You walk to lose weight, improve your health and boost your energy—after all, walking is America’s favorite form of exercise. But did you know that you can also gain mental and spiritual benefits, simply by adding a mind-body element to your regular walking routine?
The technique is easy: Instead of zoning out and thinking about nothing (or worse, stewing), turn inward. Give your mind a steady focus by gently pushing away all mental distractions and repeating a “mantra“—a word or series of words or a short prayer. “A walk is beneficial no matter what you think about,” says Alice Domar, PhD, head of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else (Penguin, 2000). “But how often do you go for a walk and you’re ruminating and stormy the whole time? Instead, try taking a mindful walk, where you look, listen and feel, where you focus on you’re breathing and the cadence of your feet.” In the process, you kill two birds with one stone, she says, relaxing and renewing both your mind and body.
Using meditative and prayer techniques while exercising gives your brain a much-needed break from the stresses and distractions of the day, agrees Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking for Clarity, Balance, and Spiritual Connection (Harper San Francisco, 1998). Mindful walking works on three levels, she notes, soothing the body, mind, and spirit. “It benefits the body because it is easier to get a good workout if your mind is working with your body instead of against it. There is an athletic component that comes from being mindful,” she says. Spirited walking also brings on psychological benefits in the form of stress release—a state that Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson, M.D., has dubbed the “relaxation response.” Benson’s studies have found that repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or activity such as walking combined with a commitment to passively blocking out everyday thoughts and returning to the repetitive activity calms the mind and body in the short term (for instance, reducing blood pressure and slowing heart and breathing rates). When practiced regularly, the relaxation response may even garner long-term health benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression. Finally, mindful walking has a spiritual benefit that is both profound and subtle, notes Kortge. “When the mind and body work in harmony, there is a kind of wholeness that emerges that we rarely feel,” she says, since we spend most of our lives feeling pulled in many directions. Mindful walking can help to heal this fragmentation, so we can hear the wisdom of a higher power or simply our own intuitive knowing.]]>