Just this step: Bringing mindfulness to movement

girls walkingWhen walking, just walk. When eating, just eat. This might sound like something you’d read in a fortune cookie, but not how many of us participate in a typical day, right? Because when we’re eating, we’re often scrolling through our emails, surfing the browsers on our smartphones, maybe even driving or talking or doing something else multi-task-y. You might be thinking: Who has the time to do Just One Thing?

Let’s take walking, as an example. As the weather shifts into summer here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re in for some of the most beautiful sights, smells, and sounds around: Yards and fields filled with blooms; burgeoning tomato plants bedded in boulevard gardens as birds tend to their nests, nearby.

And what are we doing, those of us who are moving across sidewalks, streets, and trails? Well, sometimes we’re running, or biking, but often we’re walking, a feat that not every animal – or even human – can take for granted. But do we know we are walking? Are we aware of each intricate, interrelated step of the process, that lift-bend-step poetry that we learned, with much fuss, as wobbly youngsters, only to repeat billions of time across our lifespan? How amazing is that, seriously? To start with complete immobility, and then in a dizzying stream of events, to be able to take the movement of walking so casually that we don’t even have to give it a second thought?

In my private practice and in educational settings where I teach others about mindfulness-based practices, I often talk about savoring our food, fully showing up for each bite; this serves to guide us in our food choices, as we differentiate between hunger and fullness, but also to enjoy the pleasure that comes from the experience of eating. In the same way, movements such as walking can nourish our bodies. It seems a shame to miss out on the experience of walking, especially when it is a practice that could strengthen our health and allow more pleasure in our lives.

Over the past several decades, a solid, growing body of research in the fields of medicine and behavioral health has suggested that mindfulness practices can be beneficial, particularly when brought regularly into daily life (such as walking or other simple activities). Mindfulness training teaches us how to step out of “auto-pilot,” to reconnect with our bodies, to strengthen our ability to focus and direct attention to where it is needed (including at work and at school), and in general, how to navigate life (and its stressors) more effectively and with greater ease.

Here’s a mindfulness challenge – a walking “experiment,” if you will – that you can play with, no matter what the setting. The next time you need to walk, whether it is down the hall to the kitchen, or onto a gloriously muddy trail in the forest, practice bringing deliberate, nonjudgmental awareness to the act. Engage in the following steps, slowing down your pace just a little if you can:

  • Notice your body moving from one position (perhaps sitting) to another (such as standing), one that readies you for the process of walking.
  • As you begin to walk, bring your awareness to the simple movements of your body– which leg/foot did you start with? What do you notice about the sensations associated with each foot leaving – and then reconnecting – with the ground? What are you doing with your arms? What is happening with the breath? And where is your mind? Is your mind here, noticing this shift-lift-bend-step-place sequence, or is it elsewhere?
  • For the next few steps, practice gently bringing your mind back over and over again to this moment. To this step. And then to this next moment. This next step. Following each step, each movement, like a chain of bread crumbs, leading you forward, your body just doing what it does.
  • Now, gradually expand your awareness beyond the physical sensations of walking, to include the sounds, smells, and sights around you. See if you can still hold in awareness the fact that your body is moving, is walking, even as you notice “tree” or “building” or “carpet” or “car horn.” As if everything is part of one lovely tapestry, each an essential thread, none more or less important than the other. Your body walking. The surface beneath your feet. The air around your body, which you breathe in.

If at all possible, practice this exercise of mindful walking regularly, daily if you can. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy practice – in fact, you might find it a challenge to pay attention, to fully attend to your body moving and to the physical experience of walking, even for a few seconds at a time. But don’t worry about doing it perfectly. In fact, doing it imperfectly, and just showing up for what happens – even becoming distracted, or forgetting that you are actually walking—is exactly the point. The more you practice bringing your attention back, over and over again, to the physical sensations of walking, the more you can reap the benefits – not just in walking, but in other areas of your life as well.

©2015 Dawnn R. McWatters, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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