If - like us - you tend to stride from A to B with your earphones on, listening to your favourite podcasts or playlists, completely oblivious to the world around you, you are not mindful walking. You are so much in your own head, something unusual might happen – an elephant could fly past on a broomstick – and you wouldn’t notice.
To walk mindfully, you need to have your eyes open, your mind and senses fully present and aware.
Why walk mindfully?
Mindful walking is a form of meditation, which is said to reduce stress, improve concentration and sleep: it carries all kinds of health benefits.
1) It helps clear your mental fog by interrupting thoughts and taking you out of your head. Sometimes, just a change of scene or a slower pace will do this – hence the need for holidays.
2) It slows you down – as you bring your attention to each detail in the way you move, you may walk differently, with grace and dignity. There is no rush to get anywhere because you are walking for walking’s sake: all that exists is the present moment.
3) It increases focus – the more you practice the art of paying attention to one thing at a time, the more you strengthen those mental muscles that help you concentrate.
4) It improves your relationships – listening, communication, respect and care are essential to a healthy relationship. In mindfulness, you respectfully listen to your body, its sensations and emotions. With mindful walking, you develop a relationship with your surroundings. You are learning to relate in a new way, one that will prove connective in many other aspects of your life.
5) The obvious – walking is good for you as a physical activity. Mindful walking is even better.
It’s easy, anyone can do it.
Meditation isn’t – as some people believe – a passive pursuit. Through mindful meditation you are engaging or reaching out to connect with the environment and your body. You do this by focusing your awareness on things one at a time, slowly and deliberately: such as the sensation of your feet as they hit the tarmac or country path, the sound of cars or the wind in the trees, the heat or chill on your skin, the way the light inflames windows or is caught in the leaves on the trees.
Walking mindfully means walking without a goal other than noticing each step and breath. Try this:
1) Wear something comfortable.
2) Turn your phone off or leave it behind.
3) Feel the weight of your body as you walk; notice the sensation of your heels and balls of your feet connecting with the ground.
4) Notice your posture: what are your shoulders doing? Are they relaxed or hunched forward? Feel your hips as the centre of gravity; allow your knees to give a little.
5) Take a few deep belly breaths.
6) Now walk slower. Notice the rhythm of your steps.
7) Allow your eyes to focus softly on your surroundings.
8) Notice if your mind wanders – that’s normal by the way. Gently, without judgement, bring it back to focus on walking.
9) If you see something beautiful, stop and give it your full attention. Breathe deeply and slowly. What catches your eye? Stay with it and notice the effect it is having on your body and emotions. Then return to walking.
10) To end the walk, stop still for a few moments. Take deep breaths and focus on the sensation of standing still, of feeling the earth beneath your feet.
When and where?
In the woods
In Japan, the practise of forest bathing - shinrin-yoku – is very similar to mindful walking. It involves connecting with nature through the five senses, literally bathing yourself in the sights, sounds and sensations of the forest. In the 1980s the Japanese government commissioned a series of studies to reduce the stress levels of its citizens and found that a two-hour forest bathing session could reduce blood pressure, lower adrenalin and cortisol levels, improve concentration and memory. They also found that the chemicals released by trees, known as phytoncides, could have an anti-microbial effect on our bodies, boosting the immune system.
By the sea
The Blue Gym initiate was set up to explore whether blue spaces – coastal – were beneficial to our health, with the idea that we should therefore protect these natural environments. An important finding was that people who lived near the coast were generally happier and healthier than those living inland.
Being fully present on a crowded tube train might not be beneficial for your state of body or mind. However, once you have practised mindful walking in pleasant and less stressful environments, you can use the techniques to combat the environmental overwhelm of cities. Even if you practise for 30 seconds or 30 minutes a day during your walk, mindfulness will slowly become second nature.