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WALKING MEDITATION



“Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet”,

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Walking in a way which improves concentration, releases energy and focuses the mind is a practice rooted in Buddhism as one of the four vital postures for meditation and widely adopted as a meditation practice in yoga and yoga therapy.


Today is Earth Day 2024 which whilst highlighting the importance of caring for this planet every day (reducing plastic consumption is the key theme for 2024) is an opportunity to focus our awareness on the importance of the natural world which sustains and supports us. Walking meditation outside immersed in the sounds, sights and smells of nature whilst feeling the grass beneath our feet is a feast for the senses, a way to access our parasympathetic nervous system, feel calmer and more connected to the environment in which we live.


What are the benefits?


1.      Benefits of walking and movement

 

As a practice of present moment awareness and noticing the mind and the body whilst walking, a walking meditation not only provides an alternative to a seated meditation but also combines the benefits of walking with those of meditation.


Walking as a form of exercise benefits our brain, heart and mental health. Even as a lower-level exercise the physical, mental and physiological benefits are numerous and can include, improved memory, focus and concentration, increased life expectancy, reduced anxiety and depression and improvements in balance and bone health.


If remaining seated and still during meditation is not accessible perhaps even causing increased rumination and anxiety then a walking meditation offering slow repetitive movement in synchronicity with the breath may help train a ruminating mind, enhance longer term concentration and has the physical and physiological benefits mentioned above including reduced anxiety, improved quality of life (Feng-Lien et al 2019) reduced depression and increased functional fitness (Prakhinkit et al 2013)


2.      Enhanced awareness

 

Other benefits of this practice include improving proprioception, awareness of where our bodies are in our current surrounding. Also improving interoception, awareness of how we feel especially from the touch of our feet on the ground which as a grounding practice can be a  tangible and physical way to anchor ourselves amidst rumination/anxious thoughts.


Improvements in exteroception are more likely if practised outside when exposed to sights, sounds, smells but wherever practiced the focus on balancing provides useful feedback to our brain.

 

3.      Neurological benefits

 

There are numerous neurological benefits as the brain-body connection is activated in a number of ways. The muscular movement required by walking especially in a slow co-ordinated manner uses a number of brain pathways including the motor cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum and attention on present moment action actives the Pre Frontal Cortex and Insula which enhances awareness of body and self.


How to practice?


In my experience walking meditations are especially beneficial (for the reasons touched upon above) when working in a therapeutic context, for example when working with yoga therapy clients whether managing mental health issues including anxiety/depression or physical issues such as reduction in balance in Parkinsons’s, MS.


A walking meditation has also proved to be incredibly popular amongst the children and teenagers I have taught over the years who have expressed much delight in this simple and accessible moving meditation and for whom stillness might be a little daunting.


Whether practicing inside or outside it is preferable to be barefoot (not just to feel the texture of the ground/floor/mat but also the interoceptive feedback from the pressure of the foot on the ground). Start by taking a few moments to observe the sensations arising from the touch of the foot on the ground and then with the gaze along the floor ahead (rather than directly down) start walking in a slow (not too slow!) manner combining the lifting and lowering of the feet with the breath. INHALE and lift one foot, and EXHALE on placing it on the ground ahead. You might like to silently repeat “lifting, lifting, lifting” and “placing, placing, placing” as you move the foot and try to ensure that the front foot has been placed down and the exhalation completed before lifting the back foot. By doing this we are training the mind to focus on one thing at a time, namely the placement of the front foot before we move to the next focus of attention.


In essence there are four elements to notice, the lifting of the foot, the movement forward, the placement down and the shift of the body forward as the back foot lifts.


Other things to be aware of include avoiding quickening of the breath to match the pace of walking, rather we want the walking meditation to match our slow controlled breathing. Ujjayi breath is a great breathing practice to combine with walking meditation.


It is fine to embrace pauses in the movement and if lots of thoughts arise we can simply acknowledge them via the mental label “thinking, thinking, thinking”. Trying to ignore thoughts or becoming frustrated by them draws focus away from the actual practice and can be counterproductive.


You can practice for as long as it feel comfortable or space allows.


Alternatives


If mobility is reduced, then sitting in a chair and lifting and lowering the feet placed on the ground or blocks or lying on the floor and lifting and lowering the feet pressed into a wall are useful alternatives to the standing practice.

 

“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace, With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms”

Thich Naht Hanh

 



Lin, F. L., Yeh, M. L., Lai, Y. H., Lin, K. C., Yu, C. J., & Chang, J. S. Two-month breathing-based walking improves anxiety, depression, dyspnoea and quality of life in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A randomised controlled study. Journal of clinical nursing28(19-20), 3632–3640. (2019)

Prakhinkit, S., Suppapitiporn, S., Tanaka, H., & Suksom, D. Effects of Buddhism walking meditation on depression, functional fitness, and endothelium-dependent vasodilation in depressed elderly. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.)20(5), 411–416 (2014)

 

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