Mindful walking and running

Last week, I talked about focusing on the emotional benefits of exercise and said I would also give an example of mindful walking. So, here we go. Again, remember, this isn’t a theoretical exercise. Get out there and do it. Actually, you don’t even need to be outside if you’ve the space inside. Once you’ve finished the exercise, you might notice things feel a little different, if only for a few seconds. The more often you do the exercise, the longer that feeling will last. And the exercise is easy to learn and to apply to running too.

Find a place where you can walk back and forth for about 15-20 paces without interruption and without feeling self-conscious. Plan to go back and forth on this path for the time you do this period of mindful walking.

  1. Stand at one end of your path and focus attention in your body. Notice the sensations. Do something comfortable with your arms.; either fold them in front of you or clasp your hands behind you, or let them hang loosely at your sides. Gather your attention in your feet, feeling the sensations there.
  2. Slowly begin to lift one foot and start to walk. It helps to walk quite slowly, especially at first. Let your attention rest on the unfolding sensations in your feet and legs as you walk. Bring attention in fine detail to the lifting of your foot, the stepping forward, and the placing of the foot on the ground. Notice how the weight shifts from foot to foot on the ground. Notice how the legs feel, and what movement in the body feels like. When the attention moves away, or the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the sensations in the feet and legs.
  3. Walk to the end of your path like this. Stop when you get there.
  4. Bring your attention to the experience of being stopped. Listen carefully to your body. Notice when the urge to move rises again, or the intention to turn and to walk again. Become mindful of the arising of intention – it comes before all voluntary movement in the body. When you are ready, turn around and pause. Connect with the body and the sensations in your feet. Notice how it happens that you take your first step forward, and what it feels like.
  5. Practice mindful walking this way for a few minutes, 15-20 minutes if you can. Notice whatever arises. If thoughts or sounds or anything else becomes very distracting, stop walking and focus attention on that. Remain mindful, noticing the distractions, then gently bring attention back to the feet and resume walking.
  6. Although you begin walking at a very slow pace, you can experiment with different speeds, up to and beyond normal walking speed as you become more practiced. If you are very upset or agitated, it is often helpful to start walking at a faster rate and then slow down and become more concentrated and present. When walking fast (or even jogging / running), you may find it easier to focus on a single sensation, such as the right foot pushing off or the left foot striking the ground. Let this single sensation become the object of attention. Use it to anchor attention in the stream of rapid movement.

The process of being aware and mindful of what is happening with my body and all around me, the feeling of the wind rushing past my face, the visibility of the breath emerging from my lungs – I love focusing on these simple things when I am going for mindful run too. It’s a refreshing variation if you’re feeling a bit stale with your running routines. Start with short distances, or even throw it in for a few minutes at a time during your regular runs. I’m betting it will change the way you think and feel about running.

The video below shows Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh describing the purpose and process of walking meditation. I have been lucky enough to participate in a three-day workshop with this great teacher in London a few years ago. The video shows an alternative way of framing emotions and walking mindfulness – very interesting, and helpful too.

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