The world of science is catching up with the ancient arts, embracing the role of relaxation therapy, mindfulness and meditation as both preventive and healing modalities. Research shows that meditation improves stress levels, memory, mood and can even boost how you feel about life. But if you’re like me, you might find it extremely difficult to sit quietly, focusing on your breathing. In very little time at all, I’m mentally preparing dinner, planning what I’ll say in an upcoming meeting, or falling asleep. If you’ve struggled with meditation in the past, take heart. It’s possible to enjoy all the mental – and physical – health benefits of meditation by lacing up your walking shoes and hitting the trails.
In fact, according to Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of Healing Walks for Hard Times, when we connect our mental focus with the rhythmic movements of walking, we can create periods of stress release that are not only physically healing, but can also help to clear paths through the confusion we face during difficult times. Scott Kortge used her own daily walks to help her through a bout with breast cancer, and has since become a staunch advocate in the healing power of walking.
Scott Kortge believes that when you’re facing an enormous personal challenge, taking control of something as basic as walking may seem insignificant. But research suggests that even small acts of control can help you recover from the feeling of helplessness that often accompanies trauma.
The physical benefits of walking are certainly familiar, and include reduced risk of heart disease, breast cancer, elevated cholesterol and osteoporosis. Less well known are the mental and emotional health benefits of walking, including better cognitive function and improved mood, which might connect to the meditative qualities of your walk – qualities that, according to Scott Kortge, help to settle the chaos in your mind, if only for the span of your stroll.
As with any meditative practise, you can certainly help to quiet your mind during your walk by concentrating on your breathing if you choose. When you’re in nature, however, you also have the option of focusing on the sound of your footsteps, the call of a bird, or the lapping of water at the shore of a stream or lake. If you prefer a mantra, simply repeating “left foot, right foot,” can be effective. When you become aware of yourself having thoughts, bring your attention back to the day’s chosen sound.
* Ten minutes of brisk walking can increase mental alertness, reduce anxiety and improve mood.*
Scott Kortge recommends being mindful during your walk, and if you’re going through a particularly rough patch, leave your musical accompaniment at home – at least initially. Walking in silence affords you the opportunity to get a sense of where you are mentally and emotionally. Stressful times force you to assess your coping mechanisms, many of which are all in your head. Listen to your self-talk: are you berating yourself for getting into a car accident or for losing your job? Are you blaming yourself for a cancer diagnosis because of lifestyle changes you didn’t make? Hearing your own negative self-talk is a sure-fire method of increasing your stress levels, which hampers your ability to heal from an illness or overcome your challenges. Replace negative talk with positive statements like, “I can; I will; I am strong; I am healthy.”
Silence also allows you to integrate mind and body, to reconnect with yourself and to hear the quiet whispers of your spirit or conscience. So often on my own walks, as I focus on the sunlight shining on the water of a nearby canal, I will hear the answer to a question that had been puzzling me. And whether it’s the movement, the fresh air, the sunlight, the mindfulness or a combination of the above, I always feel happier and more optimistic after a walk – and certainly more capable of facing life’s twists and turns.
Tips for walking posture:
•straighten your spine
•keep your shoulders back and relaxed
•lift your rib cage to open your lungs
•keep head up and level, with eyes focused a few feet ahead of you
•allow arms to flow freely at sides, unless using a cane or walker
St. Augustine is quoted as saying “Solvitur amulando.” (It is solved by walking.) That man knew a thing or two about peace.
By Lisa Petty
Originally published in Canadian Health & Lifestyle