Mind & Spirit

Mindful walking

By: Jennifer Melo

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Mindful walking

By: Jennifer Melo

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You can do it on the way to work, when you take the kids to school and when you're heading to the grocery store. Whenever you put foot to pavement, use meditation techniques to quiet your thoughts and bring a sense of calm into your day.

Tame mental traffic
Many practice walking meditation in order to relax, to help with problem solving or to seek awareness. It's a good alternative to sitting meditation, which may be unappealing if you're seated at a desk all day. There are several variations for walking meditation, but beginners often start by concentrating on breathing and on the movement of the feet -- being sure to maintain a steady focus and repel distractions. With progression, walkers take notice of various elements for each step, such as the pushing, lifting, swinging and dropping of each foot.

Dr. Lucinda Sykes, a Toronto-based physician and psychotherapist, has managed a hatha yoga and meditation practice for over 15 years and leads Meditation for Health, a community-based medical program. As an alternative to walking meditation, she recommends bringing mindfulness into your walks because it can be a safer way to meditate in high-traffic areas.

Scan senses and surroundings
Unlike walking meditation, bringing mindfulness into daily walks allows you to shift your attention and take notice of your surroundings. Sykes describes it as moment-to-moment awareness. Regularly shifting your attention allows you to spot obstacles, leaving you less exposed than walking meditation can. When bringing mindfulness to walks, you may place your attention on your breathing, and then take notice of the lifting, dropping and contacting of your feet, notice sounds, smells and sights. Sykes says it's important to place your attention on one aspect at a time. "Allow yourself to experience your surroundings, without following your thoughts or feelings," Sykes says. She says the goal is to achieve a "neutral awareness that allows you to experience what your senses are feeling."

Steps to stepping right
Take the following tips from Sykes to turn your daily walks into enlightening experiences.

- Regularly shift your attention to keep from dwelling on thoughts.
- If your mind gets busy, bring your attention to experiences within your body. Be aware of your breath, then your steps, and then experience your surroundings. Notice the sounds from a bird or a car honking.
- Open yourself to each sensation as if you're experiencing it for the first time. "Allow each moment to be fresh," Sykes says.
- Walk without urgency. Don't strive to get to your destination or think about what you'll do once you arrive there.
- Don't get caught up in what you may be doing wrong. "Recrimination leads to rumination," Sykes says.

Manage a meandering mind
As you pay attention to your breath and take notice of a tree, you may find that thoughts of doctor's appointments creep into your mind, followed by the chores that await you at home, and so on. When your thoughts start to wander, Sykes suggests simply enforcing control over them. "Choose to direct your thoughts elsewhere," Sykes says.

Foot lifts, lowers, touches ground, breathe in, and breathe out...

Mindfulness-based stress reduction
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) arms people with the tools to help them relax, handle stress and cope with pain, according to Jim Bean, clinic director of the MBSR program at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto.

Using a variety of techniques, including gentle yoga, mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises, MBSR can also lighten the impact that a chronic condition, such as arthritis, heart disease or diabetes, can have on your life. You learn to work around the illness instead of letting the stress it causes overwhelm you, explains Dr. Susan Abbey, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

With mindfulness meditation you learn to live at peace with what ails you. MBSR teaches you to overcome the focus you put on your chronic condition and the resentment you have for it. Pain on its own, without the resentment of it and constant focus on how much it bothers you, is much easier to deal with day to day, says Abbey.

Decrease the need for medication
Bean even suggests that since the condition is no longer magnified by mental anguish, the need for medication and other treatments can sometimes be lowered with MBSR training. "People will have a lot more freedom in their lives because their sole focus is no longer the pain," he says.

The nine-week MBSR program at St. Joseph's Health Centre is $150 plus the cost of course materials, including two audiotapes and a workbook. To locate a program in your area, visit www.umassmed.edu/cfm and click on Other MBSR Programs.

For more information on the program at St. Joseph's Health Centre, call (416) 530-6620.

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Mind & Spirit

Mindful walking