Read more from our #MEDITATION primer here.
You, like the rest of us, could probably use a calming meditation practice. What’s not to love about a little more zen, a little less agitation and an opportunity to tame the monkey mind. But if the idea of sitting perfectly still with your eyes closed for 20 minutes sounds like torture, rather than bliss, consider the equally beneficial practice of walking meditation.
While there are many forms of moving meditation such as tai chi, qui gong and yoga, the beauty of walking meditation is found in its simplicity. No classes! Free! Sweatpants friendly! And though there are elaborate and gorgeous meditation paths around the world, you can begin your own journey almost anywhere.
We’ve all experienced the mental and psychological benefits of taking a walk. Fresh air, blood flowing into muscle and brain, and new sights provide a fresh outlook and may even help us to creatively solve problems. Meandering at least once a day is a well-known technique used by authors to clear their minds and find the head space they need to tackle the next paragraph or chapter. The Art of Wandering by Merlin Coverley describes how writers such as William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens incorporated walking into their days. “The act of walking through the world was not primarily about the world itself; they were much more concerned with walking into their inner worlds,” Coverley observed.
Setting aside the mental aspects, walking, especially in nature, has been shown to benefit your health, according to proponents of Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for “forest bathing,” or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Studies have shown that people who fully experience the sights and sounds and smells of their woodsy surroundings have lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure. Last year, Spafinder declared forest bathing the top wellness trend for 2015.
Not to worry, though, if you don’t live near a nature preserve or gurgling stream. A street, road, path or just about any place where you can put one foot in front of the other will do just fine to help quiet your mind and soothe your harried soul — without the fidgety discomfort of sitting still. You’ll still get to dial the noise down a notch, and experience the calm and mental clarity that those seated meditators like to brag about.
In fact, walking can actually offer greater relaxation than sitting, especially during stressful or agitated periods.
According to Buddhist tradition, walking is one of four legitimate body postures in which to practice meditation. (The other three are standing, lying on your side and, of course, sitting.) In its most traditional form, walking meditation involves hand positions (mudras), specific directional instructions (i.e., walking clockwise or taking a certain number of steps) and varied levels of speed, as well as synchronizing breathing with movement. Today teachers have adapted this practice of contemplation for us modern, twitchy mortals, to make it more accessible.
Keep in mind that, as with any practice, there’s no one “right” way to do it. No matter how you meditate, the goal is the same: to cultivate awareness in the present moment. For most people, the challenge is carving out the time. Once you’ve done that, here are some tips to get you moving mindfully.
Choose Your Location
Experts recommend finding a path that you can walk along uninterrupted for 20 minutes. Avoid streets where you’ll have to negotiate traffic signs or crowds. A park, a beach, a trail, a river promenade are all excellent options.
Draw Your Attention Inward
Before you begin, stand still for a moment and become aware of your body in space. Feel your feet in your shoes, your shoes on the ground, and the ground supporting your weight. Notice all the subtle movements that go into keeping you standing upright and balanced. “Body awareness is the foundation of mindfulness,” said pros Andrew Weil, MD and Mark Fenton, authors of Walking: The Ultimate Exercise for Optimum Health. There’s no need to change anything about the way you’re standing. Simply being aware, and relaxed, is key.
Go at Your Own Pace
As you start to walk, inhale slowly and deeply, then exhale fully, becoming aware of how the breath moves through your body. Allow your shoulders to relax. A walking meditation can be done at any pace—from a normal walking speed, to coordinating inhales and exhales with your footfalls, to taking it extremely slow. For some, slowing the pace can aid concentration. Choose a pace that feels comfortable, and allow your arms and hands move naturally as you walk.
Direct Attention to Your Breath or Your Footsteps
An alternative to focusing on your breath (common in many meditation practices) is to notice the feeling of your feet making contact with the ground. You can label your steps in your mind, i.e., “stepping left, right” as you move. If that gets annoying or just doesn’t work, try focusing on your footsteps and the changes as you shift your weight from one foot to the other.
However you choose to focus your attention, continue in that way as best you can. When your mind wanders, which it will, gently bring your attention back to your breath, or your steps, and once again continue to walk with an awareness of your body in motion. Observe sensory details: a tingle here, a pull of the sock there, a breeze on your legs. “Like training a puppy, you will need to come back a thousand times,” wrote master walking meditator Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart.
If you’re using your phone to time your walk, put it on “Do Not Disturb” so that texts or any manner of e-notifications don’t distract you from your practice. Many meditation teachers recommend an uninterrupted stretch of time for cultivating mindfulness; others believe that the practice can also be fitted into the gaps in our lives—that even walking from your car (or home) to the supermarket is an opportunity to focus your attention and tune out distractions.
If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to download a guided walking meditation app like this one, which includes three walking meditations, tips on getting the most out of your walk, and a diary page in case you want to take notes—after you’ve finished your practice, of course.