Finding My Feet

March 28, 2018

Something incredible happened to me today… and a huge chunk of me which has been missing for over a decade has come back. I found my feet again, and with it my freedom. It has inspired me to write this post, and just as I was in the flow I came across this quote…

“The best way to take control over people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which those changes can be reversed.” Adolf Hitler

This quote rings true because for the last ten years I have lost a piece of my freedom, eroded away by the constrains of ‘the way we do things here in Western culture’, and today it has come back to me. Over time it became quite unconscious, and it was directly caused by our Western way of living.

Is there something holding you back from achieving your freedom in life? Something which has happened subtlety over time? Maybe you didn’t even notice it happen or appreciate its significance. Maybe you didn’t even realise your freedom had gone at all?

This was certainly the case for me, and if this thought stirs something deep inside read on.


One giant leap forward

Earlier today I decided to go out for a walk. It is the first time I have planned a big walk for almost a decade. My body has been restricting my freedom, due to a problem with my feet. Over these past ten years or so I have got used to it, and simply resigned myself to never being able to go on long walks again.

I have a condition called second Intermetetarsal bursistis, which means when my toes push together in shoes I get a pain after just under two hours, making it uncomfortable to walk. It is a really common condition, and the symptoms are similar to a neuroma. If I persist in walking when it gets inflamed it gets very sore. The best way I can describe it is that it is like walking on hot coals. If you are interested in the technicalities then I have included a paragraph at the bottom of this post.

It got so painful that on occasions, years ago when I was walking long distances over the hills, I had to stop walking all together and call a taxi to get back home. It was shortly after one of these experiences that I decided I had to give up trekking and the freedom which went with it.

I have been to numerous podiatrists since the problem originally began when I was in my early twenties. I forget how many. I have had all kinds done to try and construct the perfect orthotic inner soles. Plaster-cast models made of my feet. Photos taken of me running on a treadmill. I have been through the NHS, and paid for many private consultations too. The solution presented to me beyond orthotic insoles was steroid injections or an operation. I declined both and persisted with trying to find the perfect inner sole which would rectify my condition. Eventually I gave up and pushed it to the back of my mind, my solution being to simply keep my walks to around two hours. I rarely talked about it, and adjusted my life so my trekking days fell away to a distant memory of ‘something I did when I was younger’.


Touching in with the Otherworlds

Fast forward ten years to September 2015. I decided to journey to my Spirit Teacher in the Upperworld to ask them what I should focus on next in my life. Now Spirit Teachers are often rather strict, and have a real no nonsense approach. Unlike Spirit Guides who are usually approachable, understanding, patient and will put their arm around you and have a softness about them, Spirit Teachers can have a stern school headmaster or headmistress feel about them. It is understandable really, given that they are your Teacher, and are there to teach you.

So I went to my Spirit Teacher and he looked up from his writing desk for all of about ten seconds and said to me really directly, ‘focus on your body Nicola and don’t come back to me until you have got results’.

I was really surprised in one sense to get this advice from him. I was expecting him to tell me to go and study this field or read that book, not focus on my body. But it made complete sense.


Body focus

Now at that time I was no longer thinking about my foot problem. At the time I had chronic back pain from a lifting incident about three years previous so I began to focus on healing this. That is another story for another time.

My focus into my body led me to a body therapy course co-run by my shamanic teacher Jayne Johnson called Embodied Relational Therapy. It was a two year course leading to an Advanced Diploma which I have just completed this winter. It took almost to the end of the second year before my attention led me to my feet. I had forgotten about them! I had forgotten about the problem being a problem, and just assigned myself to the thought that it was what it was and there was nothing I could do, and I just wouldn’t walk very much in one go for the rest of my life.

I have had to make changes over the years and give things up, and the main thing as I have already mentioned was my love of trekking. Back in my early thirties at the height of my passion, I would don a rucksack  and walk out of my front door and trek for three days just seeing where I ended up. I would camp out in wild places, at the top of mountains or down by the river in deep valleys.

Wild camping

I would catch a train up to Scotland and trek across the mountains, sleeping in places which were only accessible by foot with the nearest road being almost a days hike away. I loved this sense of freedom, and it was a huge part of my spiritual awakening. I always stayed in the UK, as I believe our solutions are on our doorstep, and I restrict my flying because of climate change, so this has opened up the door to so many possibilities right in my own landscape. Most weekends and during all my holidays I was out walking with my tent and sleeping bag on my back, in the Derbyshire Dales, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lakes, Snowdonia and all over Scotland.

Trekking the Cairngorms in Scotland in 2006. One of my last treks.


All that came to an end with my foot problem. It was during a holiday to the Cairngorms when my trekking days came to an abrupt end. The trek in this photo was to be my last. On the other side of that mountain my body gave up, and I couldn’t walk very much for the remainder of the holiday. I hired a bike to get around. After this, I adapted my life to enjoying walks no more than two hours long. I saw it as the Universe slowing me down so I took more time and savoured the journey and became still. I still camped out in wild spots, but always just a short walk from the road.

This view all changed on my body therapy course.


Designed by nature

In a moment of body reflection I thought to myself, “why has nature designed my feet so badly that I can’t walk very far by the age of 40 years old?”

Following that train of thought led me to googling ‘natural footcare’, and I stumbled upon a website Natural Footgear, which explained that the shoes we wear restrict the way our feet are designed to be. When we put our feet into a typical Western shoe, our toes get compressed by the narrow toe box, and this along with raising our heel, even just very slightly, changes the whole composition of our foot.

It made so much sense to me. I am always seeking ways to go back to the ancestral ways of living, and so why not allow my feet to be how they are designed to be.

The most well known and exaggerated form of foot deformity through shoes is the practice of Chinese foot binding, which has been banned now. This x-ray photo shows the level of deformity that was caused by this extreme practice.

Chinese foot binding

Any form of foot restriction in shoes over time has the same effect, albeit to a much lesser degree.

As soon as children can walk we put them in a heel. I was probably wearing heels since I was two years old. As for the pointed toe box, I was never one for super fashionable shoes. I spent my teens in Doc Martins and a lot of my twenties in trainers. But all these shoes compress the toes. I have spent months recently looking at shoes, and they are all in a restrictive toe box. Even some of the more ‘natural shoes’.

When we look at the feet of indigenous people who do not wear shoes, we see that the widest point of the foot is the toes.

A pair of feet which has never been encased in shoes


When we look at any Western foot, we see that this is not the case. Go on… take a look at your feet now. Where is the widest part? I bet it isn’t the toes. Also look to see if the bones running down to your toes match up with your toes in a straight line. If they aren’t in alignment, then they are mis-aligned.

All our feet have been moulded into a different shape, and we think this is normal. It isn’t, and it isn’t how we have been designed. We are walking around on deformed feet, and this has implications not only for our feet, but our ankles, knees, hips and back.

OK, so now I am doing something really brave and showing some photos of my foot! Just to demonstrate how different my toe versus foot alignment is to the photo above. My toes have been squashed in shoes, which has caused my painful foot condition. You can see the shape they should take by the blue line, and the red dotted line.

So, logic says that if I go back to a barefoot style of footwear, my problem will be alleviated.

My compressed toes

New shoe strategy

Once I discovered this I threw away all of my shoes I had amassed over the last twenty years and replaced them with one pair of Lems boots which I bought from Natural Footgear. They look a bit like clown shoes, but they are so comfy as they are flat and wide toed. I have grown to rather like them now, although they don’t fit any more as my feet have grown too now they are allowed to be flexible and no longer constricted. They are a far cry from the deformed office shoes I used to wear, shown in the photo below.

Saying goodbye to all my old shoes

For a while I tried the Natural Footgear Toe Correctors, and I found them helpful, but as I say my feet grew and so I need to get a new pair of Lens a few sizes bigger in order to give them another go.


My Toe Correctors and my Lems boots


More recently my research has led me to buying a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. They are like a glove, and like a barefoot experience but without the risk of cutting my feet. When I slipped them on (which took quite a while the first few times organising my toes!) it felt like I was coming home. I had a deep sense of relief inside me.

Now when I am out walking… it is just incredible. I can feel every inundation beneath my feet. As I tread on an uneven surface I can feel my foot flex, then my ankle, knee, hip and back. I can spring-bock over puddles with ease, and my feet bend with the earth. If I trip I can rectify myself so easily. It is a feeling I have never felt before as I have always worn inflexible ridged soles with a small heel. Even walking boots have a heel I have discovered, and usually a toe box which raises the toes at an angle upwards too, both which can often be hidden.

Hello Vibrams & hello freedom


Conformation and constriction

I remember the last foot consultation I had in the autumn of last year, which was with the NHS. I decided to go through the system one last time to see what was said, now that I had awareness.

He was a lovely chap who gave me yet again the same list of options for a cure. Orthotics or a steroid injection. I glanced down to his feet, and I saw he was sitting in pair of pointed mens shoes with a heel. He talked about how he wears orthotics. He didn’t talk about widening the toe box. He didn’t talk about flat shoes. He didn’t talk about going barefoot. We parted company quite quickly.

In our Western world we have shoes which deform our feet, and then we add in adaptations to compensate for the deformity and we see this as normal. We are told that there is no other way and if your feet hurt we can give you things which change the shape even more.  Or we can inject you. Or we can perform an operation and take a bit of you out.

It makes me wonder how much is life like this. We are told to squeeze ourselves into this shape, and if we don’t fit and it causes pain, then there are a list of options we are given to alleviate the pain, but not to address the root cause.

In nearly two decades, no-one has ever even hinted that I go barefoot, or the best approximation of going barefoot and let my feet work as they were deigned to.

And until recently I never thought of it myself.

Now today, I am claiming back walking on my feet as they were designed to.



When I first wore my new pair of Lems, my walking gait changed, rather distinctly. I felt my calfs tighten, and as I placed my heel on the floor I sank down further than I would normally. If you have ever seen the comedy show Red Dwarf, you will know what I mean when I said I walked like Kryten. I was all jerky and awkward. That showed me how unnaturally I had been walking all of these years, in shoes with a small heel.

When I first wore my Vibrams, again I felt twinges in my muscles and tendons, this time around my ankles. My body was correcting itself.

I haven’t found all my shoe solutions yet. I am still in my old dancing shoes when Jason and I go to Ballroom and Latin American dances. I am slightly anxious about what I am going to do at my step-daughter’s wedding this summer, and I need to buy a summer everyday shoe for when the weather gets hotter. It’s a step-by-step process going against convention, and figuring it all out.


Unravelling the layers of conditioning

Looking back, so much of my spiritual path has been undoing the layers of conditioning, to a more natural way to being a human being on Earth. Just as I have freed up my feet to perform as they were defined to, I am freeing up my soul so it can fulfill it’s purpose. Just as I am relearning now how to walk essentially barefoot, through using the shamanic tools in my life I am relearning how to get a direct connection with spirit. Shamanic journeying being a key one as this opens a window into a deep well of knowledge on what is the right thing to do.

I am very lucky. I can afford to make these choices, and I have the freedom to make them too. For many who live now this isn’t a choice, and just a few generations in my family line it wasn’t a choice either. I used to love listening to the stories my Nan would tell me about when she was growing up. She only had one pair of shoes, and when they developed holes in the soles, she would patch them up with cardboard. My Nan had deformed feet, with bunions and a hammer toe, and they caused her a lot of pain when she was older. These were from ill-fitting shoes worn probably for all of her life. I am fortunate now in that I don’t have to take this path.

My first epic moorland walk for nearly ten years


As I walk the moors today serenaded by skylark, with such a sense of freedom leaping over puddles I haven’t seen a single person for three hours, not even in the distance. I haven’t been able to do this for over a decade, and it makes me wonder how many other problems do we have that we don’t even realise are problems anymore.

Just as I had forgotten about my foot problem, and how much it restricted me, that I accepted it and pushed it out of my mind, I wonder how many other things we collectively have got used to, and again push down deep inside us.

We weren’t born with these problems, but they develop as we grow older through the conditioning of the Western life, and we get so used to them we don’t notice them any more. Most people who know me don’t know of my foot problem and my restrictions, as I simply stopped talking about it, or even thinking about it. It was just the way it was, only it didn’t need to be that way.

With some awareness, and some questioning, I found a solution.

Shamanic Journeying led me to this awareness. That encounter with my Spirit Teacher, telling me in stern words to go and focus on my body, led me to a different path, and now I have my freedom back. Today I have welcomed back a part of me I thought was so long gone I had forgotten her. Journeying unveils these hidden aspects and supports us on the path to unraveling. I wonder would I have got this far without journeying to my Spirit Guides for help and them pointing me in a new direction.

At the height of my trekking I was planning two treks in England. The first was the coast to coast walk, which is the second most popular trek in the world. The other was to walk the Ridgeway, which is an ancient track running across the south of Britain to Avebury. Those plans stopped and were forgotten and the maps taken down the charity shop. Now I have an old excitement reinvigorated that this might yet be possible, if I can fix my back… but as a say that is another story for another time.

I have found my feet again, and with them a revised sense of freedom.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, we have an exciting development Jason and I have been working on these past couple of months to help folk deepen their spiritual connection. We aren’t going to say any more just yet, but keep an eye on your inbox and we will reveal more soon.

For now, have a beautiful Spring whatever your plans, and we shall be in touch soon.


Web links & technicalities 

Here are the weblinks for the sites I have referenced in this blog, along with a narrative of the footwear I opted for and how I got on, for those readers who are interested in the technical details!

Natural Footgear: This is the Company I found which has some great instructional videos on natural foot alignment. I bought my Lems boots, toe socks and toe correctors from them. I haven’t been able to wear the boots for very long as my feet grew! I would recommend getting a bigger pair!

Vibrams: This is the Company I bought my Vibram Five Fingers from. You can accurately calculate what size you need by measuring your foot stood up against the wall. They have a size guide. I chose a pair which had a more robust sole for trekking. They aren’t insulated – my next pair I choose will be, as my feet have been cold over the winter months! Vibrams don’t do a waterproof shoe yet, but I have found that above five degrees celcius my feet don’t mind getting wet. I also have a pair of the Furoshiki boots which are AMAZING! So warm and comfortable, I don’t think I will ever wear anything else now. They are based on a 2500 year old design, and it is a shame we ever ‘evolved’ away from this style.

I am sure there are other companies out there too… if you know of any in your own ‘foot journey of discovery’ then pop a comment in the box below and I will add them here to this post.

Two other companies are Freed First and Vivo Barefoot.

Intermetetarsal bursistis: It has taken me a long time to get to the bottom of the cause of my problem. So, I will explain it here in case it is of interest to anyone reading this blog. I have hyper-mobile ankles which gives me a pronounced foot arch. This means my toes clasp the ground when I walk. This problem is compounded when I elevate my heel, even if just slightly, and push my toes in together so my big toe is no longer in it’s correct position it was designed to be in. A bursa is a fluid-filled cushioning sac located near tendons, ligaments, skin and muscle which would otherwise rub directly across the surface of a bone. There are multiple bursae located in the forefoot area. The metatarsal bursae are located on the bottom of the foot near the base of the toes. If these bursae become inflamed or irritated this is called intermetatarsal bursitis. For a while I thought I had a neuroma, which is nerve related, and the symptoms are very similar. During my recent stint with the NHS I was given an ultrasound scan which confirmed the diagnosis.


A bonus photo…

I couldn’t resist bobbing this photo into this blog. Wearing Vibrams is a real head turner on the street. Here is a snap of some local Chorley folk admiring Jason Vibrams outside the market cheese stall!

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. So lovely to hear about your foot success. Have heard great things about Vibram previously. May be treating myself .. 🙂

    1. Oh do Rachael and let me know how you get on. They are so comfy it is unreal (apart from winter wearing – you can feel the cold ground so I would recommend thermal ones for the winter) – they are fine in the Spring though 🙂

  2. Thanks Nicola, so much to think about, as always when you write.
    But about the feet, I can so empathise… Pass me down shoes as a child, flat feet and severe bunions since my teens. Had surgery in my mid twenties, but walking, and footwear always a problem (not helped by decades of old fashioned nursing) so now knees back and neck suffer too.
    I shall look with great interest at the websites you mentioned.
    Enjoy your walking!

  3. excellent article, many thanks. Have had similar worries about restricted future walking after twisting my foot very badly in Switzerland last May. Have also been down the conventional NHS orthopedics / orthotics route before with inconclusiveness results. Cost of decent footwear is always a break point for me.

  4. Thanks Nicola for a great article, I think you write so engagingly, and bring in so many dimensions so effortlessly . That Spirit teacher of yours is very helpful!The RIdgeway was the first trek I ever did -in June with all the wildflowers and the larks abounding. I would really recommend it , so much history and magic of the Land..Especially Waylands Smithy and The Uffington White Dragon!

    1. Thank you Rosemary 🙂 … and you have walked the Ridgeway! Lovely to hear and very inspiring for me to work to realise the dream too 🙂

  5. Good article indeed, l try and look after my feet..the only way l know by getting good quality supportive l may have to rethink everything..

  6. Thank you Nicola, very interesting read, I have leg problems and just live with them, I only notice when I see my reflection in a window or smack into something, I will check out the footwear and look forward to hearing about your new work, thanks again and happy walking.

  7. Found this really interesting Nicola, I have a lot of problems and it’s stopped my trekking also – I used to do a lot of mountaineering- I’ve checked out the shoes and hope to get some – concerned they are very flat which is another issue- however thanks for the info ?

    1. Ah so similar experiences Wyn… really interesting to hear your story too. Yes, they are completely flat… it took some getting used to 🙂

  8. Hi Nicola
    I’m a equine barefoot hoof care worker and have spent 20 yrs helping horses keep and regain the integrity of how their hooves work. Metal shoes restrict the natural development of the inner structures and suspension apparatus, they also inhibit the blood flow. Our feet become effected by restriction and also posture as you’ve found, so not that different. I’m really pleased that you have become able to regain the freedom you once had. Long may it progress ?? Lesley x

  9. Hi Nicola
    I’m a equine barefoot hoof care worker and have spent 20 yrs helping horses keep and regain the integrity of how their hooves work. Metal shoes restrict the natural development of the inner structures and suspension apparatus, they also inhibit the blood flow. Our feet become effected by restriction and also posture as you’ve found, so not that different. I’m really pleased that you have become able to regain the freedom you once had. Long may it progress ?? Lesley x

    1. Thank you Lesley, and it is super to hear of your work. I have read a book on equine barefoot, and my friend is really into it – it makes so much sense… 🙂 x

  10. What a lovely deeply thought provoking article ;thank you Nicola, you made me re -view my feet ,as I have felt lately “as if they became wider “but have totally dismissed that thought..perhaps I too am finding my feet slowly also reminded of my Dad ‘s sayings ( a man who grew up in poverty and hard life conditions) ,that he would always spend money for a “good supporting pair of shoes “,i think there was more meaning to that , and now I can explain why I always felt that!
    Happy trekking and re connecting with your freedom!!

    1. Thank you Maria, and I love your Dads shoe philosophy! My feet have grown considerably this last year since getting my Lens, and so I am not surprised to hear your feet are feeling wider… this is absolutely possible!

  11. I have truly enjoyed reading every word you’ve written here Nicola.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and knowledge.
    I’m going to look at the website about the shoes with toes ?

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