Ever wish you could leave stress behind? You can, and you don’t have to travel very far to do it.
At Canyon Ranch, I use a variety of techniques to help people deal with stress, including biofeedback, hypnosis, meditation, abdominal breathing, and energy healing techniques.
Perhaps the easiest of all the techniques I teach is mindful walking. Although remarkably simple to do, it’s a very powerful form of walking mediation that can defuse stress within minutes. Mindful walking relaxes the body by channeling anxiety and nervous energy into physical activity and calms the mind by promoting focused awareness. And it’s versatile: You don’t need to put on hiking boots, leave civilization, or climb a mountain to experience this restorative power of walking. You only need a few minutes of time and some room to walk, as long as you’re willing to change your state of mind. The goal is to use walking meditation to gently shift the focus of your attention from worrying about the past or the future, and to focus on what is actually happening in the present moment.
THE DETAILS: Celeste, who learned mindful walking in one of my workshops, used to feel overwhelmed with the workload and emotional intensity in the office where she worked. A few weeks after learning this walking meditation technique, she told me, “Now when I start feeling stressed, I get up from my desk, walk outside or to the bathroom for a couple of minutes, and clear my head. It’s like pushing the reset button. I come back refreshed and ready to deal with the work on my desk.”
Nature can be profoundly nourishing, but only if we are present to it. In mindful walking, you can use your senses to connect deeply with the natural world. In addition to what you see and hear, the practice draws your attention to the ground underfoot and the feeling of the sun or the wind on your face. Even if you’re not in an outdoor setting, the act of walking and putting yourself in the present moment can indeed reset your mood and release your stress.
WHAT IT MEANS: All too often, we’re thinking about where we’re going, and what we’ll be doing when we get there. Or we’re lost in thought about where we’ve been. Mindful walking is about being in the present. It involves paying attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations we are experiencing right now.
Whether it’s indoors or out, you can use mindful walks not only to release stress, but also to clear your mind and open your imagination to constructive thinking. The movement in this walking mediation induces a relaxed mental state that dissolves the block to creative thinking tension and stress cause. You come back to your desk, easel, or computer screen with a fresher mind—and often with new ideas to try out. Answers may not come instantly, but over time you may go from worrying about something to coming up with solutions. Like “sleeping” on a problem, part of your mind seems to keep working on a quandary while you’re walking, even if you’re not consciously aware of it. Next time you’re at an impasse, try heading out the door, and see what happens.
Here is a simple mindful walking exercise you can practice whenever you need it:
1: While walking, pay attention to your breathing. Use this focus on the breath as an anchor to stabilize your attention.
2: Next, allow yourself to notice any sights, sounds, or physical sensations that may come up as you walk. Rest your awareness for a moment on that sight, sound, or sensation, then return your awareness to your breathing.
3: If persistent thoughts distract you from your mindful awareness, simply notice them, then return your awareness to your breathing.
Here is a variation of mindful walking that uses your breathing to consciously connect you to the vast web of life on planet Earth:
1: As you focus on your breath, following the instructions above, remember that plants release the oxygen that you’re breathing into your lungs, and that, in turn, you breathe out the carbon dioxide that the plants take in.
2: In your mind’s eye, follow your breath as you exhale. Imagine that you can see the carbon dioxide molecules leaving your nose or mouth and flowing into the leaves on the plants nearest you as you walk.
3: As you breathe in, envision yourself inhaling the oxygen that the plants are giving off. Picture the trails of oxygen flowing from the trees, grass, flowers and shrubs into your lungs. Take note of how your visualization of this very natural process affects your sense of the world around you.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is the director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, the author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The Breakthrough Drug-Free Program for Lasting Relief from Depression (Rodale, 2010).