The Greeks believed that all great insights came from nine muses, divine sisters who brought inspiration to mere mortals. Today, we know that "aha moments" are more than just sudden mystical bursts of inspiration.
These creative thoughts are marked by a surge of electrical activity in the brain and can be fostered by specific conditions. One of the most interesting ways to encourage them is by walking mindfully.
When you're walking mindfully, your attention can wander freely. And because you don't have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, you can get into a mindful mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.
Additionally, mindful walking is an excellent way to clear your mind of clutter and get in touch with the present moment. It's also a way to practice moving without a goal or intention and by mastering this you can avoid the "distracted autopilot mode" and bring more awareness and creativity into your everyday life.
We take a look at the different techniques you can use for mindful walking later on in the article. We’ve focused on walking meditation, body awareness, and observational techniques but there are others out there you can look into that may work for you!
Try to experiment with different exercises and find the one that suits you perfectly. The best results come when you enjoy the process.
Getting Back to The Present Moment: What Happens To Your Body When You Walk
Your brain uses about 20% of your body's total oxygen supply, so if you're not getting enough oxygen up there, it's easy to feel "foggy" or unfocused.
When you walk, your heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen to your brain. That's why after or during exercise, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. And just like all forms of exercise, walking encourages your brain to release endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.
You know that relaxed and optimistic feeling you get after a long, mindful walk? You can thank endorphins for that. But it's not just the good mood that makes walking beneficial.
Walking Meditation: Basic Tips
When you are walking mindfully, the journey becomes less about the destination and more about awareness of what is around you and how you feel. Your goal should be to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you.
Try following these tips:
Start moving slowly. Maintain awareness of:
Each footstep as it rolls from heel to toe
The muscles and tendons in your feet and legs
The movement and muscles elsewhere in your body
Pay attention to your senses:
Hear the wind blow in the trees.
What can you smell?
Notice what you see in soft focus – noticing color, texture, movement rather than categorizing / judging.
Key mindfulness points
Pay attention to your breath. Breathe easily, but not deeply.
When your mind wanders, gently guide the thoughts back to your breath.
When you're done walking, stand still and take a few deep breaths.
If you find your mind wandering, don't get discouraged. Try not to fall into the trap of giving up at the first hurdle. The more you practice walking meditation, the easier you will find it to slip into the focused and present way of being.
Body Awareness During Mindful Walking
Maybe you'll feel more comfortable with a specific plan. There are many different approaches to mindful walking, but one of the most effective ones includes focusing your awareness on parts of your body.
A clinical psychologist, Dr. Christopher Willard, suggests a technique called ”body awareness walking”.
Here's what you should do:
Start your walking meditation practice by just resting your awareness in your feet, by bringing attention to the soles of your feet.
After about twenty steps (or maybe one block or 5 minutes) shift your awareness to your ankles and calves.
After a few minutes of placing your attention there, shift the attention to the bend of your knees.
Next, focus your awareness on the sensations and movement of your hips.
Shift awareness to your hands and arms and notice whether they are falling naturally at your sides or swinging back and forth.
Shift your awareness to your torso, including inside your body, with focus on your heart and lungs, maybe seeing if you’re noticing any change.
Turn your attention to your neck and shoulders and consider whether they are tense or relaxed.
Lastly, notice your head as it shifts and moves slightly up and down with each footstep.
Continue to scan your body, noting how these sensations change throughout your walk.
Observational Mindful Walking
You might also enjoy the ”observational walking” technique that brings awareness to your own emotional experience of walking.
Notice your emotional reactions to everything and everyone around you. This might bring up feelings of self-consciousness as you pass others or a small pleasure when you step into the sunshine.
Observe how your emotions affect your walking and observations. How does your emotional state change your movement?
For example, try walking like you are fearful or distracted. Try walking confidently after that and then shifting back into your normal rhythm.
Using All Five Senses
This adaptation for walking meditation involves tuning into your five senses as you move. Try the following order of techniques:
See how the view changes as shapes and objects shift in and out of your line of vision while you walk.
Touch the ground with the soles of your feet mindfully.
Hear the sounds around you.
Smell the fresh air.
Taste something akin to taste as you breathe through your mouth open.
When your thoughts tend to drift to the past or future, focusing on your five senses can help keep you grounded in the current moment.
How to Make Mindful Walking a Habit
To make mindful walking a habit, you'll need to create a neurological loop that sits at the core of every habit and consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
The cue is a trigger that reminds you to go for a mindful walk, the routine is going for a walk, and the reward is the payoff you get. It can be anything that makes you happy, but it's essential to give yourself an immediate reward.
For example, after you have your morning cup of coffee (cue), you'll go for a mindful walk for 10 minutes in the neighborhood (routine). Afterward, you will treat yourself to a glass of your favorite freshly-squeezed juice.
The more you repeat your routine, the more automatic it becomes. That's how habits work.
Pro Tip: Choose Natural Surroundings
One experiment showed that students who walked through the park improved their performance on a memory test more than students who walked along city streets. Numerous studies also suggest that spending time in green spaces can rejuvenate the mental resources that artificial environments deplete.
For example, a review of 64 research papers identified that spending time in nature mindfully provides an essential antidote to modern life stresses and strains.
Immersing yourself in nature and mindfully using all five senses can ease your stress and worry and help you relax and think more clearly. So, when choosing your walking route, try to aim for more natural surroundings.
Mindful walking simply means walking while being aware of each step and of our breathing. You can practice this form of meditation by moving slowly, maintaining awareness of your breath, your senses, and the movement of and muscles in your body.
Try some of these tips:
Basic Mindful Walking: Start walking slowly and focus on what you can see, smell, and touch. Pay attention to your breath.
Body Awareness Mindful Walking: Do a body scan in motion.
Observational Mindful Walking: Bring awareness to your own emotional experience of walking.
Mindful walking doesn't solely have benefits for your mental and physical health. It can increase creativity by helping you generate new ideas and by helping you stay focused.
As you practice mindful walking and learn to become more aware of the journey rather than the destination, you may transfer the learnings to other areas of your life: work, family, studies, or exercise. This way, mindful walking may become an excellent gateway habit to a healthier, happier life!