Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Walking meditation

For anyone who leads a busy life, and who has not tried meditation before, walking meditation is a great place to start. You receive the many calming, grounding, and centering benefits of meditation without the challenge of trying to sit completely still.

You already know how great walking is for your circulation because the leg muscles aid the heart in moving your blood through your veins and arteries. Walking also works to relax your leg muscles through the constant flexing and stretching. It (hopefully!) takes you outdoors where you get fresh air, and sunshine to boost your Vitamin D intake.

There is a special benefit to walking meditation (and standing meditation, which I will talk about next time) that none of the seated methods offer. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the energy channels or meridians for the kidneys, spleen, and liver begin on the foot. Every step you take is like a little self-reflexology or self-acupressure treatment. When your toes press the ground, you put pressure on the starting points for each of these energy channels. In effect, you are giving each of these organs a little boost of energy, and that is fantastic since all three are involved in the processes of removing toxins from the body. If you would like to carry the Chinese Medicine ideals a step further, you may plan your walking meditation for one of the two-hour periods of the day when the energy channels for the organs are "active" or most open to energetic influence: between 9:00 and 11:00 AM for the spleen, 5:00 and 7:00 PM for the kidneys, or 1:00 and 3:00 AM for the liver.

(I know I spend a lot of time talking about physical wellness, but I can't emphasize this enough: When your body is in great shape, you are better prepared to effectively deal with mental and emotional stress.)

There are two types of walking meditation, random and pattern. Random walking is done anywhere at any time, and is like strolling according to meditative principles. Pattern walking is following the path of one of the many styles of labyrinths.

To prepare for walking meditation, you should be dressed comfortably and for the environment; lightweight clothing for indoors or warm weather, warm garments in layers for outdoor cooler weather. You can carry an umbrella if you like to walk in the rain….there is no especial position or task for your hands in walking meditation. Of course, you should always wear comfortable, supportive shoes although walking barefoot on grass is ideal if you have the opportunity to do so safely. Always walk on the softest surface possible; carpet indoors, grass or soil outdoors. Try to avoid solid, unforgiving surfaces that will be hard on your knees and shins.

While you walk, your breathing cycle and your steps will be synchronized: inhale as you raise your leg; exhale as you extend your leg and lean forward into your step. When you place your heel on the ground, your forward motion will be like rolling from the heel to the ball of your foot. You will inhale through your nose; you may exhale through your nose or mouth.

Stand up and try it now:

Lift your foot from the ground while you inhale.

Extend your leg and place the heel on the ground; roll forward from the heel to the sole of the forward foot while the foot behind you rolls up onto the toes as you exhale.

Lift your back foot from the ground while you inhale.

Extend that leg and place the heel on the ground; roll forward from the heel to the sole of the forward foot while the foot behind you rolls up onto the toes as you exhale.

Here's how it should look at the moment your forward heel touches the ground.

You will be walking slowly, of course, because your pace is linked to your breathing. You don't want to breathe too fast, you'll hyperventilate! To reach a level of meditative relaxation, your breathing cycle should be one complete breath, inhale and exhale, approximately every six seconds, so you should be walking at a pace that is about ten steps per minute.

For random walking, once you have command of the breathing/stepping cycle, you will want to deepen your meditative practice.

Begin by paying attention to your body as you move. Concentrate on the muscles and how they feel as they contract and extend as you move forward.

Extend your awareness to the ground beneath your feet and ponder how it affects your practice and your mood if it's soft, hard, lumpy, etc.

Place your awareness upon your intention, how your mind carries out your intention to walk by sending the signal to your muscles to move. Consider how your mind is in charge of your breathing and your movement.

Ponder how your awareness and your intentions affect your reactions (including stress reactions), moods, emotions, and "where you are going," how you "move" through life.

Chartres-style labyrinth

Pattern walking is a little different after you have mastered the breathing/stepping cycle.

Instead of directing your attention to your movement and your body, you will direct your attention inward. Most often this is a spiritual practice very symbolic of the inward journey to your source or soul, and the labyrinths are often found at churches or other houses of worship. The most famous of the labyrinths is the eleven-circuit one imbedded in the floor in the Chartres Cathedral in France, constructed during the Middle Ages (c. 1201) for the spiritual benefit of the parishioners. The Chinese and Native Americans had their own styles of labyrinths, and the Greeks had a very popular seven-circle pattern that was even stamped on their coins.

Labyrinth imprinted on a Greek coin (c. 100 BC)

Labyrinths come in a variety of patterns, but all tap into the same idea: inwardly, you are walking toward your Center just as outwardly, you feet are walking toward the center of the pattern. As a metaphor for life, a labyrinth is made of many twists and turns, sometimes it seems as though you double back on yourself, and it doesn't always make sense, but you are always on the right Path for there is only one Path leading to the Center.

If you ever have the opportunity to walk a labyrinth, go for it! I've walked labyrinths twice, one seven-circle Greek style outdoors, and one Chartres style indoors. Each of my labyrinth experiences was very different from the other, but both were pretty amazing. I'm sure your labyrinth-walking experience will be amazing, too!


G said...

Wow, great post M, I will try this for sure. Thanks a bunch

Michelle said...

You're welcome, G. Hope your move goes smoothly and you arrive safely at your new place!

Amit said...

You know, I always used to think that anyway, that when you walk you are in a way doing some form of acupressure on yourself. It's like rubbing your hands together too and why that feels good. It generates not only warmth but also stimulates the acupressure points on the hands.

Great article Michelle, something I will be trying more on a conscious level for sure! :)

Michelle said...

Hi Amit,

Yes, we do quite a lot of acupressure without even realizing it. When we wash or otherwise rub our face, we stumulate primary or secondary start or end points for all but the lung and pericardium meridians. I believe this is the reason face rubbing is recommended at the end of qigong practice. :-)

Amit said...

That's something I didn't know about qigong. I guess we even do it sometimes without realising it too. If I'm feeling a little tired or restless then I'll sometimes just rub my hands over my face and it's a very comforting feeling, almost like stretching when we're tired!

Michelle said...

Hi Amit....stretching is actually a position in baduanjin qigong, too! It's called "supporting heaven with both hands." There is a picture of it in the article "Stand Up and Stretch" I posted back in August. http://bewellwithmichelle.blogspot.com/2006/08/stand-up-and-stretch.html

Qigong is everywhere! ;-)