Mindful Walking: Meditative Steps for Well-BeingJul 31, 2020 ● By Marlaina Donato
The health benefits of walking, such as stress reduction, improved joint mobility, lower blood pressure and increased oxygen, are well known, but walking or hiking with a meditative focus offers some other unexpected perks. Mindful walking that fosters focus on each step can combat depression, anxiety and unhealthy food cravings by boosting neurotransmitters. Studies from the University of Exeter, in England, reveal that chocolate cravings and consumption are reduced after just a 15-minute walk, and a German study found overweight people that walked briskly for 15 minutes had less desire for sugary snacks.
A 2016 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that meditative walking for 30 minutes three times a week reduced arterial stiffness and the stress hormone cortisol in a 12-week period. Individuals with Type 2 diabetes also had healthier blood sugar levels. Further, the group that employed mindful walking exhibited significant improvement compared to the control group that engaged in regular, non-meditative walking.
Like seated meditation, meditative walking fosters mind-body awareness that can nourish the spirit. “Some of the world’s greatest artists, like Johann Sebastian Bach and William Blake, were well aware of this, and spent much time on long walks exploring their inner worlds,” says Reino Gevers, of Majorca, Spain. The author of Deep Walking for Body, Mind and Soul, he sees walking meditation as an invitation to tap into the bigger matrix of life. “Deep walking, also pilgrimage walking, is spending time alone in nature to walk off the things that are weighing heavy on your shoulders. These could be hurtful and traumatic events like the loss of a family member, divorce or financial loss. While practicing mindful walking, there is a reconnection to the natural rhythm of life.”
Meditative walking calms the amygdala, the portion of the brain that can become hyper-reactive from trauma and keep us in the loop of anxiety. Introduced to meditative walking by a spiritual teacher, Carolyn Sinclair, in Houston, found deep healing from depression after a devastating divorce. “Even though I knew tai chi, qigong and sitting meditation, I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow, couldn’t sleep and wasn’t eating,” says Sinclair, who relinquished all medications after six months of taking mindful steps. Today, she blogs and attributes her capacity to feel joy and her improved emotional resilience to the practice. “We cannot stay in sitting meditation all day long, and life will always throw us a curve ball,” she says. “Walking meditation allows us to be in the world, but not attached to the chaos and drama. This form of meditation helps train the mind to reside in the present moment during our everyday activities.”
Resetting Body and Soul
Going for a mindful walk can cultivate sensory nuance, especially to changing angles of sunlight and the dance of turning seasons. Psychologist Hugh O’Donovan, in Cork, Ireland, the author of Mindful Walking: Walk Your Way to Mental and Physical Well-Being, says, “The body is a powerful instrument of connection. It appears too simple, but this is a necessary aspect of mindful walking for the beginner right through to the more experienced practitioner. It is in this slowing down that you begin to notice.” In 2015, he traversed the entire length of his native country and was reminded, he says, that “In this mindful walking space, the world can come alive at every sensory level. You can see the colors, the textures, the contrasts, the shade, the magic.”
Gevers concurs, “There is a major difference in just walking for exercise and deep walking. When you do mindful walking, you open your senses to the world around you. What do you smell, hear and feel?”
Mindful walking begins with communing with each step, heel-to-toe, on Mother Earth. “The beauty of walking meditation is that once it becomes a habit, we can bring it everywhere, naturally,” emphasizes Sinclair.
O’Donovan, whose mantra is, “Show up, slow down and notice”, inspires us all when he says, “You might think, ‘I’ve seen grass a million times; I know grass,’ but this limits the possibility to know in a deeper way. Grass is not just grass when you walk mindfully.”
Marlaina Donato is a composer and body-mind-spirit author.
Tips on Meditative Walking
From Carolyn Sinclair:
- Find a safe, quiet place to walk. A park, your yard, in nature is best, but you can even choose a mall before the stores open.
- Set aside a specific amount of time to walk and start with 10- or 15-minute increments.
- Wear shoes and set your gaze about 12 to 15 feet angled toward the ground in front of you. Relax. Keep arms and shoulders loose; head and neck in alignment.
- Observe the smell of the earth, flowers and trees. Feel the moisture in the air and how it effects your skin; recognize the temperature. Notice how you maintain balance as you walk; how a rock and uneven surfaces feel underfoot.
- Notice any tension without trying to change it—just observe and avoid analyzing, comparing or editing.
- Experience the sensation of feeling the soles of the feet as each foot touches the ground. One shouldn’t be fooled by its simplicity. The mind will always wander; consequently, it’s not necessary to try to stop the mind from thinking. All that is needed is to bring attention back to feeling the soles of the feet, again and again. They contain energy meridian lines and acupuncture and chakra points that communicate energetically to every cell and every organ of the body.
- Avoid headphones or music whenever possible. With mindfulness, you will be tapping into the music of your sole/soul and experience peace and tranquility.
- If you don’t have time to go out, practice in the living room, going slowly in a clockwise direction, or walk down a hallway in your home or office.
- Something miraculous happens when we bring our awareness to the feet. This is one of the deepest secrets of the Buddha. Bring your awareness to the soles of your feet when grocery shopping or when you are standing in line at the bank. Always bring your awareness to the soles of your feet, even when sitting at a desk or waiting in the doctor’s office.
- Start with a short 10- to 15-minute walk and do it every day of every week. You will soon begin to notice the positive effects on body and mind. If you put yourself under pressure by wanting to do too much too soon, you will inevitably fail and get frustrated. It’s a small change in one’s daily habit that has an enormous positive impact.