The last time you walked alone — in the city, the local neighborhood, the countryside, or a remote hiking trail — where was your mind at? Did you make a phone call? Were you listening to some music or a podcast? Or maybe you were lost in thought. When we’re outside, it’s almost second nature for our legs to be moving while our attention is elsewhere.
A walking meditation is designed to bring body and mind in sync while we’re out and about. And if you don’t like to sit and close the eyes to meditate, this is a great alternative that still trains the mind in awareness.
Walking is such an established, habituated action for many of us that we tend to do it on auto-pilot. The moment we step out the door, our mind tends to go wandering, too — caught up in remembering, dwelling, planning, worrying, or analyzing.
Each time that happens, we move away from the present moment and away from the chance to connect with nature and our surroundings. We forget to appreciate the simple pleasure of walking.
Meditating while walking is a way to get the mind to walk with us and to bring a relaxed focus to this everyday pursuit. It’s amazing how different we feel when paying attention to what’s going on around us rather than what’s swirling in our head.
Though it is called a walking meditation, that doesn’t mean we’re walking around like zombies with our eyes closed. Instead, we are mindfully walking using a meditative technique, with eyes wide open, a pace that suits us, and our attention on whichever environment we find ourselves in.
It is common for people to first do a sitting meditation in a private space and then go for a walk immediately afterward — with the dog, a partner, or alone — to take that meditative state with them, which is a great way to integrate mindfulness into any walk.
Essentially, walking becomes a tool to familiarize ourselves with the present moment, and we do this by redirecting the mind. Instead of our object of focus being the breath, as we do with a sitting meditation, our focus becomes the rhythm of our gait.
There are different types of approaches to walking meditation, most of which depend on your location. A stroll in the countryside, for example, is different from a quick-paced walk through the city. But this meditative walk — perfectly suited for people who live a busy life — can be done anywhere and at whatever pace you like. Simply follow each cue for about 30-60 seconds:
As you start to walk, notice how the body feels. Heavy or light, stiff or relaxed? Take a few seconds to become aware of your posture and the way you’re carrying yourself.
Without trying to change the way you’re walking, simply observe your gait. Bring your attention to it. This can sometimes make you feel self-conscious, but that feeling usually passes.
Tune into what’s going on around you — passing cars, other people, window displays, trees, the movement and still of things, or any other sights that come into your awareness field. You’re not thinking about any of these things, though; you’re simply acknowledging what you see.
Notice the sounds that drift in. What can you hear? Again, try to realize any noise but not dwell on it.
Now turn your attention to any smells, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Notice how the mind habitually wants to create a story out of each smell and how it might remind you of somewhere, something, or someone.
Next, make a point of noticing any physical sensations, from how the weather makes you feel to how it feels as the sole of your feet touch the ground. There’s still no need to think about any of these observations. Simply notice, acknowledge, and let go.
After a minute or two, contemplate the sensation of movement in the body: how the arms hang or swing by your side or how the weight steadily shifts from right to left. Observe your stride, your pace, and the rhythm you’ve become accustomed to.
Focus on your rhythm
Use that rhythm — the soles of the feet touching the ground — as your base of awareness, a place you can mentally come back to when the mind wanders off. Repeat this throughout your walk, step by step, block by block, or mile by mile.
These steps are guidelines, not rules, so adapt them to fit your walk, wherever you go or however long it takes. For example, on a walk that takes 10 minutes, you might use a street-by-street basis. At the beginning of each block, remind yourself of your intention to walk, free from distraction, until you reach the next cross-street or junction. As soon as you realize the mind has wandered, gently bring your attention back to the sensation of the soles of your feet.
Distractions abound in the hustle and bustle of any city, not only from the pace of life but from the assault on the senses. It’s nigh impossible to get any peace and quiet within the din of the city. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be present and pay attention to what’s happening around us. The mind is likely to be more stimulated in a city, so there’s even more reason to anchor the mind to the rhythm of your walk. Notice your gait: Are you scurrying along with a hundred things on your mind? Or are you ambling while daydreaming? The more you notice these things — your gait, any sensations, how you move — the more you step into your body. The more you’re in your body, the more awareness you can bring to the world around you.
There’s perhaps nothing more refreshing than a walk in nature, connecting with all its sights, sounds, and scents. Checking in with yourself and the scenery can turn an ordinary walk into a direct experience, and appreciation, of life. The stillness of a natural landscape — a park, river, forest, or mountain trail — means that the only real distractions will be the mind itself (or any devices taken with you).
Become aware of your posture and any sensations in the body while maintaining a steady, comfortable rhythm, walking naturally and breathing normally. Use the rhythm of the walk — left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot — as the point of gentle focus. By doing this, you are bringing the mind to a place of rest where it can fully engage in the environment and present moment.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to go for a long stroll due to ill health or bad weather. But that doesn’t prevent you from doing a walking meditation inside. It’s simply a case of using the interior space to your advantage. You can walk the length of a room or hallway as long as you have enough space to walk freely in a straight line for 10 to 20 steps.
Mark out start and end points, and simply walk back and forth between the two, taking slow, deliberate steps and noticing how the body feels, noticing the movement, and bringing your attention to the rhythm of the walk each time the mind wanders.
Whether you want to walk with more awareness in the city, in nature, or in the home, the Headspace app has exercises, varying from 3 to 10 minutes, to suit all preferences in its Movement and Sport category. While the basis of each one remains the same–the object of focus being the rhythm of the walk— they are tailored for different environments. And they all share the same intention: to bring you into the present moment so that you can better connect with the here and now, wherever you happen to walking.