Walk Toward the Light: Exercise for Body and Soul

You walk to lose weight, improve your health and boost your energy—after all, walking is America’s favorite form of exercise. But did you know that you can also gain mental and spiritual benefits, simply by adding a mind-body element to your regular walking routine?

The technique is easy: Instead of zoning out and thinking about nothing (or worse, stewing), turn inward. Give your mind a steady focus by gently pushing away all mental distractions and repeating a “mantra“—a word or series of words or a short prayer. “A walk is beneficial no matter what you think about,” says Alice Domar, PhD, head of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else (Penguin, 2000). “But how often do you go for a walk and you’re ruminating and stormy the whole time? Instead, try taking a mindful walk, where you look, listen and feel, where you focus on you’re breathing and the cadence of your feet.” In the process, you kill two birds with one stone, she says, relaxing and renewing both your mind and body.

Using meditative and prayer techniques while exercising gives your brain a much-needed break from the stresses and distractions of the day, agrees Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking for Clarity, Balance, and Spiritual Connection (Harper San Francisco, 1998). Mindful walking works on three levels, she notes, soothing the body, mind, and spirit. “It benefits the body because it is easier to get a good workout if your mind is working with your body instead of against it. There is an athletic component that comes from being mindful,” she says. Spirited walking also brings on psychological benefits in the form of stress release—a state that Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson, M.D., has dubbed the “relaxation response.” Benson’s studies have found that repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or activity such as walking combined with a commitment to passively blocking out everyday thoughts and returning to the repetitive activity calms the mind and body in the short term (for instance, reducing blood pressure and slowing heart and breathing rates). When practiced regularly, the relaxation response may even garner long-term health benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression. Finally, mindful walking has a spiritual benefit that is both profound and subtle, notes Kortge. “When the mind and body work in harmony, there is a kind of wholeness that emerges that we rarely feel,” she says, since we spend most of our lives feeling pulled in many directions. Mindful walking can help to heal this fragmentation, so we can hear the wisdom of a higher power or simply our own intuitive knowing.

Walk This Way

At first, admits Kortge, it may seem awkward to take a mindful or spirited walk. “But if you practice it, it will become familiar and will help you settle down quickly,” she says. Here’s how to start on your journey to a better kind of walking, whether you do it in 10-minute spurts or 30- to 60-minute bouts…

  1. Select a mantra to say silently while walking—one that you can repeat in rhythm to your steps and breathing. (See “Walking Mantras” for ideas.) Use simple words you can easily remember to replace the “negative swirl that automatically goes on in your head,” says Kortge.
  2. Do a gentle warm-up (for example, walk slowly and gently pump your arms) and then do some light stretches to loosen up muscles and joints and boost blood flow.
  3. Gradually pick up your walking pace. Observe good posture, but keep your eyes focused on the path.
  4. Silently, start to repeat your chosen mantra over and over again in your head. If thoughts invade, go back to your mantra. “You’re never going to be able to just focus on your mantra while you walk,” assures Domar. “It is human nature that your mind is going to wander, you’re going to trip over a log, you’re going to see a neighbor. You’re going to get distracted. That’s normal and healthy, and it’s going to happen.” But instead of getting frustrated or chastising yourself for not being able to do the exercise “right,” simply go back to repeating your mantra. “The more you do it, the easier it will get,” she says.
  5. Be aware of your breathing. Relax your abdominal muscles and allow yourself to breath deeply, advises Domar.
  6. Cool down and stretch again. “A mindful walk is a lovely thing that will give you a sense of peace,” concludes Domar. Besides, adding a relaxation component to walking may help to reduce boredom…which just may get you to stick with exercising regularly, she says.

Walking Mantras

Your mantra should be empowering and keep you firmly grounded in the present. Here, some affirmations, poems, and words you might like to try on your next spirited walk, courtesy of Domar and Kortge:

  • “Right here, right now”
  • “Left” as you put your left foot down, “right” as you put your right foot down
  • Say “in” on the in breath and “out” on the out breath
  • “I am here and I am walking”
  • “I am here, I give thanks”
  • “I am walking, I am happy”
  • “I am strong, I am powerful”
  • “I am happy and confident”
  • “I am fit and healthy”
  • “I do my best”
  • “I accept myself”
  • “I’m going to get there”
  • “I can make it”
  • “Om” (a favorite transcendental meditation mantra)
  • “Rama” (the Sanskrit word meaning “to rejoice”)
  • Om mani padme hom” (a Buddhist blessing that acknowledges the spirit in all things)
  • “Ham” on the in breath, “Sah” on the out breath (the Sanskirt phrase meaning “I am that”)