I’ve grown accustomed to ignoring sensations in my feet. I played lots of sports growing up, and foot pain was always part of the equation. My (half-hearted) attempts at physical therapy didn’t provide much relief, and I opted to mostly ignore my body and smash my sore feet into soccer cleats, high tops and running shoes.
Freshman year of high school, I went to a dance and woke up the next morning hardly able to hobble out of bed due to pain around my big toes. I distinctly remember putting on basketball shoes and doing my best to make it up and down the court, but I couldn’t. I learned from a podiatrist that I had bunions (not a growth, but a outward rotation of the ball of the foot that turns the big toe inward towards the smaller toes) and he assured me that because of my age, removing the bunions via surgery would be the most quick and effective way to fix the problem. Although surgery changed the location of the pain, it never went away, and I spent ten more years pushing through foot pain.
This disregard for listening to the messages of my body finally changed when I began to practice yoga. After ten years of trying to pretend my feet weren’t connected to the rest of my body, I began to accept and allow the pain and listen to the sensations. Traditional Chinese Medicine even taught me that the feet are a map for the entire body, which really struck a chord. As I invited curiosity and awareness into my movement routine, I noticed that my feet began to relax, release and eventually re-program themselves towards lightness and pleasant sensation. I also learned that ignoring my feet for so many years was like ignoring my super power to feel grounded and connected to myself and the world.
My relationship with my feet is certainly one of the reasons that Mindful Walking practices didn’t initially feature in my personal mindfulness routine, and I still have the habit of excluding mindful walking from my practice. There are, however, various occasions over the years where I have been drawn towards teaching or participating in walking meditation, and the power of the experience has been truly touching. I have found that mindful walking appeals to all ages and activity levels, and appreciate being reminded that sometimes the simplest practices are the most transformational.
During one meditation program at The Yellow Door, an experienced through-hiker named Greg came to practice. He had recently crushed the Pacific Crest Trail, and was looking for his next challenge. Our meditation teacher, Dana Wheeles, introduced various playful meditation techniques, including mindful walking. In her class, Dana instructed us to feel each part of the sole of the foot as it hit the ground and to let the energy of the room guide our paths; standing, moving and feeling into the entire sensation of the body.
After the session, Greg approached me and said the practice blew his mind. Although he had walked thousands of miles with those same feet, he had just experienced them in a completely new way, full of awareness, presence and sensation. I’ll always remember him leaving the studio with a big grin on his face and the look like, “hey feet, nice to meet you!”
My step-mom, Ruth, is an avid walker. She usually walks her dogs or my dad, and uses this time to clear her mind. On her last walk, I suggested she try Mindful Walking and the mantra, “I am here.” Her response was magical.
Upon return from the walk, she explained that despite the pulling from the dog, she was able to concentrate on mindful walking for fifteen minutes. After that time, she found a clearing in the path that opened to a patch of sun. Unlike any other time she can remember, she said it was if her eyes automatically half closed and uplifted towards the light. For a few minutes, she lingered in a state of warm connectedness, as if the entire world around her melted into an ambiguous hazy bliss.
Then, the dog pulled and she continued back home.
My friend Jen is a super runner. She bikes and scales mountains all over the world like a billy goat. She also, admittedly, likes to complain about body pain and ultra-endurance mishaps; an endearing form of self-deprecation for a woman who embodies resilience. During one intense race in the Hong Kong Mountains, Jen wasn’t able to poke fun at her body, because the conditions were so intensely brutal that it was all she could do to finish. As if naturally, she created a “One foot in front of the other” mantra in her mind, and focused solely on the movement of her feet for the duration of the challenge.
To her surprise, the pain and anguish during one of the hardest races in her life melted away. Without the luxury of negative self-talk, she immersed herself fully in the image of strength, the only mindset that would allow her to finish. Although the race was physically one of the toughest of her life, it was a mental breakthrough.
For myself, one of my most transformational long-distance runs came when I approached it in a mindful way. During one half-marathon, I was working on decreasing stride length by increasing cadence, and did so by quickly repeating the mantra, “down, down” in my head during practice. I didn’t know the exact beats per minute, but every time I said down, my right foot needed to hit the ground. I did this for over thirteen miles, and seldom did another thought enter my head.
Not only did I end the race with a mental clarity and physical lightness that I have seldom experienced, by my final kick literally felt like gliding through the air. For the last mile, I didn’t feel my legs, only the “Down, down” of each foot, as if my body gave in to a higher energy and propelled me to the finish. To be honest, I don’t practice this technique much anymore, but I think I have internalized short, quick, steps as part of my mindful long-distance running technique.
Mindful Walking can be a moving meditation all of us, and it’s hard precisely because it’s so easy.
Instructions for Mindful Walking:
- Set an intention for your feet. We like: I am, here. Each time the right foot hits the ground, say to yourself: I am. When the left foot hits the ground: here.
- When your mind wanders, bring it back to your intention.
- Take small steps.
- To begin, it may be helpful to set a timed goal for yourself. Start with something that seems easily achievable. Here’s a 10-minute Walking Meditation and infographic from Mindful.org.
- After you finish, give yourself a few minutes of stillness in the body to absorb the experience.
- Another option: If repeating an intention doesn’t feel right, your anchor can be noticing the sensation of your feet hitting the ground.
A word on the science:
Mindful Walking is one of the skills taught in a traditional 8-Week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Research has shown that MBSR programs enhance physical and psychological well-being in individuals experiencing physical and mental illness and amongst healthy but stressed individuals. Click HERE for more evidence.
Mindful Walking is a type of moving meditation where an intention or “anchor” is used to bring the wandering mind back to the present moment. Choosing an anchor helps calm the mind, and bring the nervous system into balance. Scientific American explains that, during mindfulness meditation, the grey matter in the amygdala (our brain’s ‘fight or flight' response center) actually shrinks, while the prefrontal cortex (higher brain function, like concentration and decision-making) actually thickens. Additionally, the relationship between these areas of the brain change so that primal responses to stress are gradually replaced with more thoughtful spaces between stimulus and response. Click HERE for an Elephant Journal article about other possible anchors.
About the author:
Erin Lee Henshaw is the Co-Founder and Mindful Facilitator of The Mind Body Project, mindfulness for institutions. Her company runs mindfulness programs for schools, companies and communities in the US and China to enhance focus, resilience and science-backed happiness. Erin specializes in teaching trauma-informed Hatha yoga, elementary mindfulness and breath work and is developing curriculum for Teacher Self-Care and Mindful Parenting. She is a tea and bike lover, entrepreneur and avid believer in experiential education.