I wanted a shoe I could practice in daily and wear for demos. There are several shoes out there now that are in the “martial arts” style, or even specifically marketed for yoga or tai chi that look quite sleek. Some of these have a decent flat, relatively smooth sole and might be fine, but others, like these below, have a split sole design which I definitely do NOT recommend for tai chi. I liked the look of them for demos and spinning sweeps, but alas, twas not to be.http://www.zappos.com/n/p/dp/2181795/c/23449.html
I thought they looked snazzy enough to try out Asana and Mei, but when I shifted back and forth in my bow stance it was clear that they would make fixed-step push hands very difficult. Although we are supposed to root through the bubbling well point, its sometimes necessary to recover one’s balance using the outer blade of the foot, or root through some other part, or “roll” the root from the heel to the bubbling well. The open gap in the sole on these made that very difficult—“without a leg to stand on” is the phrase that comes to mind. They seem to be made for going up on ones toes, like in certain pivoting high kicks in other martial arts (karate?) or flexibility in yoga (though I’ve never seen anyone wear shoes for yoga).
I probably could get used to that gap in the soles in time, the way that I know how to walk in heels, but it doesn’t seem like a great idea. Although, as an aside, somewhere in a Tai Chi Magazine, there’s a photo from the 70’s (?) of somebody’s daughter doing Single Whip or Snake Creeps Down (forget which) in black Mary Jane pumps with a 3 inch heel! Now that’s gong fu! Actually, maybe I’ll give a go at practicing with heels on at least a handful of times. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared and I can think of at least 5 different martial applications.
For daily practice, however, I favor the Ryka Stability Walk: http://www.zappos.com/n/p/dp/1796853/c/19049.html
Although they were super pricey, I love the nitrogen cushion cells for shock absorption when landing after having been fa-ed backwards, or when attempting to emit energy myself. They really are very stable when doing push hands. The Rykas have plenty of room in the toe box, plus a narrow heel designed for women. The slight upturned curve in the sole is nice for skimming the ground with the forward foot before making contact with the heel for a bow stance. You will have noticed that Yang Jun generally doesn’t pick up his foot very high when moving it from place to place. When I wear flatter soled shoes I sometimes trip over the toes when stepping out—although this is more about having to wear shoes that were too big for me before I found these. The more I practice tai chi, the wider my feet get and I used to have to buy one size up to accommodate my spreading toes (it’s sometimes hard to find wide shoes).
For more on feet and tai chi, Robert Chukrow has some things to say about strengthening the feet in “The Tai Chi Book.” http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=16-1886969647-0
There’s also a description of what I suspect happens to tai chi practitioners’ feet at this website. http://www.unshod.org/pfbc/toysawov.htm
I’m guessing tai chi practitioners’ feet come to look more like the feet on the left than the ones on the right (in the first picture on this site). This makes standard shoe shopping more challenging, but I’d much rather have the use of my feet!
At the other end of the expense spectrum, in a local martial arts shop I found a pair of black canvas sneakers called, simply, kung fu shoes. They were something like $5 or $7. and they looked just like classic Keds, only black. The sole quickly wore down smooth (in fact, I wore it out). No arch support to speak of, but they were accommodating enough to fit a flexible arch support shoe insert. I did like the contact with the ground, as the sole was very flexible (if I stepped on a pebble, I could feel the lump).
I’ve never been able to practice in the cloth soled tai chi shoes—my heel just tends to slide off the sole in back (women have narrower heels), but it sounds like many people have good luck with them.
Chucks might be nice for summer or indoors, but the soles always come unglued and I end up with wet feet in the rain.
I have been wondering about the following shoes: bowling shoes, skateboard shoes, boat shoes, indoor soccer shoes (would the circle at the ball help with spins?), and felt soled wading shoes (more like boots, actually). Has anyone tried any of these?
OK, that’s probably more than enough!