One of my favourite things to do is to walk barefoot in the woods. Although I loved it as a child, I was only reminded of it recently by my Osteopath. He suggested that I walk barefoot over uneven, natural surfaces to help my body use deep, intrinsic postural muscles and in so doing, unwind some tricky internal knots that he normally sorts out when he works his magic. While my hips and back feel absolutely fantastic after a barefoot traipse through the trails, that result pales in comparison to the state of my heart and mind.
The most wonderful thing about walking barefoot in the woods is the sense of space, peace and calm it gives me. I’ve walked the trails of Mount Victoria on a regular basis for the better part of nine years now and inevitably I feel refreshed by it. Walking those hallowed trails barefoot, however, elevates the experience from lovely to sublime.
The sense of presence created by picking my path carefully over the forest floor quiets my mind and enlivens my senses. As I attune to the sensations in my feet, my whole body becomes more receptive. My vision becomes sharp, crisp and clear. My skin delights in the delicate dance of air over it. My ears are filled with the serenade of a million cicadas in surround sound. My nose picks up the ever-changing scent of the season’s flora. And in those moments, a sense of calm quiet descends upon my nervous system. My mind is steady, my heart open and full. I can see myself afresh and my perspective on life broadens considerably.
Every time I walk “my trail”, there is a spot where I stop to breathe, to meditate, to gaze out at the stunning Wellington harbour and sometimes even to sing. On the days where conditions have permitted me to arrive barefoot, I drop into that blissful solitude so much more quickly than when I arrive in shoes.
Interestingly, the only time my feet hurt is when they hit something that doesn’t naturally belong in the forest. Most days, sometime near the beginning of my barefoot phase, I carelessly step on a bit of metal or gravel or glass. My whole system recoils, my breath stops. I re-learn very quickly to tread lightly, to be mindful of every step. In so doing, I establish ease. When I choose how to step on the foreign objects, invariably there is far less discomfort. Walking softly and attentively, I am in harmony with the world around me and deeply connected to the world within me. Time slows, life softens, peace descends.
Yoga practice can help us find the same place in ourselves but it’s all a matter of how we choose to tread. I’ve had practices that helped me cultivate as little sensitivity as walking through the woods in ski boots might. Some days, I’ve totally checked out and gone through the motions just to get the job done. Some days I’ve striven towards the goal of some pose and ended up creating discomfort in my body or my mind. But what’s the point?
When I pause, soften and become receptive, my practice becomes more about tuning into what’s immediately around and within me, much the same way as walking barefoot in the wood does. When I mindfully investigate the poses with the soft attentiveness with which I inspect the trails in the woods and move with awareness and respect of what I find, there is no pain, only peace. Vast swathes of possibility open up and my being is deeply nourished by my time on the mat.
Getting on a mat is not always necessary for practicing yoga – whatever helps me drop into the peaceful consciousness of my being is yoga to me. Just because I’m on a mat “doing yoga” does not mean I’m deriving the full benefit of the practice. I must choose my attitude and my approach mindfully. When I tread mindfully and am fully present, no matter what I’m doing, it’s yoga.