When I first started training martial arts as a kid in Karate, the thing I noticed first was that all training was done barefoot. The beautiful thing about martial arts in general, is that unlike many other sports and hobbies all you really need in order to train and to enjoy the experience is your body. Equipment when I first began training over 3-decades ago was optional. And to be honest, if done right, it still is today.
A Naturalistic Approach
This naturalistic experience of the martial arts, where the body is the only tool needed, is even more invigorating and rewarding when you can share that experience with someone else. I remember as a child hooking up with friends at the local park, ‘barefoot,’ sparring, laughing, having fun and simply enjoying expressing the fullness of our bodies through movement. While gloves, gum guards etc, may keep you safe, the true experience of martial arts is to remove all the equipment, going metaphorically ‘bare’ with only your body as your guide. In this way, you invoke the playfulness of the experience, a way to escape the trap of the mainstream world, that seeks everyone to be the same, to conform. As Tash Sultana, Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist notes, “I always play barefoot. I can’t play with shoes on.”
‘Barefoot’ can also be a philosophy of training martial arts, that brings about the fullness of movement and ultimately peak performance in body and mind. This philosophy is about returning to something simple, primordial. Sadly something forgotten in our modern world obsessed with technology, gadgets, and the handing over of our body to a device.
The barefoot philosophy is also about a deeper meaning of martial arts. This begins from moving your body to create the right outcome, to the way of ‘being’ while you move. Finally it is about how to ‘be’ with others on the training floor, barefoot, completely and totally immersed in the moment. Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-born British mathematician and historian reminds us:
“As It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”
As such, going barefoot in martial arts, reminds us to keep things simple and about finding the most energy efficient way to accomplish ones goals. The goals is to have a low energy footprint, from movement, to mind, and spirit. Michael Franti, American musician, poet, spoken word artist and singer-songwriter suggests, “You learn a lot when you’re barefoot. The first thing is every step you take is different.”
Barefoot Philosophy of Martial Arts
In a very literal sense the barefoot philosophy of martial arts can be summed up as the following.
We spend so much of our day and our life as adults with shoes on. In martial art training, taking your shoes off allows you a connection to Earth that most of us have forgotten since childhood. There is a lightness about training barefoot.
Ironically even though you only have your shoes off for training, you can feel a little naked. It does take some time to get used to being grounded again. But when you do, you begin to appreciate a connection to Earth that you took for granted as a kid. Now if you can go further, get off the mat, and get your feet into the sand and mud while training, even better.
Crucially moving without shoes makes you more aware of how your body feels, how it moves and how that sense of grounding lends to the efficiency, and the effectiveness of your technique. With the right intention, knowing how important the ground beneath your feet is to the efficiency of your movement, going barefoot lends to you being more present in your movement.
As such symbolically training barefoot represents simplicity. It represents moving in life with less.
Life is better with less, not more.
The barefoot philosophy of martial arts is therefore not about looking good, but rather about what works. What works is not more complexity, it is not about the next ‘advanced’ technique, but rather going into martial arts with the barefoot philosophy as art, an art that invokes the simplicity of depth.
As Kozan Ichikyo, Japanese Zen master profoundly reminds us,
“Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.”