By Michael Grady, Yoga International
For many people the most convenient and practical exercise is walking. Walking not only conditions the heart and lungs, but also burns calories, alleviates stress, stimulates digestion and elimination, and expels stale air and carbon dioxide from the lungs. Walking is safe, convenient, and economical, and with proper clothing it can be done in all kinds of weather. A walk can accommodate all ages and fitness levels—it doesn’t matter whether you are old or young, stiff or flexible, in vibrant health or recovering from a major trauma or illness. Whatever your condition, there is a pace and style of walking that will leave you feeling more refreshed and energized. Even an experienced runner with the ability to pound the pavement in a rousing roadside run can still find a cardiovascular challenge in combining yogic breathing techniques with walking. Why not substitute low-impact walking and save your joints from trauma?
Walking while employing special breathing techniques—such as exhaling twice as long as you inhale—compounds the ability to expel volatile toxins from the lungs. A prolonged exhalation emphasizes contraction of the abdominal muscles, thus activating the navel center, imparting additional heat and vitality. Observing the breath as you walk also clears the mind of mental chatter and self-talk. If you’re thinking that that sounds like a formula for meditation-in-action, you’re right. A brisk walk with breath awareness is mentally refreshing. It may leave you feeling as if you’ve just finished meditating rather than exercising vigorously.
Just as with conventional pranayama practice, the benefits of “pedestrian pranayama” are possible only with good posture. Good posture and form while walking have more than just aesthetic value—they facilitate proper breathing. Because we have been walking since the first year of life, we have stopped paying attention to how we do it. For that reason it’s worth taking a fresh look at walking.
Four Walks with Awareness
Walk 1: Body Awareness
Our goal in this first walk is to develop understanding and awareness of how the body moves during an extended walk. We have already observed how the muscles and joints move during walking; now we can play with these elements.
Begin by loosening up with a few stretches, then try a few tentative steps. Slowly build your awareness of how the foot contacts the ground, the push-off from the toes, the effect in the calf muscles and hamstrings, the gentle sway of the trunk, the arm swing. Begin gently, and slowly increase your pace. Make awareness your goal, not speed.
Check periodically for unnecessary tension. Survey the body from head to foot, as if you were lying on your back doing a systematic relaxation. Pay particular attention to the areas most likely to be tense—the neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips. Cultivate a sense of lightness, ease, and unlimited energy. Enjoy walking.
At some point try lengthening your stride. Taking larger steps will cause your arms to swing out a little further and accelerate your pace. You can also try keeping the arms bent at the elbow, crossing the center line of the body at the sternum with each arm swing. Move from the elbows rather than the fist. This motion massages the heart region.
Here’s something else to try: Visualize the navel center pulling you along effortlessly. If you habitually lead with the head, chest, or pelvis, you may find this image energizing.
Walk for 10 or 15 minutes or until you feel tired. Then gradually slacken your pace, and end with a few stretches. You can expand this first walk into several sessions. There’s no rush.