinking about it being over – about getting to the end, and not feeling uncomfortable anymore. And after only a few minutes, I had made it. I was back in safe territory, and my whole body relaxed.

And then…we did it again.

There was a part of me that really didn’t want to do it again. I mean, I can’t say that I enjoyed it. But it stretched me, and there was a part of me that wanted to experience it again. To see if I could feel more comfortable, to witness and acknowledge those feelings of fear, and to keep moving, mindfully, despite them.

And the second time was different. My legs weren’t shaking, I was able to consciously focus on my breathing – to take deep breathes – and relax my body a little more. I felt more in control, and able to move my body a little more freely.

It was interesting to experience the changes between the first and second time I attempted the challenge. It felt to me like I had removed a small layer of fear. I know there would be many more layers; there always are. But it was encouraging to experience that shift. And even if I hadn’t completed the challenge, even if I had stood at the top of the wall, without moving, and just witnessed my fear, I still would have removed a layer.

I know I am always going to experience fear at different times in my life (especially if I keep training Parkour!) Fear is there for a reason – it can keep me safe.

But I think we can so often be tempted to run from the things that scare us. To brush them off, to avoid them, ignore them, rush past them, to move in the opposite direction from them. To do whatever we can not to feel the fear. When what we really need to do is to lean in, and to witness it. To acknowledge it, to feel it, and to move alongside it, despite the discomfort.  That is what stretches us, and that is when we grow. And that will look different for all of us.

Sometimes we may be able to move right through our fear and come out the other side. And other times all we may be able to do is just acknowledge it, to witness it and to sit with it, in all its discomfort! And that’s ok. That is often the most important part of the process.

 

Paula started training Parkour in December 2016, (a little later in life compared to most) at the age of 35. She decided to give it a go after watching her children participate in classes for about 8 months. She found herself itching to try it as she witnessed her kids jump and climb and leap. The movements were reminiscent of her childhood and she felt a yearning to move that way again. After her first class, she was hooked, and hasn’t looked back. She is enjoying the new relationship she is developing with her own body and its capabilities. She has never felt so strong both physically and mentally! Paula trains when she can – mostly at playgrounds with her three children, whom she homeschools. Their endless energy and enthusiasm inspire her every day, and they never fail to set her the most inventive and fun challenges! Before having children, Paula worked in community development and health promotion, and has always been passionate about building community and bringing people together. She has also volunteered on a number of community led committees, and worked for a short time as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. A little over 6 months after training Paula became involved in the local Perth community, reigniting the Girls of Perth Parkour group, joining the committee, applying for funding, and becoming a trainee instructor. She has completely fallen in love with the culture and philosophy of the Parkour community, and is excited and grateful to be able to share this with others within WA and throughout Australia.