How Walking Meditation Can Improve Your Mental Health
Walking meditation is ideal for people who find it difficult to stay still, meditation beginners, and even highly decorated athletes. Here's why it's worth trying.
While conquering the world’s swimming pools in the late 1990s and the 2000s, Amanda Beard had already included breathing exercises and visualization techniques in her training.
She was not the type of person to practice meditation, though. She didn’t completely understand it, or she thought of it as something incompatible with her “anxious and fidgety character.”
Several years after the end of her athletic career, she discovered walking meditation. “I put on my earbuds, turned up the music really loud, and just went out for a walk,” Beard says.
Today, the seven-time Olympic medalist practices walking meditation in nature, around the house, on a plane, or while walking the dog. It’s a daily practice that contributes positively to every aspect of her life, she says.
Here’s what you need to know about walking meditation, including how to do it, the potential benefits, and tips from meditation experts.
What is walking meditation?
Walking meditation is a mindfulness practice that weds the physical benefits of walking with the focused mindfulness of meditation.
Instead of sitting cross-legged, you meditate on the stroll. Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh has poetically defined it as, “printing peace, serenity, and happiness on the ground”.
How do I start a walking meditation practice?
You don’t need equipment or a designated space to start.
“The idea of a walking meditation is to pay attention to the way your body feels, noticing things like the sky, trees, tuning into all of your senses, all with curiosity and without judgment,” says board-certified family physician and meditation teacher Rashmi Schramm, MD.
This means you can meditate “on the go” in the countryside, in the city, in your yard, and virtually anywhere.
A simple, 10-minute walking meditation for beginners requires that you just start walking, observing your body while “blending” into the world around you, per a 2018 report in Health Promotion Perspectives. Consider what you hear, smell, and see. Think about how your feet touch the ground.
You should try to fully immerse in these sensations and not dwell on any thoughts (but don’t worry if they hit your mind), a simple act with the potential to gradually usher a new kind of awareness into your life.
In case you want to do a more formal type of walking meditation, like watching your breath, you may try slowly inhaling through your nostrils, according to a study in Frontiers in Psychology. Then hold your breath, say, for 2 seconds, and slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds, or simply observe the way you breathe while you walk.
You can also use apps like Healthy Minds Program, UCLA Mindful, Smiling Mind, or Headspace.
The benefits of walking meditation
The 2018 report in Health Promotion Perspectives also found that walking meditation can improve your balance, make your legs stronger, adjust your heart rate, boost your mental focus and clarity, and help you battle anxiety, chronic illness, and depression. (Here are the signs you could have high-functioning depression.)
“The benefits of this brilliant and easy way of meditation are many, including improved memory, mood and our ability to focus,” Dr. Schramm says. “When we do this over and over again, we train the brain to focus on only one thing at a time and, over time, this increases both our blood flow and actual neuronal changes within our brains.”
Even just two weeks of meditating can lead to improved moods, as feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin increase, Dr. Schramm says.
Meditating ‘on the go’ challenges
It is safe to assume walking meditation is a low-risk activity, but this does not mean to practice it recklessly.
“It’s better that you do it somewhere where you don’t have to take care of anything else,” says Tara Stiles, a yoga, movement, and wellness expert as well as founder of Stråla Yoga.
It should be a time for breathing, moving, noticing your breath, and noticing how you feel as you breathe, according to Stiles.
“It is not advisable that you do it while crossing a busy street or taking care of a small child,” she adds.
And you may find it harder to meditate on the go if you cannot fathom stepping out of the door without your mobile phone in hand. “The fewer distractions, the better,” Stiles says.
Be kind to yourself
“The magic of meditation is to be able to help you connect with yourself; meditation shouldn’t feel a certain way,” Stiles says.
It’s a common mistake in meditation: People fear a wandering mind.
“A wandering mind is completely normal,” Stiles says. “Even long-term meditators aren’t sitting there never having a thought, but when they have the thought, they choose to guide themselves back to their breath instead of getting frustrated.”
Beard recommends starting with five or 10 minutes of walking meditation, and not worrying about distractions.
Three years after practicing walking meditation almost daily, the highly decorated swimmer reports she has become kinder to herself, less judgmental of who she is and the things she does, and more focused.
“And these have overflown into all the different aspects of my life,” she says.
Next, find out how to use breathing techniques to control chronic pain.