The Art of Shoelessness

A ritual for leaving the outside world, outside

While removing your shoes before entering a yoga studio is common practice, it is one of the more challenging aspects of teaching in a fitness club. Those students of mine who have developed a practice in studios, or those who have an awareness of the discipline’s finer points, make a ritual of leaving their shoes behind; others, often new to yoga, are not always aware of the reasons why we do such a thing. The newer clubs in Manhattan that I teach at have all created separate yoga rooms with benches and racks outside the room for shoes, making it obvious the procedure; the older clubs, though, are used for other movement forms, making the lines much less distinct.

I try to let students know the reasons why we do this, although teaching fourteen classes a week and not wishing to constantly drone on about the ritual to the regular members prohibits me from announcing it during every class. Most often when I mention it, it’s like any form of knowledge: once you are aware, you make it part of your practice. And yet sometimes the query is met with opposition, and has even caused students to leave the room before even starting because they were somehow offended by the very idea. This is what happens when you think of yoga as an exercise routine and not a system of life, which is fairly common for most people in the beginning of their practice, regardless of what setting they are practicing within. Students in yoga studios often do not understand why they do something like removing their shoes; they simply do it because that’s what people at the studio do.

While there are possibly many “reasons” why the practice happens, my understanding of it is twofold. Firstly, on an energetic level, you are leaving the outside world there: outside. If a studio is to be treated as a sanctuary and safe space to breath, stretch, meditate, and contemplate, no reason to quite literally “carry” what’s outside into the room. Just as you would never point or lie with your feet toward an altar, you wouldn’t carry the energy from the world onto the floor where you practice, keeping it as pure as possible. It’s not that the outside world is inherently “dirty”; we’re not trying to flee the world, as the practice involves a working through of issues that occur in daily life. It’s simply nice to have somewhere in which you are offered the chance of reconnecting with your inner life without the grime and bustle of the world, and walking around that space barefoot is symbolically important in this manner.

The other is much more common sensical: it’s dirty. You’re trekking the dirt, mud, dog piss, and any of the hundreds of other liquids and solids from outside into a room where other people are walking around barefoot and on their hands. It’s one thing to walk around the studio floor like this; walking around on the mats, especially communal mats, with shoes on adds another level of soiling into the mix. This is usually a point most students can (hopefully) connect with: hygiene, or as it is known, saucha. This niyama focused on “cleanness” and “purity” involved inner and outer aspects of the practice, as keeping your thoughts, deeds, and actions pure is as important as keeping your body clean, not to mention the spaces you inhabit free of clutter and mess.

If it were up to me, I’d walk around barefoot as much as possible. I have a shoe rack in the hallway outside my apartment door, where shoes are deposited before entering the space in which I live. (It’s quite harder to keep this up while on the streets of Brooklyn, or Manhattan for that matter.) For years I’ve had people come over and look past this ritual, for whatever reason, thinking it lame to have to remove their shoes at all. I’ve even lived with roommates in the past who used to always have shoes on in the space, in their rooms, living room, wherever. The first thing they did upon rising from the couch is put their shoes on. Talk about carrying your stresses from the outside world with you wherever you go! Like any ritual, however, all you can hope for is the respect of understanding the practice from the perspective of one who takes the ritual seriously. And perhaps with a little more knowledge, the ritual can be contemplated by those unaware of why we do what we do in our spiritual practice.

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