When we think about health for the physical body, we often think about aerobic movement. It can be easy to forget that slow, mindful movement also provides benefits. Mindful walks outside, with and without shoes, energize and support the physical body and the mind. There are plenty of ways to enjoy this practice, and here are three.
Just as in seated meditation, the practice of walking meditation is to bring our awareness back to the present moment. When the mind wanders to contemplate something from the past or about the future, it is our task to bring our awareness back to the present moment. During mindful walking there are many ways to bring our awareness back to the moment. One of the most common practices is to focus on the senses. Any time your mind wanders, you can notice:
What you see
What you hear
What you smell
And how it feels to have the feet touching the earth one step at a time.
Every time your mind wanders into a pattern of thought, simply bring your awareness back to what your senses are sensing. Slow down your pace, and enjoy the fresh air, colorful sights, and unique sounds all around. Notice how you feel after the walk, then slowly head into the rest of your day.
By now forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is well-known. The term originated in Japan in the 1980s referring to the beneficial act of walking in the forest, as both an antidote to the stressors of modern life and a way for people to engage with the natural world.
In 2019, National Geographic posted an article called The secret to mindful travel? A walk in the woods [sic], that explains the origin of the term:
“Whether you call it a fitness trend or a mindfulness practice (or a bit of both), what exactly is forest bathing? The term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (‘forest bathing’ or ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’). The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests.”
Even if you don’t live close to a forest, most cities have parks filled with trees and walking trails for residents, and studies show that forest bathing provides health benefits. Hopefully, if this isn’t already a part of your lifestyle, you will try shinrin-yoku regularly and notice how good it makes you feel.
I fell in love with the idea of labyrinths when I read about them in an article on an airplane in the 90s. It’s important to understand that labyrinths are not mazes. A labyrinth is a unicursal path that winds back and forth in a circular sacred-geometric pattern. The labyrinth’s path is called unicursal because it is one continuous path in to the center, and the same path is the way out. There is no way to make a wrong turn. You simply put one foot in front of the other, until you arrive at the center. Then, after a pause in the center, you can make your way out via the same path.
Labyrinths are powerful, meditative experiences that have been used in churches for centuries, and in recent decades labyrinths have been created at yoga and retreat centers for a calming and contemplative practice.
The labyrinth can be relaxing, and it is an ideal tool for self-reflection as you observe your reactions to walking a path with multiple curves knowing you will make it to the center eventually.
How to Walk a Labyrinth
Start at the beginning of the labyrinth and take a few deep breaths to become present. Choose an intention for the walk. You could choose a gratitude practice, a letting-go practice, or a mantra practice, for example.
If you choose a gratitude practice, then with each step you take, silently say “thank you.” You can call to mind people, places, and circumstances for which you are grateful, or you can mentally say “thank you” without anything specific in mind and see what arises for you. Once you are at the center, pause and notice how you feel. Then, continue the practice as you walk the winding path out.
If you choose a letting-go practice, then with each step on the way to the center, as thoughts, feelings, and judgments come to mind, practice letting them all go. Once in the center, take a few deep breaths. Then, as you wind your way out of the labyrinth use this part of the practice to be open to whatever new ideas come to you.
If you choose a mantra practice, then with each step you could say a mantra. For example, when your left foot walks on the earth, you could silently say “so,” and when your right foot touches the earth, you could silently say, “hum,” creating the mantra “so hum.” Any mantra will do. Do this on the way in, pause in the center of the labyrinth, and continue the mantra on the way out.
Whichever intention you choose, once you are at the end of the labyrinth, turn toward the center, give thanks for the experience, and then slowly walk away. Give yourself some time afterwards to notice how you feel, journal about it if you wish, and slowly move into the rest of your day.
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