Meditation has become synonymous with stress relief.
When a calming mindfulness practice feels necessary, meditation can be key. After all, it’s been proven to alleviate stress and help with managing anxiety levels. Meditation is a little time-out for our always-multitasking brains: juggling work and home responsibilities, digesting a never-ending stream of information (including parsing bad news), and simply processing spatial awareness so we don’t trip up the curb with an armful of groceries.
But what if you’re the active, fidgety type who finds it hard to sit still for 10 or 15 minutes with your eyes closed? If that’s the case, you might want to consider walking meditation, also known as mindful walking.
Walking meditation is as simple as it sounds: It blends the physical activity of walking with the focused awareness of a mindfulness practice. Rather than directing your attention to your breath as you would in a sitting meditation, you bring your awareness to the rhythm of your gait, noticing your body’s movements and your surroundings, as well as your feelings and thoughts — without any judgment.
For many people it can be a more accessible way to practice quieting the mind because it blends a meditative practice with a very familiar everyday activity. And your eyes are open, of course.
Why you should try walking meditation
“Walking is something we do on autopilot, without thinking about it, and we tend to tune out,” says Dr. Jonathan Fisher, “mindful cardiologist” and organizational well-being and resiliency leader at Novant Health. “The minute we get up from our chair or step out the door and put one foot in front of the other, our minds end up somewhere else — planning, worrying, dwelling — rather than staying with us in the present moment.”
Meditating while walking is a way to get your body and mind in sync. “Each step is an opportunity to practice focusing on the present moment, pay[ing] attention to what’s going on around you, rather than getting carried away with your thoughts,” Fisher says.
Think of it this way: You know how going for a walk can clear your head? The movement of your body, when partnered with fresh air, often manages to clear space in your head, calm anxiety, lift your mood, even help you creatively solve problems, says Fisher. The mental and psychological benefits of taking a walk are well documented. All you’re doing is adding the element of awareness, which is simply about being fully present in each moment.
And although there are elaborate and gorgeous meditation paths around the world, you can practice mindful walking anywhere — on a wooded trail or a quiet path, a busy city street, even on your way to the corner store.
There are many different types of — and approaches to — walking meditation. This one is not a “formal” practice, per se, and the prompts should be considered guidelines, rather than rules, to be adapted to fit your walk wherever you are, for as long as you want, and at whatever pace you choose.
Step by step: How to practice walking meditation
Check in with your body
Before you begin, take a moment to become aware of your body. Feel your feet in your shoes, your shoes on the ground, and the ground supporting your weight. Notice all the subtle movements that go into keeping you standing upright and balanced. Body awareness is the foundation of mindfulness. There’s no need to change anything about the way you’re standing. Simply being aware and relaxed is enough.
Observe how you move
As you get ready to walk, notice how your body feels. Heavy or light? Stiff or relaxed? Take a few moments to become aware of your posture and the way you’re carrying yourself.
As you begin walking, observe your gait. Bring your attention to the feeling of your feet making contact with the ground, touching down from heel to toe. It might feel a little weird at first, since we don’t typically think about walking when we walk, and that’s totally normal. Without trying to change the way you’re walking, simply observe it.
Go at your own pace: A walking meditation can be done at your usual walking speed; you can coordinate your inhales and exhales with your footfalls; or you can choose to take it really slow. Pick a pace that feels comfortable, and allow your arms and hands to move naturally as you walk.
Tune in to your environment
Tune in to what’s going on around you — passing cars, other people, store window displays, trees, or flowers. Engage your senses. Feel the air on your skin. Notice any sounds that drift into your field of awareness — snippets of conversation, the wind rustling, or birds chirping, depending on where you are — without dwelling on them. Notice any smells, pleasant or unpleasant. The idea is to acknowledge and hold lightly everything you experience from your environment, without judgment, without trying to change anything, or do anything about it.
Notice when thoughts take over
When your mind wanders — which it will — and you notice you’ve gotten caught up in thinking, gently redirect your attention back to the feeling of your feet walking. Use the rhythm of walking, the physical sensation of the soles of your feet touching the ground, as your base of awareness, a place you can mentally come back to once you realize you’ve been distracted by thought.
This is the equivalent of the rising and falling sensation of the breath in the body that you monitor if you’re doing a seated meditation. You’ll come back to this feeling of your feet walking and the experience of the senses over and over throughout your walk.
Benefits of walking meditation, including better sleep
Studies have shown that when healthy adults increase the time they spend walking each day, they sleep better at night. Sleep neurologist Dr. Chris Winter often says that regular exercise, especially in the morning, is one of the best things you can do for your sleep at night. Walking can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can keep you tossing and turning until all hours. Meditation does the same by evoking the relaxation response, a deep physiological shift in the body that slows breathing, lowers blood pressure, encourages feelings of calm, and has been shown to fight insomnia and improve sleep.
Additionally, walking outside gives you access to natural sunlight, which can help synchronize your circadian rhythm.
The combination of meditating and walking is like a one-two punch — but in a good way — offering both emotional and physical benefits. As well as lowering stress levels, reducing anxiety, and improving sleep, it also increases focus and concentration, and can make exercise more enjoyable.
Walking meditation is a skill that improves over time. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to get into a calm and aware state of mind. And that practice of mindfulness will start to spill over into other areas of your life, bringing a deeper sense of calm and awareness.
It’s a common misconception that the only way to meditate is to sit quietly, undisturbed, seated in a chair or on a cushion while observing your thoughts.
You can practice mindfulness while you’re drinking your morning coffee, sitting at your desk, doing the dishes … and, yes, taking a walk.
While there are many forms of moving meditation, such as tai chi, qigong, and yoga, the beauty of walking meditation is that it’s an activity we naturally do every day, even if it’s just getting from your bedroom to the kitchen. You can practice it anytime, for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. The fact that walking is such a regular part of our normal life can help turn a walking mindfulness practice into a habit, something that becomes just part of what you do.