Walking for Meditation
How to begin a mindful walking practice.
During a year in which gyms were closed and fitness studios were shuttered, many of us turned to good old walking to get our exercise in. Not only does walking provide a welcome break in the day (during a time when every day is the same), it’s also a low-impact exercise that requires no special equipment.
The number of health benefits associated with walking is too long to list, but some of the highlights include better blood sugar control, boosting creativity and enhanced brain function, as well as increased immunity, better moods and stress relief. But one benefit of walking that often gets overlooked is that it’s one of the easiest ways to meditate. A walking meditation is a great way to increase mindfulness, so if you think the only way to meditate is sitting quietly in a dark room, it’s time to think again.
A moving meditation (like walking) is often more accessible and just as beneficial as other forms of meditation. One of the best parts of mindful walking is that it doesn’t take up much time. Walking just ten minutes daily for at least a week can provide major results. Plus, evidence suggests that mindfulness increases the more you practice walking for meditation.
“So much of our lives are seated,” says Judy Heller, personal trainer and founder of Wonders of Walking. “When you’re walking, the mind quiets. Endorphins are released, which reduces anxiety. These ‘feel-good’ chemicals lead to honoring the habit. Even if your mind wanders, you’re still placing one foot in front of the other.”
Proper Form is Key
It’s easy to assume you already know how to walk, but walking for meditation requires a bit more thought. Heller says you want to walk tall with your shoulders relaxed, letting your arms swing gently from your shoulders. Think about making your movements fluid by gently planting the heel of your shoe, rolling through your toes and gliding over the surface.
“Any physical activity, even one as gentle as walking, can lead to injury through misalignment or overuse,” says breath coach and founder of Story & Spirit Michael Kass. “Listen to your body. If your knee starts to hurt or your lower back feels stiff, it’s fine to pause and see what may want to shift. There’s no need to power through pain.” Kass also recommends stretching before walking, especially if you spend the bulk of your time sitting at a computer. Gently stretching the hamstrings, calves and quadriceps can make a huge difference in preventing strain and injuries.
“What matters most is cultivating trust within ourselves to notice things the body may be doing from conditioned patterning that is causing us harm,” says mindfulness teacher and founder of Walk the Middle Way Dave Trachtenberg. “For instance, maybe we’ve walked a certain way for years, but mindfulness starts helping us notice that our shoulders are very hunched, or the leg tightens up in a certain way. We can relax these parts of the body. Mindfulness trains us to feel our body’s innate signals of healing and pain more closely, so we can start to notice certain more subtle signs of injury to correct form before they become more serious.”
One of the main differences between a seated meditation and a walking/moving meditation is that how you move is how you focus. “A seated meditation tends to invite a more introspective approach,” says Kass. “A moving meditation brings the body more directly into the practice. For example, we can focus on becoming present with how our weight shifts as we walk or how our spine is aligned as we move through space.”
It’s interesting to note that just because someone is an athlete, doesn’t mean a moving meditation will resonate more with them. The converse is true, as well: “I’ve worked with people who are largely sedentary who really love gentle movement work to help them reconnect with their bodies,” says Kass.
When you’re walking to meditate, breath is just as important as form (some may say they’re one and the same). Walking to meditate isn’t a fitness walk. Your goal is to increase mindfulness, which is best achieved by focusing on breath.
“No matter which body position we are in, the practice itself is the same: opening our awareness to something in the present by using an anchor like breath,” says Trachtenberg. “When we practice mindful walking, we are bringing an intention to tune into our breathing and body sensations. This helps us notice the habits of our mind, welcome and accept them, and then bring our awareness back to our body, breath and the space around us.”
If you’re ready to begin walking for meditation, understanding the how and where can be overwhelming. But Trachtenberg says there’s no ideal length, speed or time of day to practice mindful walking. “Sometimes we overcomplicate things by trying to find a ‘right way’ to do them,” he says. “If someone wants to practice their awareness in a quiet nature setting without people, or in a crowded park with bicyclists and runners, both are very possible. It’s just a matter of preference. I’d even recommend trying both so you can cultivate your mindful awareness in both serene and noisy environments.”
From a timing perspective, it’s better to focus on quality rather than quantity. “While it’s true practicing longer helps us cultivate awareness of our mind and emotions more over time,” says Trachtenberg, “it’s better to treat our meditation practice as a runner would prepare for a marathon: start small and slow until that’s consistent, then ramp up from there. Trust yourself to find the right balance between complacency and challenge.”
Avoiding Common Mistakes
The enemy of mindfulness is multitasking. So when you’re practicing mindful walking, don’t try to crank through a podcast or check your email incessantly. Kass says that even bringing your phone along (even if you don’t physically check it) can prevent you from being fully present because in many ways, our minds are always tending to our phones.
It’s been mentioned before but it bears repeating: there’s a difference between walking for exercise and walking for meditation. “The former tends to emphasize speed, distance and effort,” says Kass, “while the latter focuses on building conscious awareness. While they’re not mutually exclusive (you can definitely walk fast and far while cultivating awareness), it’s powerful to decide which you’d like to prioritize before setting out.”
Trachtenberg says finding a balance between intention (purposefully opening our awareness, rather than letting our awareness be totally idle) and letting go (not being overly concerned with results, or trying too hard to focus) is a dance that’s always key to a mindfulness practice. Our instinct is often to ask, “How hard am I trying?” but sometimes it’s more important to know when to let go, to allow our focus to be softer and more open.
When you’re ready to start putting your moving meditation into practice, you’ll need a great walking shoe to get you started. And that’s where we come in. Click below to get inspired to take that first step.