Meditation is an important part of my life (and an essential part of my stress management efforts), but people often tell me, “Oh, I could never meditate!” They say they are too impatient, they don’t like to sit still, they can’t quiet their minds, they are too busy, or it’s just not their “thing.”
I get it. Even though many of these “reasons” are actually issues that meditation can help to resolve, I do understand that not everybody wants to meditate, and not everybody is at a place in their lives when they can handle sitting down and doing nothing (although most people seem to be able to do that in front of the television…). Fortunately, there is a type of meditation that I bet people who think they don’t like meditation really can embrace: Moving meditation.
We already know that traditional meditation is rife with health benefits. There are countless studies on meditation linking it to pain reduction; lower blood pressure; relief from anxiety, depression, and insomnia; lower levels of inflammation; better immune responses; improvement of gastrointestinal symptoms from conditions like IBS and IBD; the formation of new good habits and the cessation of bad ones (like smoking and overeating); and even higher self-esteem. Kind of makes you want to sit down and try it, right? But meditating while moving has a few distinct advantages over sitting meditation (which has its own advantages, but that’s for another blog).
There is a large body of research linking movement and brain function. Research has demonstrated that moving improves cognitive function, learning, and memory. In a classroom setting, students who merely made particular physical gestures linked to vocabulary words could remember them better. Movement can also better reinforce the development of new habits (on the flip side, it can also reinforce negative habits, so maybe don’t eat doughnuts or smoke cigarettes while jogging?).
Various holistic/integrative fields of study explore the many ways the brain and body talk to each other, in ways conventional therapies don’t. The field of neurokinetic therapy studies how, after an injury, the brain fixes the muscles in certain compensation patterns, and that retraining the muscles can retrain the brain to release the pattern that may be causing chronic pain or weakness. Biofeedback is a therapy that teaches your brain to control supposedly automatic bodily functions like your heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, pain, and more, to treat certain health problems like chronic pain, hypertension, and cardiac arrhythmias. Other somatic therapies (that study the mind-body relationship) explore the physical manifestations of emotions including trauma, and include trigger point therapy, Rolfing, myofascial release, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and many more. These are just a few examples of therapies that operate on the principle that the body influences the brain, and the brain influences the body, and that we can purposefully manipulate this connection for healing and improved wellness.
Let’s extrapolate this to meditation: If the brain and body both benefit from being engaged at the same time, then if you are moving while meditating—and this could mean walking, running, swimming, or something more obviously meditative like doing yoga or Tai Chi—you may be able to meditate better. The movement reinforces your efforts at mindfulness, focus, and concentration. That means you may be able to get even more of the benefits of meditation if you do it on the move.
So how do you do it? One way is to learn a meditative movement technique. A 2013 study looked at the collective results of research on how practices like Tai Chi and Chu Kung, which are both slow deliberate meditative movement practices, influenced depression and anxiety across multiple studies. The results suggested that these easy meditative movements were at least as effective as regular exercise in relieving depression and anxiety, which is good news if more vigorous exercise is a challenge for you. Some studies also suggest that yoga is another good vehicle for moving meditation.
But you don’t have to learn any techniques at all to benefit. Moving meditation can be as easy as being as mindful as you can of your external surroundings and internal sensations while simply walking. Instead of letting your mind carry you away, you pay attention to where you are, what’s going on around you, and how you feel. Walk slowly and observe, and when your mind starts to carry you away on a tangent, just bring your senses back to where you are without judgement. It may seem hard to focus on the here-and-now at first, but you will quickly improve if you practice.
Walking meditation isn’t new. In Buddhism, the walking meditation specifically called kinhin means slow contemplative walking in between sessions of sitting meditation (called zazen). This can be a good way to get used to sitting meditation, because you get walking breaks, so it can seem less ponderous or boring. Traditionally, meditators alternate sitting meditation with walking slowly around the room in a clockwise direction. The point is to teach the meditator that even when you are not “just sitting,” you can bring a calm, mindful awareness to moving through your everyday life.
Research also supports the benefits of walking meditation. A 2014 study looked at how “Buddhism Walking Meditation” influenced depression, fitness, and cardiovascular function in people between 60 and 90 years old, and found that the walking meditation was much more effective at relieving depression, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, cortisol (a marker of stress), and interleukin-6 concentrations (a marker of inflammation) than walking for exercise without the meditation component.
Personally, my favorite way to practice walking meditation is to combine it with another Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing (I’m a multitasker). Forest bathing is the practice of walking through a forest or a wooded area with a meditative mindset. Not only do you get the added benefit of exposure to the sights, sounds, and aromas of nature, which we know can significantly reduce stress and improve mood, but according to various Japanese studies, forest bathing measurably increases natural killer cell activity and the expression of anti-cancer proteins, significantly decreases blood pressure, and significantly improves mood, subjective assessments of “vigor,” lower depression scores, and less fatigue, anxiety, and confusion. Compared to walking through a city, those walking through a forest also showed more of a biochemical relaxation response (more dopamine).
Although all these forest bathing benefits could be attributed to nothing more than the nature exposure—being in nature is, after all, the natural environment for humans–some people theorize that it’s the trees themselves. Plants are filled with phytochemicals, and we know that many of these have health benefits when we eat plants, but the phytochemicals—in this case, volatile antibacterial organic compounds (phytoncides) that trees release into the air–may also have health benefits when you breathe them in, including increasing the effectiveness of the immune system.
So why not get all these benefits at once? The benefits of meditation, the benefits of the mind-movement connection, and the benefits of nature exposure through forest bathing, in one pleasant mindful stroll through the trees? I try to do this as often as I can and I hope you’ll give it a try on the next beautiful spring day, too. And if, eventually, you find yourself inspired to try the same level of mindfulness while sitting, then why not give that a try, too? The more meditation techniques you have at your disposal, the more your body and mind will benefit.