Bare Your Soles
By Tracey Toomey McQuade, July, 2013
Last Friday night, I assisted Colleen and Rodney as they taught a yoga class to over 4,000 people in Times Square. Before the big event, lots of logistical emails were exchanged among the assistants. In one email, someone expressed concern over being barefoot. She wrote, “Wait— are we seriously going to be assisting barefoot in Times Square?!”
I laughed when I read the email, because just months prior, I found myself on a barefoot pilgrimage in Govardhan, a holy town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. I figured that if I could walk all over India barefoot, Times Square should be a cinch!
Now don’t get the wrong idea—I am by no means some crunchy hippie who leaves her shoes at home when running errands in New York City. I’m actually pretty polished. (It has been noted that I’m never seen rolling out my mat at Yoga Shanti without wearing mascara and lip gloss.) But something came over me on this most recent trip to India that left me willing to bare my soles.
I had been visiting the sacred city of Vrindavan, when the teacher with whom I was studying, Dhanurdhara Swami, suggested that I “do a parikrama around Govardhan Hill.” I had no idea what parikrama meant, and I’d never heard of Govardhan Hill, but wanting to be a good student, I eagerly nodded my head in agreement.
Back in my room at the ashram, a quick Google search revealed that parikrama means “the path surrounding something,” in Sanskrit. I learned that “doing a parikrama” is a symbol of prayer and devotion, and it’s an integral part of worship in India and sacred sites throughout the East. Good to know!
Before dawn the following day, I set off for Govardhan with Rati, my Vrindavan guide and new best friend. We weren’t in the car long before Rati said, “I hope you slept well last night, because it’s a long journey. The parikrama is 21 kilometers long.”
Now, my knowledge of the metric system is a little rusty, but I was pretty sure that 21 kilometers worked out to be roughly 13 miles—or half of a marathon!
Before I had time to process the length of our impending expedition, Rati added, “And, it’s best to do it barefoot.”
Barefoot? In India?! Was she kidding?
“Why barefoot?” I asked, trying to conceal my horror.
“The ground here is sacred,” she explained. “Krishna walked on this earth. If you have to wear socks or sandals, I suppose you can, but it really is best to do it with bare feet.”
Panic stirred within me. I didn’t want to let her down, but I really couldn’t imagine walking 13 miles barefoot in India, of all places—which is not exactly known for being sterile!
“Calm down, Tracey,” my higher self spoke up. “Stop being such a germophobe! You’ve traveled all this way. If you’re going to do your first parikrama, then goddamnit, you are going to do it right! If Rati can do it, so can you. Do you hear me? No shoes!”
When we arrived at our starting point, Rati and I slipped off our sandals and left them in the car. There was no turning back now. It was still dark when we began walking. The rough, nubby pavement tore the soft soles of my feet as I followed my faithful companion through the ancient streets of Govardhan.
The terrain changed under us as we ventured onward. Pavement gave way to dusty trails. We walked on smooth, cool marble tiles, then on cement, then grass, then sand, then back to pavement. At one point, I was ankle-deep in cow dung. I was so tired and filthy that I almost started to cry, but then I burst out laughing instead.
“What’s so funny?” Rati asked.
“Well,” I said, “Last week I was driving around the Hamptons in a Range Rover sipping a $12 smoothie. Now look at me! I’m literally covered in cow poop! You know, some women want to get away and they hop on a flight to Miami. Some who are a little more ‘spiritual,’ might book a yoga retreat in Tulum. But not me. Oh no! I had to go to India all by myself, and walk thirteen miles around a sacred hill—barefoot! I’m a sweaty mess!”
Rati laughed and said, “Well, baby Krishna was always very dirty.”
“In that case,” I replied, “I’ve never been closer to God.” We both cracked up, and she locked her arm around mine as we forged ahead.
Feeling your feet on the ground for 21 kilometers is literally a moving experience. Nothing keeps you rooted in the present moment quite like making sure you don’t step on a thorn, or a jagged stone. Throughout our odyssey, I went through a spectrum of emotions, from elation, to gratitude, to boredom, to euphoria, to are-we-there-yet?, to the most intense devotion I’ve ever felt, to having to pee so badly I thought I was going to die. When I was feeling beat down and disheartened, I reflected on what Rati said about the ground of Govardhan being sacred. I took out my mala and chanted the Hare Krishna mantra softly to myself as we walked, and I could actually feel the hallowed earth vibrating beneath my bare feet. The ground was responding to me intoning the holy names. Would I have felt the earth answering my call if I was wearing shoes?
Like many great pilgrimages, we completed our parikrama right where we started. I was exhausted, parched, achy, and covered in dust and dung. The soles of my feet were black and calloused. To say I needed a spa pedicure would be the understatement of the century. Yet I can’t remember a time when I felt as happy and as free as I did when we offered our final obeisances to Govardhan Hill and hugged one another to seal our journey.
Back in the car, Rati handed me my shoes.
I threw them in the back seat. Who needs them?
***It’s always difficult to adjust back to “normal life” after being in India. When I landed at Newark Airport I was struck by the realization that—just like the parikrama—I ended up exactly where I started. I was in the exact same terminal, carrying the exact same luggage, yet I felt wholly changed—as if all my molecules had been scrambled and rearranged. During my stay in Vrindavan, I saw so much, heard so much, tasted so much, learned so much, that my consciousness had expanded. Would this new, expansive Tracey be able to fit back into her life in New York City? Would my shoes still fit?
It was a rough transition, but eventually I did settle back in—knee-high boots and all. Still, I’m always grateful for an opportunity to bare my soles in public. So when Colleen and Rodney asked me to assist them in Times Square, I was the first one to kick off my flip-flops and let my feet receive the vibrations of New York City.
Here’s what I’ve learned: you can actually hear with your feet. But you have to listen, and it helps to be barefoot.