With walking meditation, you get the benefits of exercise and meditation. Some benefits of exercise include:
Improved cardiovascular/cardiorespiratory function
Increased muscular strength
Improved flexibility and balance
Brain fitness as we age
Delay onset of degenerative diseases
Reduction of risk in developing
Colon and breast cancer
Some of the benefits of meditation are:
Enhanced cognitive functioning
Reduced stress and anxiety
Management of strong emotions (I give special attention to this below)
That's an impressive list of benefits no drug can match. Many distinguished people from scientists like Darwin and Einstein to entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to writers like Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau to philosophers like Nietzsche and Kant and artists like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky walked to solve problems and spark creativity.
Walks in nature enhance certain executive control processes in the brain above and beyond the benefits associated with exercise. In one study, participants on nature walks exhibited improved executive control as measured by EEG (McDonnell & Strayer, 2024).
And as those of us who are able bodied walk daily- to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to and from the parking lot, to the office or meeting, etc. We can bring mindful awareness to it and practice anytime.
In a traditional walking meditation, the pace is usually slow, hands are clasped either in front or behind the back- or you may prefer to let your arms swing naturally. As we begin walking, attention is maintained on the soles of the feet, aware of the alternating pattern of contact and release.
We remain aware of the foot fall- as the heel makes contact, as the foot rolls forward onto the ball, as the body’s center of gravity passes over the top of the foot, as we toe off, as the leg lifts, as we balance, as we take the next step. Attention remains on the feet. We can abbreviate the complexity that is walking into a simple mantra: "Left" as the left foot falls and lifts, "right," as the the right foot falls and lifts. Left right left right.
Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, aids in focus. Attention improves perceptual awareness. As we walk, we want to bring heightened attention to the details: the contact in the soles of the feet, the touch of the fabric of the socks, the cushioning within the shoe, or the touch of the ground- if you’re barefoot. We pay attention. We notice how the foot goes from being a shock absorber to a rigid lever that propels the body forward. Left right left right.
We bring our attention to the ankles, noticing the quality of the sensations in the joints, in the Achilles tendon, moving attention up to the lower legs, the shins, the calves. We notice how the calf muscles contract and lengthen as the heel rises, aware of the contact with clothing, the temperature on the surface of the skin, aware of the movement of the muscles as we walk. We move our awareness to the knees, noticing the quality of sensations in the knee joints. We expand our awareness to include the thighs- aware of the contact of clothing, the movement of the muscles, the temperature, the pressure of gravity on the weight bearing leg. We bring our attention to our hips, the muscles around the hip joints, paying attention to the cadence, the rhythm, the gait- whether our steps are short or long.
Be aware of the whole of the pelvis when moving a leg forward or when it moves back. Notice how the hips lift and sink. Aware of the complex 3 dimensional movement of the pelvis as you walk forward through space. The spine is in constant, sinuous motion. Notice this next time you walk. Left right left right.
Notice the abdomen. Rising, falling. Feel the contact of the clothing on skin as it rises and falls. Notice the chest rising and falling as you breathe in and out, filling the lungs with oxygen as you walk, expelling the air out. Pay attention to the 3 dimensionality of the ribs as they expand up and laterally. Notice the shoulders. Notice how they move with the rhythm of your walking. Let your shoulders be relaxed and passively transmit the rhythm of your stride down to the arms as they swing naturally. Notice all the motions in the arms, the upper arms, the forearms, the wrists, the hands- feeling the air coursing over the body as you walk. Be aware of the neck and the muscles supporting the skull. Notice the angle of your head. Subtle adjustments to posture, to the neck or shoulders can change your experience as you walk. Left right left right.
We use over 200 muscles to take just one step. Left right left right.
When we're moving through space, our eyes move laterally, side to side. Lateralized eye movements trigger suppression of the amygdala, which detects danger (Voogd, 2018). Forward movement is also associated with a suppression of the fear response (Salay, 2018). Forward movement triggers the release of dopamine. We reduce anxiety at the basal level.
If we are experiencing anger, walking meditation is a mindful response. Under perceived stress the body releases adrenaline. When the anger is intense, the emotional center of the brain often bypasses the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive functioning. We lose reason. Deciding to take a walk to cool down is a rational response that restores a measure of equanimity, or balance, to the mind. So many ancillary benefits!
Relaxing the jaw and muscles of the face, we can switch attention away from walking and take note of what we see as we walk: how light falls, how shadows dance- noticing textures, patterns, colors. Notice what you see peripherally. Notice the empty space between objects as you walk.
Next, we can pay attention to the sounds that arise as we walk, the foot falling, the sound of the breath, birds singing, leaves rustling in the wind, dogs barking, cars passing. Pay attention to the most distant sounds and slowly bring your focus in to sounds that are close... to the sounds that are most subtle as you continue deepening your experience and immerse yourself fully in this moment even as you walk. Left right left right.
Left right left right.
As in sitting meditation, we can be aware of feelings as they arise, without censure. Without attachment. Without following them. Simply aware. Whether bored or content, irritated or tired, simply notice what arises in the present. Notice the quality of attention. Is the mind clear or dull, busy or calm, focused or distracted? Just notice, without judgment. Notice the balance between the inner and outer. If the mind is tense for example is that evident in the body?
Notice physical sensations within the body- whether pleasant or unpleasant. Just notice them without discriminating, without labeling, without resisting or pushing them away. If there is pain or discomfort, see if you can relax into it. Just letting it be. Opening to it with curiosity. Of course, you might want to change your gait or stop to stretch if necessary to relieve some discomfort. But try to remain fully present whatever you’re doing.
In the following video, Yuttadhammo Bhikku demonstrates the traditional technique of walking meditation.