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May 2022 Issue
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Walking towards mindfulness

Laurence Gilliot takes it one step at a time.

Some Walk1200km participants are using the challenge as an opportunity to practise walking meditation.

Focusing on the act of walking rather than the destination can, paradoxically, encourage us to keep going long after we might’ve given up. It’s one of the many benefits of walking meditation, a practice taught by the late Buddhist Zen monk Thich Ngat Hahn. He wrote two books about it and inspired people to do it, including Laurence Gilliot, a yoga teacher trainer from Brussels, Belgium. Gilliot has been practising mindfulness for 20 years. 

“Very often, we are walking to get somewhere,” she says. “We’re on autopilot. Walking meditation is a practice where you align your body and mind, and bring both into the present moment. It could be following the breath, or being aware of your steps, or engaging the senses.”

In Thich Ngat Hanh’s tradition, your breath is aligned with your steps. For example, two steps on the inhale, three steps on the exhale. Because there’s a dual focus, unlike sitting meditation, this can make it easier to concentrate and achieve goals that may seem daunting.

Ten years ago, Gilliot and her husband did a four-and-a-half month walking meditation along the Great Himalayan Trail, from east to west Nepal. Many days involved crossing passes and the altitude often left the pair breathless. “Sometimes it was really far and I would be so discouraged,” Gilliot says. “But if I reminded myself to just go step by step, the thing that seemed so enormous was actually doable.”

Recently, the couple spent five weeks tramping in the South Island with their two-year-old – a real lesson in taking it one step at a time.

For Walk1200 participant Jaala Dyer, a yin yoga teacher living in Hamilton, walking meditation has helped “hugely” with the challenge. “Not every kilometre I walk in a week is exciting, interesting, or new. Sometimes they’re just the same old kilometres around the block, and that’s where I’ll practise walking meditation.”

Instead of listening to music or a podcast, Dyer focuses on sensory engagement with her surroundings.

Christchurch-based Sarah Goldberg is a mindful nature connection guide trained in the Japanese technique of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’. For Goldberg, walking meditation eases anxiety and brings a sense of grounding.  

“I feel good when I spend time outdoors in nature,” she says. “It boosts my mood, it helps me focus better, it clears my mind, but when I include the mindfulness practice it deepens and strengthens and intensifies that connection.”

She describes it as symbolically an act of walking through daily life.

“It reminds me constantly that I am not separate from or outside of nature. I am nature too, and nature is me.”

Tips for walking mindfully while completing the Walk1200km challenge

  • Walk slowly, but not too slowly. As Thich Ngat Hahn said: “This way you can enjoy peace and serenity as you walk, without making the people around you uncomfortable.”
  • Focus on your breath and the way your feet connect with the ground, or engage your senses. When the mind wanders, bring it back to your points of focus.
  • Integrate the practice into daily life. You can do it walking from the car to the office, or on longer trips.