Over the past couple of years, the world has seen unprecedented change, and altered our perspective on life. Our lives have had to be changed due to the various situations we were in, and while change can be good, it can also put a lot more pressure and stress on us. A lot of people during lockdowns, took up walking as a means of being able to get out of the house, a chance to take our minds away from what was happening in the world, as well as helping us to stay fit when there was no access to gyms.
Mindfulness also became another practice which helped people with their mental health. For many of us, lockdown meant we struggled without seeing people for long periods of time, we became anxious, our moods changed, we were suddenly unable to live the way we were used to.
With mindfulness, there are many misconceptions. Many people are under the impression that mindfulness is something that can only be done with those who have lots of spare time, and has to be done in complete silence, that you have to be completely still or that it means fully emptying your mind. Mindfulness is actually something that can be done daily, and can be done in minutes. The great thing about mindfulness is that it is accessible, and when you learn to harness it, hopefully you’ll see the difference. Going on a mindful walk is a really easy way to practice mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
American Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn states ‘mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ Mindfulness can be described as a form of meditation that allows us to focus on being aware of the sensations in our body and helps us to be conscious of the present moment. It means that we can think and listen to our breathing, and concentrate on the movements of our bodies. It also gives us the time to pay attention in detail to the environment we are in. This means thinking about what we can hear, feel, see, touch, and smell.
Mindful walking means mindful movement, becoming aware of the sensations of your body as you move. For instance, you may think about how your feet feel walking on the surface you are on or listening to the sound of your feet as you walk, or you may even choose to count your steps. If you choose to walk outside, you are less likely to suffer from a vitamin D deficiency, many people in the northern hemisphere are deficient. This is more likely to occur in winter when there is a lot less sunlight in the winter season.
Why is Mindfulness Important?
One misconception of mindfulness is that it is only good for mental health, when actually it is also really good for physical health too. When we choose to practice mindfulness, we are helping process our emotions, we are decreasing our stress and our anxiety. It also helps improve our sleep, memory, creativity, and cardiovascular health. All of these factors are all useful in helping our lifestyles, in our work or business, education, and at home.
Mindful walking can also help with all the above factors, as well as increase exercise. Walking as we all know is a form of exercise, and when we exercise we release endorphins. These are known as ‘feel good’ hormones, which are chemicals activated in our brain and reduce our view of pain. Walking in general is good for us, we are constantly reminded that sitting down for long periods of time, is bad for your health, and that we should actually be doing some form of movement every thirty minutes to decrease health risks. When we get up and go for a walk, we are giving both our body and mind the chance to relax and prepare to re-energise later on. Dr. Meera Joshi states that ‘some people like to think of it as meditation in motion.’ Of course, mastering meditation on its own takes time, so it’s best to practice that before trying to do both.
Mindfulness isn’t something that can be achieved straightaway. Often because our bodies are so used to performing everyday tasks, such as walking, breathing, eating, drinking, sitting, and sleeping, we are in the automated process of doing it. Therefore, before jumping into trying mindful walking straight away, it is best to practice mindfulness on its own first.
What Do You Want from Mindfulness? – All the benefits of mindfulness which have already been suggested are general benefits that will help everyone. But when we set out to achieve mindfulness, it is important to have your own personal goals in mind. This can help us determine when we want to practice it. Do you want to feel less stressed at work? Do you want to sleep better? Do you want to get into a better headspace? Do you want to stop procrastinating? Whatever the reason, it’s good to have an overall goal in mind. As we already know, mindfulness isn’t something that can be achieved straightaway, so make sure your goal is realistic.
Getting Into a Routine – What we first need to identify is when we are going to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness doesn’t require you to spend hours upon hours practicing it, in fact, it is probably better off starting with short periods of time. You could choose to do it before breakfast, before you start your working day, during breaks, or before you go to sleep. Whenever you choose to practice it, make sure you do it at the same time every day. This helps get your brain engaged with the idea of mindfulness, and like anything, if you keep practicing it, you will get better at it.
Make Notes – Mindfulness is not something that can be achieved in a day. It takes time, effort, and practice. Our minds are so often trained to focus on thoughts, worries, concerns, to-do lists that we don’t really think about the movements of our bodies, unless we are in a dangerous situation, or are having to complete movements with care. We are automatically doing it because we have trained our bodies to do it, we have trained our minds to essentially multi-task. Therefore, you will find that your mind will wander, you could be meditating when you suddenly remember you need to send an urgent email, get dinner for the evening, or simply be distracted. It’s important not to be harsh on yourself when doing this, it happens to everyone, and because more often or not we allow our minds to run freely, having the concentration to focus on certain information and movement, is trickier than it sounds. Think about why your mind is wondering, make note of when this happens, and from there on you can practice trying to not let it happen. Remember, this will take patience and time so don’t be harsh on yourself.
Podcasts & Apps – Not everyone can concentrate in complete silence, and equally, you may not be in a position where silence, or even just quietness is an option. Sometimes, we need that little extra help to be taught how to manage our minds and our movements. This is why over the years, podcasts and apps have become incredibly valuable resources to us. You can download apps to your phone, and can play podcasts from phones, tablets, and laptops, they are becoming increasingly available. While some apps you may need to pay for, there are many resources out there that are free. For instance, if you have Spotify, there are thousands of podcasts you can listen to and even download. There are also apps such as Calm and Headspace which are designed to help us with our health needs. You can even gain access to websites that have tips, videos, talks or interviews to help understand mindfulness, or can even recommend where to go, such as Bupa, the NHS website, Mind and so on.
Breathing – Box Breathing – Listening and altering your breathing is an essential part of being mindful. Making sure that we practice mindful breathing allows to try and calm down and focus on our breathing, particularly when we are feeling stressed. While this may not totally work while walking, it is still incredibly useful to practice. What you do is inhale, and then hold your breath for four seconds. Then after holding that breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds. You can repeat that process until you are feeling calmer.
How Can We Practice Mindful Walking?
Mindful walking can take place anywhere, it can be done in your home, outdoors, at work, in education, and so on. Whatever environment we choose to practice mindful walking in, the most important factor is to think about our movements, about our environment, and being aware of what is happening in the present moment.
While mindful walking can take place anywhere, there is a huge benefit to being outside. Firstly, getting fresh air is always good for you, and secondly, you are surrounded by a new environment, you really have to focus on your surroundings. Of course, wherever you choose to walk, make sure you are safe, especially if you have headphones on.
Our bodies are so used to moving without too much thought being put into it, so mindful walking is a focus on thinking about how we are moving our bodies while walking.
Firstly, think about the movement you need to move your feet, and then think about how your feet feel on the surface on which you are walking. Think about the sounds they make, are you on a pavement, on gravel, on grass or on a floor in your home?
Secondly, think about how you are carrying your body, we’ve already thought about how our legs and feet move, but what about your arms, chest, back, and head? What’s your posture like? Does your body feel heavy? With our busy lives, it is easy to forget that how we hold our bodies will have an impact on us later on in life. Being hunched over is going to be bad for our posture and restrict being able to breathe fully and properly. Stand tall, keep your shoulders back and breathe.
Thirdly, how is your breathing? We talked about boxed breathing earlier, which may be more challenging to complete with more movement. Allow yourself to think about how you can breathe more slowly, allowing the air to fill you and how you can release it again. Slowing ourselves down is really important for mindfulness.
Fourthly, as we have talked about movement, lets talk about observing your surroundings, using your senses. What can you see around you? What can you hear? What can you feel? What can you smell, and perhaps even taste? Doing this helps us to think less about what is happening in our lives and helps us to live more in the here and now, to admire everything that is going on in the present.
Lastly, we have already discussed what to do when we get distracted, just like normal mindfulness, we can become distracted on our mindful walks. One good way of remaining focused on our walking is to count your steps. It doesn’t have to be every step; you might want to count every time your left/right leg foot touches the floor. You might want to count the number of steps from place A to B. You could count your breaths. Or if counting doesn’t work, there is the option of trying a podcast, or some calming music that may help you keep focused.
It is important to practice mindfulness for our overall health. Hopefully, with enough time spent practising and harnessing the techniques useful to mastering mindfulness, you will start to recognise the benefits, both mentally and physically, while also seeing if you are obtaining the goals you have set out to reach. Keep practising it and be kind to yourself, it takes time, effort, and focus but in the end it will all be worthwhile.