• Pieter Derycke

Advice from Sri Lanka and even further - part 1

A while ago, I had a patient that went to Sri Lanka. On his journey, he met a local healer or doctor. The doctor asked if he had any particular health problems. The patient said that he was recovering from an episode of back pain, but that he was feeling quite fine lately. The local healer told my patient that in Sri Lanka, he advises people with back pain to walk barefoot every morning, for a certain time.

That made my patient laugh. Since I work barefoot, my patients often ask me about it (I actually have a little text in the waiting room explaining my strange behaviour). So did this patient, and I explained briefly, or maybe not so briefly, why I live without shoes as much as I can.

For that patient, I don’t know if the advice from the Sri Lankan healer affirmed or authenticated my own behaviour and advice. It confirmed it for me though. Although I usually prefer to look at our most primal relatives (hunter-gatherers) for inspiration for a healthy lifestyle, I find it at least very interesting if other people, from other cultures and traditions (especially ancient ones) say or do similar things.*

Of course, in many other cultures people walk barefoot a lot, especially in their youth, without putting thought to it, without consciously doing it for the benefits of it. They just live barefoot. But I know of at least one other culture that uses deliberate barefoot walking for health and wellbeing: China.

On one hand, China has it horrendous foot binding practice. On the other hand, apparently, people in China have been treating their bare feet with the fine tradition of stone stepping or pebble paths. In parks throughout China, special paths have been made with pebbles. People take of their shoes and walk on these paths, and they do this specifically for their health and wellbeing.

Josef Eugster, a Jesuit priest living in Taiwan, noticed the following: “In nearly every village in Taiwan they have built special paths of pebbles and every morning at 3 or 4 o’clock, people walk barefoot around the pebble path for a half hour before they go to work. Hundreds, even thousands do this. It has become a way of life. I think this is very important. We eat three times a day for our health. For me it is like praying or meditation, I need it for my bodily health and I think every body needs it.” (Father Josef Eugster, (British) Reflexions , March 1995, pp. 16-17.) Eugster thinks it is important, because he a proponent of foot reflexology.

Myself, I don’t know much about reflexology, but there is an explanation that is firmly based on modern neuroscience that explains the possible health effects: body maps. You can read on the importance of body maps in my blogs ‘feeding your homunculus’. This also appears to be the opinion from the authors of the book ‘The body has a mind of its own’ (p. 31): “People take off their shoes and walk on the stones to achieve better health. The science of body maps explains why it works.”

Now, inspiration from traditional societies is only what it is: inspiration. This inspiration can generate hypotheses, and these hypotheses can be tested by rigorous and modern science. And that’s what is interesting about these pebble paths; there is some research backing up the health benefits. We’ll look at that research in the next post.

Thanks for reading,


* Funny, I thought of writing something about the Lindy effect, which I remembered from reading Nassim Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile’. I looked it up (around p. 316) and the author uses the example of minimalist shoes resembling the ones found on Ötzi the ‘iceman’ from the Alps. I think this is called serendipity…