Barefoot Walking is one of South Korea’s biggest health trends of 2023. With origins in traditional medicine, those who partake believe it has numerous health benefits. Below you will learn about the cultural significance of barefoot walking and where you can try it out for yourself.
My Introduction to Barefoot Walking
During my walks in Namsan Park, in Itaewon, I would sometimes see a young woman sitting on a picnic mat in a sparse grove of trees. She looked young, but she was very thin and pale, and she had lost all of her hair. I knew that she was sick. She would sit in this grove with an older woman, or sometimes by herself.
When she stood, the young woman would use forearm crutches to help her walk. Then, she would remove her shoes and then walk barefoot in this grove of trees that were in the middle of the park. It was early spring and I was in between jobs, which allowed me to go for daily walks in the park.
When you are able to go to a place on a regular basis you start to see the same people, and you begin to recognize them as regulars. This young woman was one of the regulars in the park, coming daily to do her routines of resting, and walking.
Walking in Namsan Park
I’ve lived near Namsan for nearly 5 years. The park nearby is one of the best things about where we live. Our apartment is small, humid, and gets very little light. The proximity to the main streets of Itaewon and Gyeongnidan-gil are great, but there is a lot of walking up and down steep hills to get to those places.
Namsan park, however, is a flat five-minute walk. it is a beautiful, well-cultivated park that is both a garden of flowers and a forest on a mountain. To get to the park from where we live, we walk past the Grand Hyatt Hotel and cross a wooden overpass bridge.
Immediately we are greeted by trees. Depending on the season, there can also be tulips, petunias, cherry blossoms (this is when Nasam is crowded), or my favorite the yulan magnolias. This portion of the park is designed on the lower part of the mountain and is flatter with small undulating hills making it easy for people to stroll or walk their dogs, go for runs, or admire the beautiful landscaping.
There are also several groves of Korean red pines giving this park a feel of a hybrid English garden and wild woods. In the past, the grove where I would see the young woman walking was often empty of people. Sometimes, a person would maybe cut across it to get to the exercise area, or take their dog for a sniff and explore. But, for the first three years visiting Namsan no one spent much time in the groves, that is until spring when I first noticed the young woman.
A New Path in the Park
My husband and I were walking through the park one day, and as we passed the grove, I noticed a couple of people walking barefoot through the grove. I asked my husband, do you notice those people barefoot walking?
I told him about the young woman and asked him if he had seen her. He said he hadn’t. But, he had noticed that more people were walking in the area in a circle through the trees and that they were always barefoot. In fact, he pointed out a path that had never been there before. I thought it was strange. I had wondered if they were off-limits in the past, because no one had ever been there before.
A few months later, a friend of ours who is now living in America, came to Korea to visit his parents. We sat down for a coffee to catch up on life. My husband’s father had been diagnosed with cancer back in July, and both of the parents of our friend had also been diagnosed with cancer.
We had asked him how his parents had been doing. He told us they both were doing very well and attributed it to lifestyle changes that helped them to survive cancer and to heal. That is when he mentioned barefoot walking.
“Haven’t you heard of it?” He asked us.
“No,” we said simultaneously, but already my mind jumped to Namsan and the grove, and the new path
“Apparently, it is a new health craze in Korea and is very popular, many cancer patients do it.”
“The woman in the park,” I said to my husband, “That must be what she was doing.”
We went back to the park later in the evening and walked to the grove. There was a path, even more defined than previously. Up against the trees, there were a couple of backpacks, and pairs of shoes. Through the thin and bent trunks of the pines, we could see a person slowly walking over the cool rust-colored dirt.
What is Barefoot Walking or Grounding?
Barefoot walking has been around for a while. However, it recently gained momentum in Korea and has become the new wonder in health and wellness. Barefoot Walking, also known as Grounding, and Earthing, is the act of walking barefoot on dirt, sand, grass, or basically any natural earthly material. Grounding also includes sitting or lying on the natural ground. In one article I read, it stated that swimming in natural bodies of water was also considered Grounding. There are things called grounding mats, but for this article, I’m sticking to walking as that is what is the rising health trend in Korea.
Barefoot walking has become a practice among people wanting to improve many health conditions. But, it has become popular, especially for people with plantar fasciitis such as people recovering from strokes or cancer.
It is said to have many benefits:
- Reduce fatigue and increase energy
- Reduce chronic pain
- Reduce inflammation
- Faster recovery from exercise
- Enhance elevate mood
- Reduce blood pressure & hypertension
- Support heart health
- Improve sleep quality
- Improved circulation
- Healing headaches
How it works
The belief is that grounding connects the body to the earth’s natural field of “subtly negatively charged free electrons”. Supposedly these electrons neutralize free radicals in the body.
It may provide immune defenses functions in the body similar to antioxidants.
Honestly, that was the best I could glean from the articles I read. I don’t exactly understand what “subtly negatively charged free electrons” are. As a result, the best I can guess is that there is an energy in the earth that connects to the body when your skin is directly in contact with earth.
No Real Science On It Yet
Like the science behind Green/Blue Spaces and Forest Walking, research on the truth behind the benefits is new. There is current research being done on its effectiveness on inflammation, cardiovascular disease, repairing muscle damage, chronic pain, and mood elevation.
Nothing has been confirmed as of yet, however, a few studies have shown that barefoot walking helps stabilize mood, decreases fatigue, reduces inflammation, and increases blood flow. Is that because of the physical activity of walking? Or being out in a Green Space (which has a lot more research that supports the benefits of getting into nature)? Or is it from the barefoot walking? It could be all three, but for now, there is no scientific evidence to back the claims.
Korea Embraces Barefoot Walking
Regardless of how new the research is, Korea has taken to the practice. There are several places where you can go to experience the healing power of the earth beneath your feet.
In Dongdaemun-gu in Seoul, you can walk the Baebongsan trail. This trail was created for barefoot walking and is covered with a soft, fine, reddish-yellow soil called loess, in Korean hwangto. Here you can take off your shoes and put them in a shoe closet that the park has provided for barefoot walkers. The city of Seoul is also in the process of creating more loess or hwangto trails.
*Hwangto which means yellow soil. It is used for barefoot walking trails because it is believed to have many health benefits due to the number of natural minerals in the soil like calcium, potassium, and iron. It is also said to have antioxidants and to be a natural disinfectant and detoxifier.
The Hwangtogil Red Soil Mountain Trail
If you really want to experience this health phenomenon, you can take a trip out to Daejeon and walk on the first and largest red clay trail in Gyejoksan. The Hwangtogil Red Soil Mountain trail is a 14.5km trail that was created specifically for barefoot walking and is made from red clay that comes from Boryeong (known for its mud festival) and hwangto. The trail was put on the Ministry of Culture’s list of 100 must-visit attractions for 2021-2022.
According to various sources, the best time to visit is in May. However, the trail is open from spring through fall. I’ve yet to go but have added it to my list of things I want to experience in Korea. If you are concerned about getting your feet dirty and stained, there are foot baths and scrubbing brushes supplied.
Shiatsu Courses or Reflexology Paths
If you want to try the benefits of barefoot walking, you may also want to try the stone walking courses, also called Shiatsu courses. These pathways are made of cobblestones, sand, gravel, pebbles smooth and sharp, brick-sized blocks, and large smoothed-out stones. These various rocks and stones are all put together in concrete and arranged in the traditional health theory of Yin and Yang.
Shiatsu or reflexology has been around for thousands of years. Research has shown that it may reduce stress, pain, and anxiety as well as increase relaxation and better sleep.
How Do Shiatsu Paths Work?
The courses are designed to balance your chi and restore energy in your body. It is long believed that there are pressure points in your feet (and hands) that directly correspond to organs in your body; think acupuncture or acupressure. Walking barefoot over stones is believed to increase blood flow. As a result, it increases the circulation to the organs that are connected to the pressure points on your feet.
There are several places where you can find Shiatsu paths. There is a short path in Namsan park and Borame park in Seoul. According to an old blog post on Reflexology Live, Yeouido park has the oldest shiatsu path in Korea, but the article was written in 2009. So, you’ll have to see for yourself if it is still there. Yeouido is beautiful so the trip won’t be wasted.
Barefoot Walking in Winter
It is winter now as I write this, and patches of snow cover Nasman, but the path under the grove of trees is clear. The snow has melted in that area, but the ground is cold and frozen beneath the dirt, yet this does not stop the barefoot walkers.
There are not many of them. But, they still remove their shoes and walk in their socks. I have not seen the young woman that first grabbed my attention. I hope she returns when the weather gets warmer. There are more people walking on the barefoot trail than on the shiatsu course. Curiosity has made me try them both, and they both hurt.
Months ago while our friend had visited we tried the walk, and it was full of rocks and sharp pines. It was mostly chilly and soft, but then I would step on a sharp stone or a root. The root had that massaging feel, but not the sharp stone. The next day my feet were bruised.
Now, I notice there are fewer rocks and I am able to tell that the park workers are clearing the path for the barefoot walkers. I decided to try once again. But this time I braved the winter cold. I took off my shoes, but I kept my socks.
My feet were cold at first, but after a while, I forgot about the cold. I felt soothed by the cool and soft dirt beneath my feet. Afterward, as I walked back toward my apartment, I noticed that I did feel good and more relaxed. Maybe there is something to it.
Trails for Barefoot Walking
231, Samil-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul (Yejang-dong)
서울특별시 중구 삼일대로 231(예장동)
68 Yeouigongwon-ro, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
서울특별시 영등포구 여의공원로 68
33 Yeouidaebang-ro 20-gil, Dongjak-gu, Seoul, South Korea
서울특별시 동작구 여의대방로20길 33(보라매공원)
12-14, Hancheon-ro 43-gil, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul (Baebongsan Park)
서울특별시 동대문구 한천로43길 12-14(배봉산공원)
The Hwangtogil Red Soil Mountain Trail
San 85, Jang-dong, Daedeok-gu, Daejeon
대전광역시 대덕구 장동 산85
Sources Barefoot Walking
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