by Kirsten Mowrey
Hello, Spring! Hello sunny days, birds singing, flowers blooming, and green, green, green! Hello to light layers, wind on our skin, warmth in the air, and soft soil underfoot. Our planet is full of awakening and liveliness.
Anticipating long, warm summer days, outdoor festivals, and sports on grass makes me wonder: when was the last time you felt the earth under your feet? I don’t mean energetically or as part of a visualization; I mean the last time you took off your shoes and walked barefoot on the soil, sand, stone, or grass? When you allowed your tender, winter feet to develop the tough callouses that enable you walk barefoot everywhere? My first steps in spring are often mincing; the ground is cold and my feet are tender. I love feeling as the soft soil gives under my feet. I meditate outside on summer mornings, feeling my feet push down into the earth, keeping me upright. Once it’s warm enough, I’ll garden barefoot unless I need to dig with a shovel. I’m consistently amazed at how sensitive my feet are, even after they’ve calloused-up with summer sandals and flip flops – blades of grass brush against my ankles, tickling; small pebbles feel like boulders under my feet. I feel calmer after an hour or two barefoot in the garden.
I always thought that sense of peace was due to being outdoors, but it turns out this may only be the tip of the iceberg. In a link to a Facebook post on the practice of “earthing,” my attention was caught by the claim of scientific backing. I turned to Pub Med, the public database of science journals hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to track down the truth. I found 15 citations for earthing, with studies citing improvements in mood, immune system markers, blood viscosity, kidney chemistry, inflammation, and recovery after exercise.
Earthing predicates its ideas on pre-industrial human history and is based on the premise that humans have lived for millennia with their bodies connected to the earth, either by walking barefoot or covering their feet with animals’ skins. As the earth and human bodies are both electrical conductors, there is an exchange of electrical energy between them. Free electrons on the earth’s surface enter our bodies and create electrical equilibrium; this helps stabilize the electrical environment within the body and contributes to the immune system. In the 1960's, rubber and plastic replaced leather as the typical shoe sole material. Both materials insulate rather than conduct, essentially disconnecting us from the earth's surface.
“Electrostatics is the branch of physics that teaches that when two conductive objects with different electrical potential touch each other, there is a virtually instantaneous transfer of charge so that the two objects equilibrate to the same electrical potential. The human body is a conductor of electricity and so is the earth. “Grounded” or “earthed” means that our bodies are conductively coupled or electrically coupled with the surface of the earth and its abundant supply of electrons. This is a natural condition in which earth's free or mobile electrons spread over and into our bodies, stabilizing our internal electrical environment.” (Oschman, Chevalier, and Ober 2015. 432.)
According to author Susan Ebert, the founder of Organic Gardening magazine, Bob Rodale, told her on her first day of work: “For people to love the Earth, they must first touch it.” To be in our place, to be connected to our earth, is as much electrical and magnetic as it is familial and historic.
Being barefoot isn’t merely part of holistic health and environmental consciousness; it’s also the latest frontier in fitness and core strength. Similar to my barefoot gardening, working out barefoot connects our bodies, minds, and hearts in ways that benefit us well beyond the gym or the backyard.
Debbie Smith teaches “willPower and Grace®️” at Ypsi Studio, a brick-walled urban fitness destination located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Ypsilanti. The willPower Method®️, a fusion of Pilates, yoga, and cardio in a fitness class, calls itself “bodyweight barefoot conditioning.” Debbie, a fitness instructor for decades, wrote via email:
“Really, willPower stumbled on to me. I was in NYC taking an indoor cycling certification from an instructor who invited me to stay for her next class, willPower and Grace. I asked what I needed to participate and she said nothing – just yourself and be barefoot. I remember thinking “how intense can this be?” as I peeled off my supportive sneakers. I was in for a life changing surprise. The class started with footwork to strengthen the feet, moved into warm-up strengthening the inner ear, then into cardio with moves I was more familiar with in traditional fitness but with one big difference – landing without a sound as I moved. The concept of moving through space with control as I landed each time was different to experience in a class setting.”
More than a new workout, Debbie gained freedom from pain. “willPower has changed my thoughts about being barefoot. Suffering from plantar fasciitis, I always had to wear something on my feet, particularly after sleeping, so the mere fact that I can actually be barefoot and not feel that sharp pain is a big plus.” Convincing others wasn’t difficult, and soon Debbie and Julia Collins, owner of Ypsi Studio, were both certified. Ypsi Studio now has three instructors and three classes weekly to strengthen and tone feet and bodies.
TruFitness, west of Ann Arbor, offers a different take on the barefoot workout: weights. Located on Metty Drive off of Jackson Road, TruFitness looks like a typical gym: treadmill, TRX pulls, free weights, kettle bells, weight bench, but all the workouts are done barefoot as part of the Balanced Athlete®️ protocol. I observed John Miller, one of the owners and a veteran of the fitness industry, lead a Life in Motion class with beginners. The class was focused on developing that workout staple, the burpee, with attention to form, particularly where the feet are at all times. John talked the class through the components, with personal corrections and demonstrations using a dowel to talk about head posture, spinal alignment, and weight distribution. Everyone was barefoot or in socks on a sticky foam pad divided into zones, visibly concentrating on their form and using the correct muscles to do push-ups, squats, and arm raises. “Pay attention to what you feel,” John exhorted them. “Get the spark of movement in the right muscle and build from there.”
John spent 18 years building his skills before opening TruFitness with his wife, Tina, six years ago. They were impressed with Balanced Athletes’ methodology. “I see a lot of good come out of it,” John said. “For clients, everything changes, not just strength. They don’t hurt anymore; it’s impactful in ways beyond exercise.” When I asked him about doing weights barefoot, he said they teach clients “mindfulness with weights,” and stressed that it “comes down to the feet. You can’t get core strength without the feet. We build from the ground up. We get people connected with self. There is a spirituality to that.”
In today’s technology-oriented world, we spend much of our life indoors, disconnected from the earth, out of necessity. Classes like the ones featured in this article are a great way to reconnect to yourself and the world around you. But keep in mind that with its vast array of lakes, streams, and forests, southeast Michigan has a special charge and conductivity found nowhere else. I encourage you to get outside and spend some time earthing this spring. Kick off those shoes, sink your feet into the cool earth, feel the grass between your toes, and enjoy the connection of your body to the earth with all your senses, from the bottom up.
For more information on barefoot classes, check out Ypsi Studio at ypsistudio.com, or TruFitness at www.tru-fitness.com.