Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Vivobarefoot Dharma: A Minimalist Office Shoe

Plantars Fasciitis—many a person has been there and I’ve seen them run the gamut for therapy. Run less, stop running altogether. Buy orthotics, roll your arch with a frozen water bottle, stretch your Achilles tendon, do towel stretches, and I’ve even seen some people get surgery, multiple times. No one ever seems to have relief. The feel that knife like stab in their arch, they don’t know why, and it wears on them.

Three years ago, as I was making my minimalist shift and undergoing my running resurgence, I was mired in the midst of this very predicament. The condition did not appear in conjunction, but before,
Photo from Altra showing the difference of a wide toe box.
a beacon of a problem. I had a steady feel, a ripping of sorts that followed my steps, running or walking. I am not here to debate the effectiveness of any or all of the above therapies, but I addressed the issue with a multipronged approach, first tackling therapy and then shoes. I had been wearing traditional office shoes, the closed toe, rigid type available everywhere. My toes were locked in, my heels raised, my arches shoved up with support. Sometimes stylish, sometimes not, I always found pain, not comfort. These shoes were designed as if people did not trust or understand the human foot, as if they thought our foot to be inadequate. Thus I began my search for something better. Finally, just as switched my running shoes, I found a work place solution: Vivobarefoot’s Dharma.

I first found the Dharma at Black Creek Outfitters, a local active lifestyle store, the camping, kayaking type that was the first to embrace the minimalist movement in my area. They had Vibrams before Vibrams had palpable demand. They had Vivo as well, and thankfully they stocked this shoe, sporting a wide toe box, one where your toes spread out, stretching and moving the natural barefoot way while meeting work place demands. A leather shoe is the standard, and the Dharma doesn’t disappoint. Coming in either a sleek black or coffee brown, they are sharp, but built to last (each pair has given me over a year and a half of daily, all day wear). The shoe is zero drop with a stack height that is virtually non-existent on a thin, puncture proof sole. It is the pinnacle of flexibility, bending in half with nary an effort,
giving the shoe the ability to move anyway your foot desires. Each shoe comes in a separate shoe bag, a nice gray one that can easily hold both and is composed from recycled materials. I love these bags and use them for travel, packing food and watches in one, running shoes in the other,thus isolating my materials and keeping my packed clothing clean.
A pair over a year old.

When I started wearing the shoe, my students always commented on comfort. The shoe looks comfortable, and it is, but not because of padding, but because you can feel every step, feel the ground, and become one with your movements again. My feet didn’t hurt because of these shoes; they seemed to feel relived, relaxed, and ready to work on more active endeavors. My balance muscles developed, my arch became active, rejuvenated. Two weeks later, two weeks after starting to wear them and dumping the arch support and toe pinching of other models, my arches felt relief. Like a ghost in the night, Plantars Fasciitis vanished with out a trace. Thus, I wear the Dharma everywhere I’m not running but the beach (I do sometimes trade them for Skoras on the everyday circuit now, the Core has similar properties in flex, feel,and toe box).

These shoes are pricey: $110 if you can’t find them on sale, but as stated above, I wear them eight hours a day, five days a week at a minimum. Most of these hours are on my feet, and they last minus a scuff here or there, as can be seen in the above picture.

1. Light, flexible sole and leather. Full ground feel, as if you are barely wearing the shoe.
2. Toe Box: wide and properly shaped. Your toes will spread, your balance will grow.
3. Slip on style makes for and easy, quick on and off experience

1. The black riming of the sole rubs off quickly. When this happens the shoe can have a less clean appearance.
2. Like most leather products, the shoe can stretch. Plan accordingly with your size. My first pair, a 45, was perfect until the stretching. My second pair, a 44, was much better after it stretched. Perfect fit.


  1. Mine are going strong for 3 years and still use them as my everyday shoes.

    That is, unless it's warm enough for toe sandals (like now).

    Or cold enough to warrant something more insulating because - while almost perfect shoes otherwise - a couple of millimeters of sole just won't cut it in, say, -20 degrees Celsius for very long even with wool socks, particularly if you don't keep moving briskly. :)

    My Dharmas are snug fitting so they are plenty warm on most temps other than below freezing. More than I expected from shoes that are marketed in essence as summer shoes.

    As I got my pair of Dharmas in discount from UK's Amazon store for 80 euros, that's pretty damn good value for money in my opinion and tells volumes about the overall quality and craftsmanship.

    The only thing I've done was to apply from time to time (4 times a year?) a mixture of vegetable fats, tar and beeswax a.k.a. dubbin (the recipe varies of course) which makes the shoes in essence waterproof and the leather looking good as new.

    Trick to keeping your leather shoes maintaining their original form is to stuck some newspaper or similar inside the shoes while not using them.

    I haven't, so my Dharmas now show the contours of my feet. I don't personally mind that, but some might (particularly your boss). But since leather is so adaptive material this can be easily fixed as mentioned, should the need arise.

    I honestly didn't expect Dharmas to last anywhere near this long.

    Here in the northern latitudes of subarctic Finland they've suffered freezing temperatures, snow, sleet, ice, long wet Autums - you name it. Scorching sun as well.

    Of course, Dharmas have no traction to speak of on icy/snowy roads but then again the feedback is so good that there's usually time to get one's bearings before tumbling down. :)

    Try dancing on ice with regular thick soled shoes... Just not gonna work.

    Granted, the red fabric lining is torn in the spot where my heels have put most stress on the weave (because I usually wore them without the inserts but have since reverted to using bamboo inserts).

    The original inserts wore out - in my opinion - too fast and buying exclusive inserts is just silly, not to mention a waste of money.

    I'm a fast walker and cushion-less shoes pretty effectively force me to do shorter strides and thus slow me down. While that might be more healthy for my feet (and mentally?), I still dislike having to walk slower than I'm normally accustomed to.

    Inserts give me just enough padding to make it more comfortable to walk the kinda pace I'm used to - plus they obviously make the shoes themselves last for much longer than without them.

    Still, after three years, not a single puncture in the soles! Simply amazing considering that I've used these puppies in any terrain imaginable.

    Simply a fantastic product which I'm saddened to see going the way of the Dodo. At least it seems like Terra Plana / Vivobarefoot have no plans to continue to manufacture Dharmas.. or any slip-on shoes for that matter.

    This is one of the down-sides of capitalism: great products do not necessarily/often/never have enough time to truly penetrate the markets as to make it actually profitable to keep manufacturing them. Tisk, tisk.

    PS. My Dharma's black rim is all intact, maybe you got a dud?

    1. I think it is more how I wear them. Great to hear they work for you.

  2. My Dharma's fell apart completely. Within 6 months there were large holes in the sole which I attempted to fix with shoe goo to no avail. After 9 months the sole has completely separated from the rest of the shoes. I reached out to the company who never responded. I won't be buying vivobarefoots again. I paid way too much for these shoes for them to fall apart like that.

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