I love walking. Between deep work sessions and Zoom calls, I’ll go for walk. After meals to aid digestion, I’ll go for a walk. Sunrise and sunset, I’ll go for a walk. If you’re in my neighborhood, you’ll pretty much always find me out wandering, sometimes gesticulating loudly on the phone, other times moving very mindfully and deliberately.
Walks are not only an excuse to get some fresh air, they also serve to expand my mindset and release bundled-up emotional energy. Some of my most creative ideas surface when I’m walking, as if my body needed to jiggle the idea through my tissues to get my mind to grasp it and turn it into something.
Although walking is great for your mind and body (read: Why Walking Is Great Exercise), it can start to feel, well, a little mechanical. If going for a walk starts to feel like a chore rather than a pleasure — never a good sign when trying to build a sustainable healthy habit — it’s time to spice it up. Here’s where to start: Mindful walking.
Mindful Walking 101: Moving with Attention & Intention
Mindful walking is deceptively simple. Practice focusing your attention on the act of walking itself. Slow down and deliberately lift one foot, gently placing it in front of the other. Notice the different phases of the motions: the lift, the single-leg balance, the swing, the placement of the forefoot.
- Let yourself feel what it is like to stand, feeling the ground beneath your feet.
- How do you shift your weight along your feet as you walk?
- What do you notice about your legs, torso, arms and head as you move?
- Can you be in your body with curiosity and kindness?
This will feel weird at first. You’ll want to speed-up and default to your well-worn walking gait. Resist that urge!
This is about disrupting the conditioning of your nervous system. Intentionally pay attention to the moment-to-moment experience of walking. The challenge is to stay present with the act of walking without getting lost in your thoughts.
Notice how your thinking mind wants to be active. It is common to find yourself lost in thought, over and over. Just bring your attention back, with gentleness and compassion, to the sensations in your feet and consider:
- Where is your mind relative to your body?
- Are you thinking about walking or feeling walking?
- Can you notice how your body and mind are connected?
You can experiment with synchronizing your breathing with your stepping as described below:
Mindful Walking and Breathing Practices:
- 1:1 – One breath in as you lift a foot. One breath out as you place your foot down. This very slow and deliberate walking is good for stilling the mind and letting go of distracting thoughts.
- 5:5 – As you breathe in, count 5 steps. As you exhale out, count 5 steps. This approach allows a more natural pace and good creates a balancing rhythm for your energy and mind.
- 5:6:7 – As you breathe in, count 5 steps. Then holding your breath in and walk 6 more steps. Then exhaling as you take 7 steps. This prolonged exhalend and breath hold helps elicit a relaxation response that can calm your body and mind.
No matter which technique you choose, bringing your attention to the act of walking can help you appreciate your ability to move through your environment with ease and grace. After all, having the mobility, strength, and neuromuscular control to walk is a gift we often take for granted.
Once you learned the basics of mindful walking, here are 5 new ways to turn your walk into a practice of building your mental and emotional fitness.
1) Gratitude Walk
Researchers from UC Davis and Southern Method university wanted to know whether some people were more prone to experience gratitude in their daily life. They designed a 6 questions survey to assess people’s “attitude of gratitude” by how they rated themselves on the following questions from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):
1. I have so much in life to be thankful for.
2. If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.
3. When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.
4. I am grateful to a wide variety of people.
5. As I get older I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events, and situations that have been part of my life history.
6. Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone.
Questions numbered 3 and 6 are scored in reverse, meaning a 1 is indicative of a greater propensity for gratitude. For the others, the higher the number the more likely you are to see life through rose-colored glasses.
Here’s the thing, gratitude is a muscle that can be trained. You can increase your propensity to appreciate yourself and the world with practice. A gratitude walk is exactly that: A chance to practice looking at the world through the lens of gratitude.
While you are walking, try to appreciate the people, plants, buildings, and other things as something worth thanking. Rather, than being preoccupied by all your normal worries, focus your attention on the people and places that are benefiting you right now.
Gratitude walks challenge you to vanquish any thought that pops into your head screaming “worry about this” or “plan ahead for that.” When you notice your mind going to habitual planning or ruminating, try to refocus on the blessings right in front of you.
As you’re walking consider:
- What do I see that I normally take for granted?
- Who or what can I offer thanks to right now?
- How is this place that I’m walking by worthy of appreciation?
- How is this person that I’m walking by worthy of aknowledgement?
2) “Best Self” Walk
Walking can be more than just moving physically from one location to another. It can be a metaphor for your larger life journey.
The Best Self Walk is a deliberate walk down the timeline of your life, moving away from outdated behaviors and moving towards your future best self.
The things you are walking toward are your goals, aspirations, and desires. You’re literally stepping into the person you want to become. The things you are walking away from are fear, discomfort, or negativity. You’re stepping out of whatever is holding you back.
Before going on this walk, spend a few moments identifying things in your life you’d like to metaphorically walk into and things you’d like to walk away from. One of my favorite questions to get me thinking about how to step into the better version of me comes from entrepreneur Jim Cathcart. He asked,
With each step of your mindful walk, ask how the person you want to be would walk. Can you embody the qualities, traits, and virtues you wish to cultivate right now?
The Best Self walk empowers you to unite your mind, body, and heart in a way that supports your potential to become something more. It’s not about running away from the parts of life that aren’t working for you. It’s about consciously choosing to release what is outdated and adopt what is more mature. It’s one of my favorite mindful walking meditation practices.
3) Kissing & Smiling Walk
The famous Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said:
“When we walk like (we are rushing), we print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the earth… Be aware of the contact between your feet and the earth. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve always liked the idea of kissing the earth with my feet. Each step is an opportunity to leave behind a serene smooch or a stubborn stomp. It’s our choice as to what we leave in our footsteps.
As you walk, you can extend this notion to your face and social interactions. You can think of the smiling walk as an extension of the gratitude walk or a variation unto itself. Practice smiling at everything. Smile at the birds, the trees, the traffic lights, the cracks in the sidewalk, and especially the people passing you by.
When you smile, really take in the thing or person you’re seeing. Try to savor them. Allow the positive moment to absorb into your body.
A smile walk might feel forced at first. Of course it is. You’re practicing something new. Accept that it’s contrived and notice how smiling actually produces a shift in your body’s felt sensation. (See the note below on the “Tyranny of Positivity”). If you allow it, a forced smile can become a genuine one, creates a special connection that is engaged and trusting rather than disconnected and cold.
4) Mantra Walk
“The most important thing is remembering the most important thing.”Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi
We all have priorities, but sometimes the important things become muddled, lost, and downright forgotten during busy days. We all need ways to remember what is truly important and keep it top of mind. Otherwise, we’re destined to swerve off track.
The way I like to honor the most important thing is by creating a personal daily mantra that answers one of the following questions:
- What advice do you most need to hear today?
- How can you honor the things that will truly matter a year from now?
- What words of wisdom would your best friend give you in this moment?
- What quality if you had more of today would help you show up at your best?
Try answering these questions in the form of a mantra. It doesn’t have to rhyme or even sound cool. It just needs to encapsulate the most important thing you want to remember today. Sometimes a single word will suffice.
Once you have your mantra, set out on a walk, and recite your mantra to yourself. You can practice slow, mindful walking and recite your word/phrase with each step. Or just walk at a normal pace, keeping your mantra on replay in your mind.
Notice how this shifts your focus and changes your internal mental chatter. Your mantra walk is like an inner pep talk gearing your up for transformation. If you can, don’t stop walking until you feel like you’ve can embody the most important thing with each step.
5) Curiosity Walk (a.k.a. “I Spy” Walk)
As a kid, I remember playing “I Spy” with my family on road trips. It’s a simple game where one person picks an object that everyone can see and then gives the first letter of the object as a clue. Everyone else takes turns calling out guesses until someone gets the right answer.
I remember loving this game because it forced me to actually look at my surroundings. It made me let go of the everyday illusion that I already know what’s there. This process of actively noticing new things is actually part of what Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer considers to be a core component of mindfulness.
The Curiosity Walk is all about mindfully expanding your awareness. Disrupting your autopilot by looking up and taking in nuance, detail, and features of your environment that you usually fail to see can be an incredibly refreshing experience.
- Admire the beautiful architecture.
- Look deeply at the trees.
- Examine the power lines or street signs.
- Notice the details of the surface underneath you.
There are endless things to notice. You just have to make a point to pay attention. To make the noticing game fun, challenge yourself to see something that you’ve never seen before. No matter how many times you’ve walked down this same block, what nook and cranny have you yet to explore.
For instance, there’s a beautiful Victorian home in my neighborhood that I’ve walked by a million times. Often I was so busy looking down, preoccupied with my own inner narrative, that I never noticed the intricate woodwork and molding on the roof. It’s amazing how many times you can walk down the same street or by the same building without actually seeing what’s there.
A curiosity walk is a deliberate practice of looking deeply. When you’re done, you’ll be seeing the world with a fresh pair of eyes.
Final Mindful Walking Tips
- When in Doubt, Slow it Down. Going slowly enriches the feeling and sensing, allowing you to notice things you’d otherwise miss. This isn’t about burning calories. It’s about being in your body in a new way.
- Add Some Pep In Your Step. There’s no one right way to walk mindfully. Everyone has their own unique saunter. Play with these ideas. Add in a dash of novelty by varying how you step, balance, shift, or turn. Feel the edge of surface. Change your footwear. Or ditch the shoes entirely and go barefoot. There’s a world of sensation to experience.
- Free Yourself from Perfectionism. Don’t worry about “doing it right.” Unless you fall over and faceplant, there’s no such thing as a mistake. Perfectionism makes you rigid in your approach. In contrast, a flexible, experimental mindset keeps each walk fresh and unique.
- Avoid the “Tyranny of Positivity”. Author of the book Emotional Agility, Susan David coined the term “Tyranny of Positivity” to describe how encouraging someone to pretend to be happy or optimistic when they’re feeling otherwise is unkind. She says forced positivity communicates that their experience is invalid or that their pain is something to hide from the world. As a coping strategy, forced positivity is ineffective. Don’t do this to yourself. If you’re feeling really low, try a mindful walk that makes space for your emotions (even the low ones) to be as they are rather than a forced override of your current state.
- Expect to Learn. Each time you walk is an opportunity to try and learn something new. You can even imagine that you don’t know how to walk. What would it be like if you’ve never experienced gravity or bipedal locomotion? This places you in a mindset of learning rather than practicing something you already know how to do. This humility and beginner’s mind is key to succesful mindful walking.
- Make It Social: All of these mindful walking practices are framed as solo walks. While going for a walk by yourself can be incredibly peaceful, if you’re feeling up for connection (and to be honest, if you prefer to be alone that’s totally cool too) brining others on a walk with you can add a lot of joy. You can even try sharing your gratitude, curiosity, or best selves outloud as you walk.
Closing Thoughts On Walking Mindfully into Wellbeing
We need to honor the beautifully complex interactions between body and mind if we want to fully reap the benefits of walking. This means slowing down and becoming deliberate about what your mind is doing while you walk. Don’t leave it to chance.
Choose one of the walking variations above and make your walk mean something beyond physical activity. As you walk, listen to your body, attend to your emotional well-being, and recruit your mind in service of positive change.
Moving your way to more optimal living needs to be about more than just hitting an arbitrary number of steps; it needs to be a celebration of being alive. After all, our upright, bipedal nature is one of our defining human characteristics. The number of times you laugh, smile, and notice something new while you walk might matter just as much as the number of steps you take in a day.
Mindfully stepping into wellbeing,
~ Jeff Siegel
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McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.