Tai Chi is a martial art which is mainly practiced for the benefits of health and fitness rather than for fighting. So, it might come as a surprise that there’s a deep controversy raging beneath the calm surface of this practice and it concerns just one thing, what should you wear on your feet?
Should you wear socks or shoes for Tai Chi? There are good reasons for not wearing socks or shoes in almost all martial arts which are borne out in centuries of Asian tradition. However, Tai Chi is often practiced outside, and in countries outside of Asia, so socks and/or shoes may be necessary for an individual’s comfort and balance.
So, let’s take a deeper look into this and let’s start by examining why it’s a good idea to go barefoot if you can. (It has to do with culture and tradition, too.)
The 4 Best Reasons That You Ought To Practice Tai Chi Barefoot
Tradition is not always the best argument when it comes to what we do today, after all, there was a point when it was traditional for little girls not to go to school or for little boys to be sent to work down coal mines. Point being that there is good sense in appreciating tradition but also in challenging it.
So let’s see whether the benefits of going barefoot in Tai Chi are supported through evidence or whether it’s something we can happily abandon nowadays.
Reason 1 To Practice Tai Chi Barefoot: Asians Don’t Wear Shoes Indoors
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art and in common with much of Asia, the traditional Chinese home would have been raised above the ground.
The reason for this is that it would improve ventilation, prevent easy flooding and stop (at least a little) insects, snakes, etc. from easily coming in the front door. It also meant that a visitor would need to purposefully enter the home.
In a raised home, you simply step out of your shoes on the floor outside and up on to the doorstep. This custom became a cultural tradition and while most Chinese people no longer live in raised homes – everyone still removes their shoes before they go inside someone’s home.
There’s A Good Reason That The Tradition Continues
Wherever you go in Southeast Asia and East Asia, you’ll find the same thing. Whenever someone visits somebody else’s home (or even their place of business), they will remove their shoes and either leave them on the porch or on a shoe rack outside.
The reason for this is that if you spend much time inside their homes, you’ll realize that much of the “living” is done on the floor. Mats are unrolled (or newspaper laid down) and then very low tables are covered in food and people relax by laying on the floor and eating there too.
Is it any real surprise that your average Asian person would rather they didn’t have to deal with their visitors dragging their dirty shoes all over the place they’re about to enjoy dinner with their family?
Research Says Shoes Really Are Filthy
Science supports the idea that shoes are something that you want to keep a long way away from the places you eat. Sheri Maxwell and Charles P Gerba, researchers at the University of Arizona, published a paper in which they sampled the number of bacteria found on shoes worn by 26 people over a period of 3 months.
What they found was pretty revolting. There were more than 400,000 types of active bacteria living on the shoes. Now, not all of those bacteria are harmful, but would you want to risk the odds of all of them being safe, either?
And, in fact, umm… 7 of the 26 shoes were contaminated with bacterial from fecal matter. There’s a common saying in the West, “don’t **** where you eat.” It turns out that it should include a line about not wearing shoes where you eat as well.
This research suggests that we all might want to think twice about wearing shoes indoors.
There Is A Religious/Spiritual Component To This As Well
Buddhism and Taoism both consider feet to be the “dirty” parts of the body and it can be a huge insult in some cultures to touch someone with your bare feet or even point with them.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t just true of Asian religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism do too. In the Bible when God encounters Moses in Exodus, what’s the first thing he commands Moses to do? Remove his shoes. In Islam, it is expected that a Muslim will wash his/her feet before they come to pray.
Reflexology which is a Chinese spiritual practice which involves the balancing of qi (the life force) in the feet by massaging and stimulating various points of the feet insists that going barefoot is good for your health too.
Reason 2 To Practice Tai Chi Barefoot: It Makes It Easier To Train The Muscles In Your Feet
The position of your feet, if you want to master Tai Chi, is very important. If you’re wearing shoes, it can be hard for anyone to see exactly how your feet are positioned, so it’s much harder to get any useful input from an instructor about what’s going wrong.
If you visit your local gym and take a good look at the people inside, a large number will be working out without shoes on even though they’re not being trained in martial arts or working with an instructor and that’s because throughout any form of exercise having sight of your feet is going to be beneficial.
You Weren’t Designed For Shoes
However, there’s a deeper reason to go bare foot than just having sight of your feet – feet weren’t designed to wear shoes. Human beings have been on the planet for hundreds of thousands of years and our ancestors for millions more. None of them wore shoes until about the last 200 or 300 years.
There were no shoe factories, no sole designers and everyone went barefoot. The body evolved to expect you to be barefoot. There is a natural feedback loop created in the nervous system when a bare foot is placed on the floor – it immediately sends messages to the subconscious brain to allow it to know information about its position.
If you put a shoe on the foot, no such feedback loop is created. You are preventing your brain from being able to get proper data on where your feet are and how you are standing. Dr. Mohammad Rimawi, DPM, AACFAS, a Board Qualified Foot & Ankle Surgeon in NYC recommends that we do our training barefoot to preserve this feedback loop and to prevent risks of injury or reinjury.
Reason 3 To Practice Tai Chi Barefoot: It Makes It Easier To Train The Posture Of Your Feet
In their research paper, The relationship between foot posture and plantar pressure during walking in adults: A systematic review, Buldt et al came to a startling conclusion for those who argued for wearing shoes – the posture of your feet dictate your ability to balance.
If you don’t focus on developing the proper posture for your feet, not only does your balance, suffer but you also risk developing a condition called plantar fasciitis in the future. This can be a very painful and debilitating problem. Fortunately, you can “cure” this condition by undergoing a series of regular (but uncomfortable) exercises but wouldn’t it be best not to have to?
When you exercise in bare feet, you have more control over the posture of your feet and your instructor is more likely to be able to offer constructive feedback on that posture (because they can see your feet clearly too).
Reason 4 To Practice Tai Chi Barefoot: It Improves Your Awareness Of Your Surroundings
Finally, there is another advantage of practicing martial arts in bare feet and it relates to that feedback mechanism we’ve already talked about. The brain’s feedback loop is very powerful, and it gives us a better intrinsic understanding of our surroundings.
In Tai Chi, where there is a large amount of emphasis placed on meditation and mindfulness, the importance of being aware of your surrounding is stressed as vital to mastery. Removing your shoes allows the nervous system to provide the kind of feedback to improve that awareness without any additional effort.
This simply isn’t possible if you are wearing shoes.
What You Should Know About Practicing Tai Chi In Socks
If you aren’t able to go barefoot and there are good reasons for this (including but not limited to – infections, fungus, warts, etc.) then you may be looking around for an alternative and it’s fair to say that socks provide less obstruction of that feedback path to the brain than shoes will.
However, socks can be dangerous. Generally, Tai Chi is slow and measured but that still won’t stop you from sliding on a slippery floor or catching on a rough surfaced floor while wearing socks. This could result in a terrible injury.
There are, however, socks that are designed for exercise situations which have built-in grips on the bottom. These would offer a greater degree of safety than most ordinary forms of sock.
I asked several Tai Chi practitioners about these non-slip socks and they weren’t impressed by them. They said that they’re barely any better than ordinary socks in most instances and they might even be more dangerous because they lead to false confidence and could encourage you to take more risks.
Some experienced Tai Chi practitioners do wear socks occasionally, however, and they said that if you curl up your sole with your toes, this can prevent you from sliding on slippery floors but they did acknowledge that this is likely to interfere with your ability to master the forms and it’s an act of last resort rather than first preference.
What You Should Know About Practicing Tai Chi In Shoes
Many Tai Chi practitioners do opt for wearing shoes. That’s probably because a lot of Tai Chi classes are conducted outside even though experts still encourage us to go barefoot outdoors too!
Don’t Wear Training Shoes Or Kung Fu Shoes
Training shoes are too heavy, and the soles are too thick to practice Tai Chi in. You will find that getting into the right posture is very challenging and that you won’t get the level of balances that you want.
Kung Fu shoes, on the other hand, are made from a very thin material which isn’t really useful to support and protect your toes when you are working through your Tai Chi forms.
Do Buy Some Tai Chi Shoes
Yes, there are special shoes for Tai Chi, and they are very popular in China, which is, of course, the home of Tai Chi. They are specifically designed to protect your toes when conducting your forms. Tai Chi shoes tend to be made from leather for the upper to allow for the maximum level of breathability and the soles are made from rubber. Some vegan version (without real leather) exist too.
How do you choose your Tai Chi shoes?
Here’s what to look for in Tai Chi shoes:
- You want a large, wide sole and it’s a bad idea to choose any kind of shoe that comes to a narrow point which constricts or restricts the movement of your toes. This wider design will also allow you to find balance easier in the lower part of your body.
- You want a highly flexible and wear resistant rubber sole. You’re going to be doing a lot of bouncing on your toes, if the sole is not flexible, it will split, and wear-resistant rubber tends to grip better preventing slipping during the performance of forms.
- They should feel soft and comfortable on the feet. You don’t want blisters or other pressure sores on your feet because they’re unpleasant. So, it’s best to choose shoes that don’t have hard leather components, and which fit well.
You can also find Tai Chi shoes with canvas uppers which might be less sweaty during hot months and they are perfectly acceptable.
Do You Wear Socks With Tai Chi Shoes?
If you want to wear socks inside of your Tai Chi shoes you may be further interfering with the brain’s feedback loop, but the feedback loop is unlikely to work in shoes in the first place even with the thinnest soles.
So, then it becomes a matter of personal preference. Socks can certainly help soak up sweat if you are getting warm when exercising and make wearing shoes more comfortable (and they can help you from sweating into the soles of the shoe and thus increase the longevity of the shoe). It is recommend to dust with them some anti-fungal powder every now and again too.
Should you practice Tai Chi in socks, shoes, both or none? The scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that you should go barefoot when practicing Tai Chi (or indeed any other form of exercise that doesn’t involve action dangerous to the feet).
In Asia shoes are considered dirty and shouldn’t be worn inside. There are distinct advantages to being able to see the feet when it comes to training the muscles or the posture and the feedback loop created by bare feet and the brain improves your situational awareness too.
However, if you can’t go barefoot then socks or shoes are perfectly fine. It’s best to choose socks that are designed for exercise though and they should have a grip-like surface to prevent you from slipping. There are many specially designed Tai Chi shoes and if you want to wear socks with them, that’s OK too.