Q. Why don’t we wear shoes during Pilates?
A. There are several reasons I do not advocate wearing shoes when doing Pilates. The first relates more to tradition than science. I have a similar visceral reaction to seeing teachers or students stepping onto Pilates equipment with shoes as I do when I see dancers entering a dance studio wearing street shoes. There is something jarring and disrespectful about it. Again, this is my personal feeling and not based on any particular research or even philosophy.
As for teachers wearing shoes, I understand that it is difficult to stand for hours on end without the support of shoes. If a teacher wants to wear shoes, I suggest sandals or slip-ons that will not inhibit them from taking them off easily and getting onto the equipment to demonstrate exercises.
There are also technical and scientific reasons. In Pilates, we are dealing with very precise alignment and articulation of the joints. The foot is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 ligaments, tendons and muscles, both intrinsic and extrinsic. When someone is wearing shoes, it only stands to reason that it is not possible to achieve the same degree of articulation and the same precision of movement and alignment compared to when someone is barefoot.
A recent study conducted by Patrick McKeon, a professor at Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, found that barefoot activities can greatly improve balance and posture as well as prevent common injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bursitis and tendonitis in the Achilles tendon.
McKeon addresses the importance of not only a healthy balance between the smaller intrinsic and larger extrinsic muscles of the foot, but also speaks of their neuromuscular connection—what he calls a “feedback cycle”. Shoes break this cycle, which could lead to compensations. This is a pattern we observe throughout the body, and overcoming this tendency is the premise of much of our teaching in Pilates.
Of course, there is a place for shoes, and their support can be important. However, we have long understood that one of the attributes of Pilates is that we support ourselves when performing an exercise as opposed to relying on external support. This makes the exercises more functional. Once we become accustomed to the support of shoes, the body will begin to lose its own ability to provide support.
Bottom line: Wearing shoes should not be the norm in a Pilates studio. Use the Pilates session as a time to emancipate the feet from the bounds of footwear. It is an opportunity to feel free and unencumbered. If you live close to the beach, make sure to spend some time walking or running in the sand. There are few workouts as good for the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the feet, and few locations as inspiring; the sand is nature’s gift to our feet. —Rael Isacowitz, MA, has been practicing Pilates for more than 30 years and is recognized internationally as an expert in the field. In 1989, Rael founded BASI Pilates®, a comprehensive Pilates education organization represented throughout the world.