Meditation can mean different things to different people. While sitting in stillness, utilizing mudras, and chanting mantras or affirmations is certainly one way to quiet the mind, it’s not for everyone. In fact, research shows it can even backfire and increase anxiety in some people.
Luckily, traditional meditation isn’t the only way to achieve greater mental clarity. When you consider that cardiovascular exercise also promotes mental wellness and nature increases our overall feelings of happiness, combining these into a walking meditation seems like a natural next step.
As the weather warms and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to encourage people to exercise outdoors, consider hiking as a form of meditation. Not only will it get your blood pumping, but it will also quiet your mind and help you connect more deeply with nature.
See more: The Case for Pairing Yoga With Cardio
What is a walking meditation?
It’s important to note that hiking doesn’t have to mean scrambling up a mountainside for hours at a time. The renowned rock climber Alex Honnold summed it up perfectly in the below video: “Hiking is a fancy term for going walking in nature.” Remove the stigma that hiking has to be hard, and the concept becomes more approachable.
If you are going to try a more mindful hike, walking meditations have a few key principles:
- Focus on the feeling of your feet lifting and touching the ground.
- Observe thoughts and feelings while allowing them to pass through your mind, unattached.
- Ideally, practice in an open space outdoors.
The core of a walking meditation is concentrating fully on your steps. Tuning in to the sensations around you—the sounds of the leaves rustling in the wind or birds chirping, or feeling the breeze on your skin—can also help ground you in the present moment. When you’re fully focused on your walk, it keeps extraneous thoughts at bay.
A walk in the woods can be an exercise in aparigraha, or nongrasping, since it relates to the principle of the journey being more important than the destination. Letting go of mileage and the stressors from your day provides a space for you to feel the strength of your legs as they propel you up a hill, notice the warmth of the sun, see the vibrant colors of the plants and animals that you pass by, and enter into a state of dhyana, in which you’re effortlessly floating through your surroundings. When done with intention, hiking can offer a profound connection to the natural world.
See also: How Grounding Can Benefit Your Health
How to practice a hiking meditation
- Pick a route: This could be through hiking-specific apps such as Gaia GPS, reading a trail map from a local state or national park, or simply going off the beaten path where you live. Be sure to tell a trusted friend where you’re going and what time you expect to return.
- Ground yourself: Close your eyes and prepare yourself to begin meditating. Start to feel the warmth or chill of the air on your skin, notice the gravel beneath your boots, listen to the birds in the sky, and enter into the present moment.
- Begin your hike: Start walking. Drop your arms to your sides and allow them to move freely with each step. Connecting to your breath might be helpful—inhaling and exhaling on every third step. Find a rhythm that works with your body. If trying to match steps to a cadence is too distracting, let it go. Presence is the key here, not any specific breathing pattern.
- Feel your legs moving: Notice the pressure on the soles of your feet when you connect with the earth, and the gentle release when they’re lifted up again. Feel your muscles engaging and releasing in your stride. By moving consciously, you’ll be less prone to losing your footing and will have time to appreciate the sights and sounds around you.
- Take moments to pause: Hiking isn’t a race. Stop when you’re feeling tired and allow your breath to return to neutral when your heart starts pumping quickly. Run your hands over the bark of nearby trees or grass and feel their texture. Think about how old these towering giants are, and appreciate their grandeur and gift of oxygen. These are great moments for a water break, which are essential on hot days.
- Still your mind: Notice thoughts that pass without engaging with them. Where does your mind want to wander? Is it going to all of the tasks you have to deal with when your hike is complete, or is it locked in on the present environment? Wherever your mind goes, let it wander. Your body is here and now, and that’s the objective.
Practice with others
We’re social creatures. There’s an appeal to practicing with others. Just think about a small studio or online class, and the power of moving in silence with others around you, or chanting in unison to start or seal the session. Hiking with others is a safe way to experience the outdoors, especially if you’re checking out an area that you’ve never been to before, and it can still be peaceful. Communicating with a friend that you intend on meditating while hiking can inspire you both to be more present, and you can share your individual experiences afterward.
Chris Castoro, founder and lead hike coordinator of a yoga hike MeetUp group in Boulder, Colorado, says: “I find hiking, meditation, and yoga in a group setting can be very beneficial through both the general feeling of community that it creates, as well as encouraging people to continue to use these practices when they are on their own. I find a wealth of experiences and information meeting new people in these situations, where sometimes I take the lead role of teacher and other times as student. But no matter how the group dynamic falls together, we are all on the journey together. And we can consistently learn and support each other through these group activities.”
A personal note on hiking as a meditation
Hiking is a profound aspect of my personal meditation practice. Being in nature miles deep on a trail clears my head and separates me from the outside world. Much like a challenging vinyasa flow commands all of my attention, the rhythmic movement of a hike enables me to just walk. On a good day, I may recognize that an hour or more has passed and I didn’t register a single thought. Tapping into that flow state gives me a complete rejuvenation and energizes me for the days ahead. All stress is gone, and instead I’m flooded with the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world.
Plus, there’s a deep sense of accomplishment when you reach the end of the hike. I like to acknowledge my body and recognize that my legs carried me up steep terrain and my back supported the weight of a heavy pack. It’s empowering to root yourself in your strengths and experience what your body is capable of. Mileage and elevation gain aside, the Earth is a beautiful place, and it’s important to take some time to truly witness it.