Meditation: It’s all about sitting still, inside a room, going inward. Right? Well, not necessarily. Buddhist tradition has long incorporated a more active technique known as walking meditation. Popularized in the West by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and other teachers, walking meditation often crops up at meditation retreats as a periodic (and often welcome) break from long sessions of sitting.
For me–especially on a fine summer morning–a contemplative barefoot circuit of my dewy backyard can sound a whole lot more enticing than hunkering down on a cushion inside. And I seem not to be alone. Across the country, it’s getting easier to find opportunities to meditate in action. Dude ranches, sea kayaking outfitters, and wellness retreats now offer programs that combine basic mindfulness practice with everything from backpacking and rock climbing to horseback riding and paddling.
And why not? A growing body of scientific research supports meditation’s physiological and psychological benefits, including boosting the immune system, helping lower blood pressure, and reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. “Taking mindfulness outside, into the natural world, is another way of connecting the dots,” says Kurt Hoelting, who leads contemplative sea kayaking trips in Alaska. “It helps make it apparent not just intellectually, but also in our bodies, that this process of engagement with the present moment is an avenue to healing and deep restoration.”
For some, these activities are a way to explore mindfulness through a pastime they already know and love. Others have established a meditation practice but want to broaden their experience. For just about anyone, these “conscious” outings are a great way to slow down, savor silence (which helps increase awareness of what’s really going on, both inside and out), and reconnect with nature–along with one’s own mind, body, and spirit.
We’ve rounded up some of the best inner-outer adventures to get you thinking about life off the zafu.
Sometimes, freeing your feet can be a revolutionary act. For walking meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends ditching footwear. “You can feel the floor and connect with the earth more easily without shoes,” he writes in Walking Meditation (Sounds True, 2006). “The flow between you and Mother Earth becomes stronger. The longer you practice walking with this connection, the more your heart will be softened and opened, and the more you will feel nurtured, solid, and taken care of by the earth.”
Most “barefooters” don’t meditate in any sort of deliberate way, and chances are, they’ve never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh. But his words certainly would resonate clearly. “Going barefoot makes you feel more connected with nature, that you’re part of a bigger universe,” says Jim Guttmann, a member of Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota, an informal group that gathers for regular boot-free rambles.
“Natural surfaces feel better,” advises Guttmann, about choosing a route. Like connoisseurs, barefoot hikers extol the distinct sensory “flavors” of favorite terrains: mud (squishing up between toes); fresh fall leaves (crunchy and cool); moss (soft and spongy); sunbaked rocks (rough but deliciously warm); and a clear, cold stream (i-i-invigorating!).
Most of us can recall feeling these potent sensations as kids, and indeed, for many barefoot hikers, that’s a lot of the appeal: a return to carefree days of childhood. “After hiking in shoes, your feet feel hot, sweaty, and tired,” Guttmann says. “After hiking barefoot, your feet feel cool and refreshed.” Upon liberation from constrictive footwear, barefooters report an instantaneous uprising of relief, peace, and joy. Not only can you feel more through the soles of your naked feet, they report, but this new vulnerability heightens all your senses, including your awareness of birdsong and sunlight.
Yes, hazards abound (sharp objects, stinging insects), and some surfaces are best avoided (wood chips, gravel). But after overcoming initial hesitation–and weathering a toughening-up period–Guttmann says, “Most people who try it are amazed by how good it does feel.” Barefoot walking can improve physical health as well, according to recent research. Inspired by traditional cobble-stone walking parks in China–which follow principles of reflexology, or stimulating “acupoints” on the soles of the feet–scientists at the Oregon Research Institute asked half of a group of normally inactive elderly men and women to walk daily (for up to 30 minutes) on mats that replicated smooth, rounded cobblestones. (The other half did conventional, 60-minute walks three times a week.) After 16 weeks, the mat-walking group’s blood pressure, on average, had dropped significantly more than the conventional walkers (126/73 versus 131/75, respectively).
In the US, barefoot hiking clubs rally their modest troops via the Internet. (Check www.barefooters.org to find a chapter near you.) But you hardly need a group or guide to give barefoot hiking a try: Just take your shoes off!
“Sea kayaking is one of the most naturally contemplative activities I’ve found,” says Kurt Hoelting. A Harvard-educated former minister and longtime Zen practitioner, Hoelting should know. After working summers as a commercial fisherman in Alaska for more than two decades–and falling in love with the wildness of the place–Hoelting founded Inside Passages, an outfitter that seeks to combine “wilderness journey, meditation practice, and engaged conversation.”
With a nod to their remote, spectacular coastal setting, Hoelting also calls his trips “a crash course in dumbstruck awe.” Paddling silently along in the near-pristine domain of bald eagles, otters, and bears, he says, “There’s an intimacy with the water. You’re able to access estuaries, places you can’t get to any other way.”
As he guides often frazzled, urban-dwelling clients through wilderness sessions of sitting meditation, yoga, and mindful walking and paddling, he sees it as a way to work with what’s been dubbed nature deficit disorder, a term popularized in Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin, 2005), which links children’s increasing alienation from nature with attention disorders, stress, depression, and obesity. “Some part of us atrophies–goes extinct–if we don’t have access to the part of us that’s more than human,” he says. After experiencing one of Hoelting’s trips, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of New York City’s Institute for Jewish Spirituality, says the contemplative focus helped her experience the wilderness more viscerally. “You feel yourself deeply a part of something way larger and older than yourself,” she says.
At first glance, horseback riding doesn’t seem the most contemplative of pursuits. Think again, says lifelong cowgirl Tammy Pate, who co-leads women’s equestrian yoga retreats at the Home Ranch in Clark, Colorado. “It’s all about slowing down and being in the moment with the horse,” she explains. In other words, to ride a horse means to be in relationship. For most of us, it’s also about balance and fear. In life and on horses, she diagnoses, “Fear comes when we’re out of balance.”
At the sprawling, upscale ranch, riders start each day doing yoga in a log cabin, focusing on balance-building asanas. “While they’re in Tree pose, I’ll have them close their eyes and visualize maintaining that level of balance while in the saddle on their horse,” says Janice Baxter, the retreat’s yogini. “Psychically, they’re already starting to connect with their horse.”
Meditating, relaxing, and centering intention before going to the barn and greeting your horse makes all the difference, says MaryAnn Hasbrook, an avid rider who has attended the six-day retreat three times so far. After suffering a fracture riding down a steep hill, Hasbrook says the program helped her confront fears about going downhill. “Yoga gives me tools to deal with it: balance, breathing, visualization, a feeling of calm and strength.” What’s more, she says, “It’s easier for me to deal with fears in everyday life now. It spreads out.”
More than a century ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” What better way to start living more deeply than by learning to be mindful of our experience in each moment?
Susan Enfield Esrey was chagrined to discover that mindful jogging doesn’t relay the same meditative benefits as walking.
Walking Your Mind
“Why rush? Our final destination will only be the graveyard.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh
Like any meditation technique worth its salt, mindful walking begins with a focus on the breath. Breathing in and out with awareness brings the mind home to the body. Practice twice a day, for as few as 10 breaths initially. Breathe normally, sit straight but relaxed, a half-smile on your lips.
Now start walking slowly. Walk around the perimeter of your largest room, or choose a quiet, scenic spot outside. To establish a steady rhythm, try counting steps and using words. If you take three steps for each in-breath, for example, you can say silently, “Lotus flower blooms.” And visualize flowers blooming under your feet. The main thing is to have no goal of arriving; just enjoy each step.
Try going barefoot. You may feel slightly wobbly at first, like a baby learning to walk. Remain mindful, and you’ll find your balance. Try to use “soft vision,” allowing your eyes to relax and focus on nothing, while being aware of everything. It is OK to stop and appreciate something if you want; just continue breathing mindfully.
It’s best to practice daily. You’ll find the cleanest air in the early morning and late evening, but you can practice anytime: between meetings, on the way to your car, in the airport. Leave a bit earlier than usual to allow yourself time to practice, without rushing.
Adapted from Walking Meditation (Sounds True, 2006) by Nguyen Anh-Huong and Thich Nhat Hanh. Used with permission.
Natural Solutions: Vibrant Health, Balanced Living offers its readers the latest news on health conditions, herbs and supplements, natural beauty products, healing foods and conscious living. Click here for a free sample issue.