Mindful Walking Meditative Steps for Well-Being
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 at Walking-Meditation.com 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.
Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.