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Walking and Mindfulness

Karen Fraser, Paths for All's Senior HR Officer, tells us about the power of practicing mindfulness whilst walking and offers some tips on how to get started.

Published: 08/11/2022

Looking up to branches of rowan trees with red berries, tree tops and a blue sky with light fluffy clouds

There has been much written about the positive benefits of walking for both physical and mental wellbeing. Current research would suggest that where you walk is important and it is particularly beneficial if you can walk in nature, as this can boast your connection with nature.  

While just getting outside in the fresh air can help to lift my spirits and mood, I also use mindfulness to increase the positive benefits of my walking and increase my nature connectedness. Mindfulness seems to have become a bit of a buzzword over recent years but you might be wondering what it actually means and how it can help your wellbeing. Mindfulness is an idea that I have been endeavouring to practice for over 10 years, so l will try to explain. 

Our pace of life can be frantic, with busyness, multitasking and productivity all ideas that have been promoted as things to aim for. However, more recently the notion of slow living has grown in popularity as it has been recognised just how detrimental to physical and mental wellbeing overload, stress and excess working can be. 

This pace of life also results in us often having a mind that tries to go at top speed to keep up and is often full of internal chatter. Now if that chatter was acting as a personal cheerleader it might not seem so bad but it is much more likely to be negative and critical about the past, present and future which may result in us feeling negative about what we are doing and trying to work even harder or faster to quell the inner chatter. This can result in a disconnect between our body in the present moment and our mind which is anywhere else but in the here and now. 

Mindfulness is about re-establishing the connection so that both the body and the mind are together in the present, focused on what is happening now. It takes time and practice to re-build that connection but the benefits are worth it.  

The place to start is with the breath and to focus on your breathing as you can use your breathing as a bridge to bring your mind back to your body. Even if you only have a couple of minutes, taking a series of slow deep breaths while focusing on the words ‘in’ on your in-breath and ‘out’ on your out-breath can bring a sense of calm. The teacher that I follow, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote about incorporating the practice of mindfulness into everyday life as he was aware that not everyone had the time or inclination to sit and formally meditate. So, he and his followers have written about mindfulness in many areas including working, eating, cleaning, driving and walking.   

Walking meditation can be undertaken indoors but it is even better done outdoors in nature as it can really assist in nature connectedness. The idea is to focus on what is around you, really noticing things so that the internal chatter fades as your attention is drawn to what is happening in nature. So how to begin: 

  • Pick a location where you feel comfortable to walk slowly, at a steady pace and can safely look around, not just at the path 

  • Take a moment at the start to take several deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth if you can. As you take the in-breath say ‘in’ to yourself and as you breathe-out say ‘out’ so that you are bringing your mind back to your body. 

  • Start to walk slowly, with small strides and begin to look around you at where you are. 

  • To assist you might want to work with your senses:  
    • Start by asking yourself what you can hear, gently notice without considering whether what you can hear is pleasant or unpleasant – they are nothing more or less than sound. 
    • After a few minutes shift your attention to your sense of smell but again simply notice whatever you discover. 
    • Now move to vision – what colours and objects come to your attention without any form of assessment – they just are. 
  • Keep this open awareness of everything around you. Nothing to do, nothing to fix, nothing to change, fully aware as you are walking. 

  • But this is not a test or a challenge to find a certain number of things, it is about really looking and seeing or hearing things. If you want to stop and focus on something do so, walking is important but so is connecting. Even if this is a very familiar route you may see things you haven’t before or maybe you can see signs of a changing season.  

  • The other great thing is that you can’t get it wrong, whatever you experience is the right experience. Even if you suddenly become aware that you have stopped noticing and have been composing a difficult email you need to write or thinking about what to do for dinner, its fine. Once you notice this, take a couple of deep breaths and go back to being aware, this is a muscle you need to build up over time.  

Mindful walking can be done anywhere and at any time and needs no special equipment but can bring you great joy and wonder at just how fantastic nature is and how much benefit you can get by being connected to it.