Feet are beautiful, full of character and extremely useful. They also are often the most dirty part of the body because of their contact with the ground. Did you know that there is an important etiquette regarding feet in India?
When I first began reading the holy books of yoga and seeking out Hindu temples, I was completely ignorant of the spiritual etiquette that is inherent in the culture of India. This is not an etiquette of aristocracy or diplomacy, but of reverence for the sacred and its various manifestations. This etiquette is taught by example to all Hindu children, usually by one of the elders. But it was not so easy for me—being an American surrounded by the ambient culture of the West, I had to learn through observation, questions and lots of mistakes.
At first I thought the etiquette was just “cultural” and “outward”, not necessary for me to follow because I had access to the yogic teachings right here in America. But then I realized that the etiquette, the spiritual culture, is actually a manifestation of awareness, awareness of the sacred. There also seemed to be a subtle purpose, as if on an energetic level.
As a general rule, all that is offered to the Divine, all that represents the Divine and all that is related to the Divine is sacred. All should be treated with intimacy and respect. There is a beautiful blend of these two attitudes. One is like holding a baby—intimate, delicate, requiring full attention and care. The other is like being with a wise elder—respectful, attentive, humble, springing from love rather than fear.
1) No Shoes
Before entering a home or a sacred space, remove your shoes. In the West we have shoes on everywhere. Many places don’t let us in without them. “No Shoes, No Service.” Many sadhus in India roam barefoot, directly touching the sacred Earth, never stepping on living creatures or ants, renouncing the comfort and fashion of shoes, though occasionally wearing sandals. They wash their feet before entering sacred spaces. Shoes are dirty and unhygienic, usually impossible to fully clean and sanitize. (Read about research on shoe bacteria.) Music and dance are among the sacred arts in India. Wherever they occur is considered a sacred space. Sacred arts are practiced without shoes. In an auditorium, people will wear shoes, but the stage is considered sacred space and therefore all musicians and dancers will remove shoes before stepping on the stage. They will also bow in reverence or touch the holy ground of the stage before stepping on it. This is also done before entering a temple, the shrine of a holy person, a room where devotee meditates, and before ascending stairways to a holy temple. It’s a way of honoring the sacred space.
2) Feet Don’t Touch
Feet don’t do the touching. Feet do not touch anything holy—an instrument, any objects used in worship, a book, even money (a form of Lakshmi). As a general rule, if you touch something (or someone) with your feet you are unaware of its sacred nature. The exception is the ground, places for sitting, beds, or your own body during asana.
3) Step Around Not Over
You will be surprised at how easy it is to step around. We are so focused on where we need to go that we lose awareness of the Divine right in front of our own feet. Stepping over is like touching. It is as if each person and sacred item is surrounded by an aura, an energetic field. Crossing that field with the feet is like touching the object. There’s a story of George Harrison stepping over the sitar of Sri Ravi Shankar. Ravi Shankar hit George, startling him. In that role Ravi Shankar was also George’s teacher and was making his point. George did not resent the reaction, and never again stepped over an Indian instrument—and perhaps not any other instrument.
4) Cover Feet
This applies to the occasions when you are seated on the floor or on a cushion, playing an instrument or practicing meditation or other forms of worship. Feet, though usually dirty on the bottom, are not inherently filthy—they are actually very powerful, beautiful and therefore draw a lot of attention. So there are two principles here—the first is to cover feet so that you don’t touch the instrument, holy book or object that is near you. The second principle is to cover thee feet so that you do not draw attention to them during a divine activity. If your clothing cannot naturally cover the feet, you can use a shawl, but not a shawl with sacred writings or symbols on it—such as the Aum or a mantra—because your feet will be touching those too! Again, be aware of the sacred, whether in a temple shrine or on clothing.
5) Don’t Point
Remember your mother telling you that it’s rude to point at another person? It’s the same with the feet, and extends not only to other people, but to anything divine, such as an altar. If you sit cross legged for a long time and you feel a need to stretch out your legs, stand up and stretch rather than stretching out and pointing your feet.
In crowded situations, or when you are first learning this practice, it is easy to make mistakes. Oops! Now, what to do? Show your respect immediately to the object by touching it with your right hand and then touching your forehead and/or heart, demonstrating reverence and devotion. If it is a person, you need not necessarily touch them, but at least touch your forehead and heart. This is not really an apology. It is demonstrating that you forgot or it was an accident, and you are reaffirming your awareness, and showing respect that person or object as a manifestation of the Divine. This is all about awareness of the sacred and demonstrating respect.
I remember a young man from LA who had just began his journey of traditional yoga and was learning the spiritual etiquette. He said to me with an exasperated sigh, “It’s so hard—when I'm at a temple or in a devotee's home, everywhere I turn, everywhere I step, there’s something sacred. I never noticed it before.” Bingo. He seemed to get it too, and smiled. Instead of "walking on egg shells", we can walk on holy ground. Soon, we might even notice the Divine everywhere.