High quality walking embodies a natural wave which spirals up through your body as you move, which when re-discovered, makes walking one of the most satisfying and enriching experiences of your day.
What it should feel like when you walk
In natural walking your hips are the “gearbox” of your body. They transmit your lower body movement to your upper body, but that is where any reference to a mechanical model of walking ends. Your hips dynamically and sinuously allow a spiral of movement to rise from your feet to your head and back again. Unless they are inhibited, your hips rotate left and right, sink and rise, and tilt forwards and backwards, and in doing so, your legs rotate in your hip socket, and your upper body to move in a counter direction to your lower body. It’s a beautiful thing.
How your body moves as you walk.
Most people assume that walking is just going forward, but when you walk, your forward motion also takes you from one side of your body to the other. This is important to understand because before you can lift your leg to take the next step, your weight must be fully balanced on the standing leg. Not only that, but you must be able to structurally hold your centre of balance on that weighted leg before you can lift the next leg.
Stand with your feet at your normal walking width, then shift sufficiently from one side to the other so you can just lift each knee and foot off the ground. Feel how far your hips must travel sideways to do this. This is how much sideways movement you engage when you walk forward.
Now do the same again, do it slowly and this time hold your knee and foot off the ground for 2 seconds and balance, feel how your body tightens to integrate your structure. If you don’t tighten and integrate your body, you can’t lift your leg to take the next step.
Do the same again, this time hold your leg forward in front of you as if you about to take a step but, hover it 1cm off the ground. Slowly move your body weight forward and feel the effect gravity has on your centre of balance. It will draw you forward as soon as your centre of balance is outside your centre of mass (that is as you move further in front of your weighted foot). This motion will transfer to you onto your forward foot.
Step again and move forward walking very slowly and deliberately. Take at least 2 second for each step. Notice that when you put your forward foot down, you have to absorb the entire weight of your body into that foot, and then tighten in that leg so as to integrate this forward movement, before it is possible for you to lift your next foot of the floor. Keep moving forward very slowly, and Congratulations! You are now walking….well of a fashion.
Seen from above your body snakes gracefully from left to right as it moves forward, and it does so in a beautiful sinuous curve. This realisation of a sinuous curve gives the first clue that walking should be, and can be, a smooth comfortable process.
Why don’t most of us walk easily and comfortably?
Evolution has developed humans to walk, and not to run. Of course, we can run, but we are the most supremely efficient walkers on the planet, however somewhere along the way we have lost that natural rhythm. If you stop and people watch, then you can see more ways of walking than there are different styles of handwriting. You can often recognise your friends by their walking gait long before you see their face, and certainly it’s easy to gauge he age of most people, even form a distance, by watching the ease or otherwise of their walk. Why is this?
If there is an inbuilt evolutionary natural walk why do we all develop our own way of walking? I think the answer is “life”. We all respond to life’s challenges, we copy others, react to others and adapt to whatever injury or trauma life throws a us. Mostly though it’s because we don’t think about how we walk, and maybe it’s time we did.
The beautiful spiral.
There is a natural spiral movement that runs through your body, upwards and downwards when you walk. A natural spiral that gently rolls and twists your body in sequence from your feet to your head, and then unwinds sequentially down to your feet again. These two spirals act together in much the same way as a Mobius strip, where there is only one continuous loop. If you can find and feel this spiral in your own body then it becomes easier to allow it to happen, to follow its progress and “sit” onto that motion as you walk.
If you allow the natural spiral through your body, not only do you move side to side when you walk forward, your hips also rotate forwards and backwards, from left to right. The projecting of each leg gently turns your pelvis forwards and backwards and causes it to sink and rise as weight is placed and released. The spiral rising into your upper body sets a natural balanced motion, by turning your upper body in a counter direction to your hips. In a natural walk your arms are then moved and swung by the rotation of your upper body, and not held or forced as if you were marching.
This natural walk will gently and rhythmically massage through your hips and lower back that area (specifically the centre fulcrum which we call the sacrum) and release the stored tightness and tension. If you have ever suffered from lower back pain, then think of how this natural massage will rebalance this most important area. Nature never intended the human body to have the chronic lower back pain we take for granted today, and a natural walk, with its rhythmical micro adjustments, continually keeps that cross-over area of your body balanced and comfortable.
I want to walk more naturally, where do I start?
How do you re-learn or simply teach yourself afresh, to walk in a natural way? First you have to stand in good alignment with gravity, so let’s start with a few observations, experiments and movements. Why? because feeling what is actually happening in your body is your only access key. No amount of intellectual understanding or external manipulation will work. You must do the exercises, otherwise it is simply a bit of interesting information to discuss and will never be transformative for you.
How well do you stand in a natural alignment with gravity?
Firstly, stand with your feet about 30cm apart, if that seems too large or too small then make an adjustment until its comfortable. Importantly both your feet need to point directly forward, not Charlie Chaplin feet and no pigeon toes. We all have different feet, so to check this out, the centre of your heels and the line to your second toe (the one next to the big toe) should be parallel, regardless of how they look visually. Often this can feel uncomfortable, if that’s your feeling, then it suggests that you have tight muscular twists in your legs, mostly in the lower leg. Now is not the time to try and resolve this but just to notice and acknowledge that is how you normally stand and, that this way of standing creates short term distortions and long-term structural problems.
The next thing is to align each knee directly over the centre of each foot. Often that means you may need to rotate or move your kneecaps in or out until, when looking down, they align with the centre of your foot. Holding yourself like this can feel uncomfortable and is usually a sign that you have fallen arches or a twist in your upper leg or your hip. It’s not unusual to find that the foot and the knee alignment problems are related, one causing or caused by the other. And it’s not unusual to find both legs and feet are in different alignments.
Now, stand and hold yourself like this for two minutes and feel how it feels. This allows gravity to act on your standing alignment and will give you important information. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable if that is how it feels. If you are holding yourself in the “adjusted” position we have just gone through, and this feels easy and comfortable the chances are your alignment is reasonably good.
If you become aware of feeling uncomfortable then you know your normal way of standing is fighting gravity, rather than aligning with it and allowing it to travel down your body cleanly. Now is not the time to try and resolve this but just to notice that is how you normally stand and that this way of standing creates short term damage and long term structural problems.
To walk naturally, your upper leg will hang down from your hip, and your knees must sit aligned above the centre of each foot. This allows your upper leg to swing through from you hip, and allows your lower leg to swing through as if your knee was a pivot joint. Try this, stand in front of a mirror lift one knee and keep it still, swing you lower leg from the knee. Does it swing on a clean line with the middle of the foot in line with the kneecap? Or is your foot turned inwards or outwards as you swing? Then, stand tall on that leg and swing your entire long leg from your hip (no knee bending) Does it swing on a clean line with the middle of the foot in line with the kneecap? Or does it swing to the right or left, or does the foot and knee come out of alignment? Video yourself from the front and scrutinise your leg swing.
Chronic pain from mis-alignment
Hopefully by now you will have a realistic understanding of how you stand and how well you stand in alignment with gravity. The closer you stand in alignment with gravity the more comfortable you will feel and the less daily aches and pains you will be living with. The reason for the latter is that any misalignment at lower body level will cause a compensatory tightening in your upper body. It’s like stacking children’s bricks to make a tower. If a lower one is off centre, then you need to put another one higher up off centre on the other side to keep it all upright. That is what your body does to keep you upright, by tightening and twisting muscles to compensate, and it’s those chronically tightened muscles that cause the long term muscular pain that blights most people.
Remember there is no “one size fits all” model of the perfect stance that you somehow have to contort your body to align. We all have different shaped bodies, different legs and arm lengths, body mass, head postures, but a natural alignment is the same for all of us. It is when our body “stacks itself” in alignment with gravity without any compensatory twists and tightening.
The main benefit you will get from developing a natural walk is that it will begin to loosen, relax and release tension from your body which will unwind the tension lines. So, no matter if you have discovered that your body is far from being aligned with gravity, this is still a good place to start.
There are ways to accelerate this process, movements which re-align and re-balance your body. They all start by specific movements that loosen, relax and release the tension lines. It’s a very different approach to most exercises which tighten and contract your body. To help you we have developed a programme of 5 packages to supplement these practices and to show you how to release, relax, soften and connect up your body www.exercisesforlife.co.uk . As those movements begins to unwind the tightness in your body you will develop the more natural walking pattern we are exploring here.
Starting from wherever you are to develop a natural walk.
Let’s be clear about a heel strike. When you take a walking step and you put your forward foot on the ground, you strike with your heel first. When you run, then you generally land on the front of your foot, depending on your speed. There is however a big difference in your heel caressing and sinking into the contact point with the floor as you move your body mass forward, (which is what you want), and your heel hitting the floor because you are already falling into the next step, which is what you don’t want. When you are naturally in alignment your balance stays inside of your body mass -unless you relax your head. More about this later.
As your heel contacts the floor your weight then tracks down the outside edge of your foot and rolls onto the pad beneath your little toe. It then tracks across your front foot to the pad behind your big toe, then it rolls along your big toe, before being lifted (or pressed, depending on the speed of your walk) as you take the next step. You then land on the heel of that foot and the process repeats itself with each step.
Importantly this rolling across from the outside of your foot to the inside of your foot sends your centre of mass and your balance forward and diagonally across your centreline. If you didn’t have the next stepping foot ready and waiting you would simply fall down diagonally forward. To be able to feel this rolling motion is the first step (no pun intended) that you need to begin to feel the natural spiral as you walk. Once you can feel this it becomes very easy to follow how the spiral moves as you take each step.
So, to begin, deliberately focus as you take a first step, and trace your foot pressure pattern, guide it down the outside of your weighted foot onto the pad behind your little toe, then allow it to transfer across to the pad behind your big toe as you move your body forward. It will do this naturally if you don’t inhibit the motion. Practice walking on a level even surface until you can feel the rolling pressure pathway as you take each step.
Let’s look at how you can do that from different perspectives.
There are 4 entry points to help you develop a natural walk, try them all out and choose your personal preference. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, as they will all be working as a single connected unit when in motion.
Entry point 1
When you step forward, just lengthen your foot stride about 5cm before you place your heel on the ground. To do this allow your hips to turn with the foot to create the extra length. It should still feel comfortable to your stride, just a little more emphasised. Be sure to land on your heel and roll your step to your toes.
Entry point 2
Alternatively, you can focus on your hips and deliberately rotate them left and right with each leg as you take each step, make it a smooth slow rotate. Again, it should still feel comfortable to your stride, just a little more emphasised. Be sure to land on your heel and roll your step to your toes.
Entry point 3
If that doesn’t suit you, then focus on the amount of time each foot remains on the ground during each step. Hang out on each foot, allowing your hips to turn from front to back with the weighted leg. Stay as long as possible on the weighted leg until the momentum pulls the foot off the floor. Again, it should feel comfortable to your stride, just a little more emphasised. Be sure to land on your heel and roll your step to your toes.
Entry point 4
A further way is that when you land on each foot, sit down onto and relax into your weighted leg feeling the pressure change as you slowly roll from heel to toe.
It doesn’t matter which entry point you choose, as they are all part of a natural walk, but some people find one way much easier, so have a go at all of them.
The best place to practice is on completely flat ground, a shopping centre is ideal. Be brave because when you start to practice your natural walk you can feel very self-conscious. Start first with about 100 metres, then revert to your walk your normal walk. Repeat a few times so you can feel the difference when you use a natural walk, and you will become more confident that no-one is staring at your “strange new walk.”
What do I do with my upper body?
Nothing! Unless you interfere it, your body will naturally spiral. Your upper body will twist in the opposite direction to your hips. Your lumber vertebrae with mostly go with your hip direction, your thoracic vertebrae will mostly go with your shoulder direction. You may never have consciously experienced this before but that’s what happens naturally to keep you in balance as you step. If one side of your body moved all together, and then the other side moved you would move more like the way a lizard moves.
Where people mostly interfere with the natural spiral coming up through their body is by locking their chest or holding their elbows and arms. Releasing that tension and the tendency to lock and hold can be done with simple arms mobility exercises. www.exercisesforlife.co.uk
What happens to my neck and head?
When you allow that natural spiral to come up through your body, it gives a gentle, releasing and rebalancing massages to your neck. This is because as you walk your head stays forward (it doesn’t turn side to side as you walk) so the natural spiral runs up your neck vertebrae, gently massaging and rebalancing as you walk.
Your head is set forward of your centreline, it isn’t set central over your feet, this means that when you relax the muscles in the back of your neck, your head drops forward. It is that dropping forward that sets you walking. Try it out now! Stand in alignment legs side by side, relax your neck muscles and drop your head. If you don’t start moving into walking mode, then you will be unconsciously inhibiting that natural movement. Drop your head a bit further forward and don’t inhibit the movement until you feel the pull forward. Then practice not inhibiting that natural forward movement, and then feel how this relaxation sets your body in motion.
What happens is that when you relax, gravity acts on your forward-set head and your head pulls your body forward. It does this so gently its hardly noticed. Importantly this “micro” movement keeps your body mass much in alignment, so that you move forward with your spine upright, not by leaning your spine forward.
But what about uneven ground I hear you say? What about slopes? Most of the time we don’t walk on perfectly flat surface. Walking on flat ground is your practice and once gained it will discipline your body to walk over all surfaces. The disciplines gained will allow your body to adjust naturally to cover sloping or uneven ground. You won’t have a rolling step of course, but will seamlessly change your speed, pick your foot placement, decide which part of your foot engages on different surface, and you will now do this effortlessly with your body in alignment.
Let’s review what to do to walk naturally.
Firstly, the more you are naturally in alignment with gravity the better your walk will be, but the very function of walking this way, will gradually begin to align your body anyway. www.exercisesforlife.co.uk
Secondly walk slowly, very slowly, but with enough momentum to keep moving forward comfortably.
Start walking, paying conscious attention to (1) lengthening your forward stride by about 5 cm, or (2) by rotating your hips left and right, or (3) hanging out on your weighted leg as long as possible, or (4) sinking down into your weighted leg and enjoying the journey. As you become more familiar you will feel that all 4 things happen anyway. Do this enough times for it to become wired into your body.
Walking with a relaxed ankle.
In a separate blog called “Walking with a relaxed leg and ankle” I explain how to add this last and most important phase to your natural walk, there is also a blog showing you how to release chronic muscle pain called “Releasing chronic tension in your muscles”, which you might like to explore.
Moving to conscious walking
When your walk feels natural, you just know it! You feel like you are moving slower but you cover as much distance as before, additionally it just feels beautifully comfortable! The background static that used to accompany your walking disappears. Your mind starts to free up.
You develop a heightened awareness, where moving itself become simply enjoyable in itself, because of the quality that flows through the shapes you are making. Using walking as a form of meditation, you will find the “still point at the centre of a wheel” where you move in a high-quality silence that saturates and enriches your physical, mental and emotional being.