From Trail Troubles to Happy Hiking

by Bruce Blander

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A few weeks ago I went on a relatively short and easy hike in the woods, a trail I had been on before. It led to a beautiful watering hole where a stream became a waterfall, ultimately flowing into a large pool for swimming before continuing onward. The trail was quite wide and did not have a lot of obstructions to deal with; it was also relatively flat.

Along I plodded, anxious to reach the water to cool off as it was an exceptionally hot and muggy day.  Halfway there and my feet and back were already tiring. By the time I reached all of the action, which was only a mile in, my feet had moved past tiring to aching.

Ahhhhh…..and there it was, like an oasis in a desert.

Of course, there was no way I was going to take my shoes off. I had put on my best pair of low hiking shoes–designed for protection and support (i.e. thick soles and rigid). So why would I shed that protection for a barefoot walk in the water and risk a fall?

But I was hot!

I had to cool off somehow, so in I went, shoes and socks still on. The stream was filled with an assortment of rounded stones of all sizes which were covered with a slippery moss-like growth. As I attempted to move around, I could not get a grip! Every step was like driving on ice. It left me unbalanced, unsure if I could continue on, and generally miserable. There was no feedback from my feet to let me know if I could stand up straight without slipping. No knowledge that might help me walk on and between the stones. I soon had to lean over to help protect against a slip and slide, using my hands to hold onto larger rocks that jutted out of the water.

It was exhausting “work” and no small feet….. I mean feat. I was clearly not enjoying myself. The benefits of walking in cool, clean water were lost to the efforts involved and the concerns I had about a potential fall.

Finally, I gave up after only 5 minutes in the water (though it seemed like 50). As I headed back to the car I immediately noticed how much worse my feet and legs felt. I was also extra fatigued from all the messing around in the stream. By the time I reached the end (i.e. the beginning) of the trail, the discomfort had spread to my lower back and beyond. This was no way to hike.

I would soon learn ways to turn things around.

Happy is the man who has acquired the love of walking for its own sake!
— William Jacob Holland

I was in pain and discouraged, but I knew I had a Feldenkrais session booked with Buffy that week. I knew she would ask me “what are you interested in today?” Of course, I replied, “Help me to hike without pain!”

So we talked. We moved. Buffy helped me to better understand the connections of my feet through that gentle Feldenkrais touch. I left the session with some things to play with at home and instructions to bring in my shoes the following week.

I felt better and was intrigued.

The next week, I arrived with several pairs of shoes and sandals for Buffy to look at. Only one pair of the latter was deemed appropriate, as the sole was more pliable and not overly thick and it didn’t have the clunky heel raise that the other shoes had. There was also a large toe box. The only downfall was that it didn’t completely cover my foot and rocks could potentially get into the shoe with more ease than I wanted.

These became my day-to-day shoes.

I alternated between wearing more bendable shoes, wearing toe socks inside and going barefoot. Much to my surprise, I gradually became able to tolerate longer periods of standing and walking.

For the next few weeks, I attended weekly Feldenkrais sessions, diligently did the explorations my practitioner gave me and wore my nimble shoes.

Here’s a quick glimpse of what I did:

  1. My journey actually began about a year ago when Buffy suggested that I stopped wearing shoes in the house. So I swapped out the thick souls for a pair of non-skid socks.
  2. After our first ‘foot session,’ I traded in my standard non-skid socks for toe socks (also non-skid) — something I never thought I would put on my feet.
  3. I was encouraged to walk barefoot in my yard 10-minutes a day as part of a mindfulness and awareness practice.  I quickly upped the walking to 3x each day.
  4. I did a variety of foot explorations with a tennis ball under my foot.

I was ready for another hike.

I picked another trail that also led to water, put on said sandals, and off I went with my great-nephew in toe, er, I mean tow. This trail was a very different experience. In fact, it was a much more rugged trail than the one I hiked previously, as it was covered with tree roots.

Lo and behold, as I stepped on the first bunch of roots, I could actually feel my feet as they touched the ground! I had instant feedback of what I was walking on and how best to approach each step. My toes gave me additional information as they could almost wrap around each root or rock they encountered. It was significantly less tiring, not at all uncomfortable and felt quite intuitive as well.

The best was yet to come…

Finally, my little buddy and I reached a part of the stream bed that was not dry.  It was filled with plenty of water for wading. It was just deep and wide enough to go for a wet stroll – in my bare feet!

Off came my sandals and in I went. Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! It felt utterly fantastic, providing me with the experience I had hoped for on my first hike: peace and happiness, little to no pain and discomfort, and then some. Above all I was standing in a couple of feet of water with my two bare feet, something I have rarely done since I was a kid.

I also found that I could pick up small stones with ease. I felt them with my foot (and brain) and allowed my toes to wrap around them. I even lifted some out of the water and gave them a toss! I paraded around the stream without hesitation, feeling safe and inspired. My great-nephew and I even skipped stones. It was definitely an “ahhhhh…” moment.

I was both thrilled and grateful. It was clear that everything I had done during the preceding few weeks had led to this. I was downright elated about the profound changes that had occurred between the first hike and the second. I know that they will be permanent changes and I am looking forward to expanding upon what I have learned.

If you feel that you’re not up for even a short hike, it may be very worth your while to follow in my footsteps.

Happy Hiking!