Sometimes focusing on my breath in sitting meditation is just the thing. Other times it becomes a nap. On those days, moving meditation is more helpful. Any type of movement - running, biking, swimming, rowing, hula hooping – can be a moving meditation practice if it is done with the intention of using the movement and sensations of the body to bring your attention to the present moment. In this post I’m going to talk briefly about three moving meditations that I practice myself – walking meditation, yoga, and tai chi.
Walking meditation is useful because it is so versatile and you don’t need any training. It can be a formal practice or incorporated into your day when you walk from the parking lot to your office, the living room to the kitchen, or out to get the mail. You can walk fast or slow, long distances or short distances, on hilly or flat surfaces. You can walk to somewhere or just walk in a circle.
I’ve seen many descriptions of walking meditation and short of not walking into traffic or stepping into a hole there’s really no wrong way to do it. Make this practice your own. I like to walk verrrryyy slooooowwwwly so that I can really focus on the sensation of my feet touching and leaving the ground and the small adjustments it takes throughout my body to stay balanced. This isn’t very practical for walking at the park or through the city streets so I tend to practice in the woods behind my house where there is a half mile or so of trails that no one else ever uses (and my neighbors can’t see me). I don’t have any destination; I just walk to the end, turn around and walk back. Another nice way to focus on the walking rather than a destination is to walk a labyrinth. The patterns may vary slightly, but they all provide a clear, obstacle free path to a center point. There are a number of labyrinths open to the public in the Bay area.
So why not just go for a walk? Like everything else in our life, when we just walk we tend to get lost in our head and for many of us that means getting caught up in a swirl of negative thoughts and feelings. Walking meditation combines the physical benefits of walking (unless you do it as slow as I do) with the mental and emotional benefits of meditation. One small study suggests that walking meditation and walking exercise can both have the same physical benefits in terms of strength, heart rate, and so on. Walking meditation, however, can have the added benefit of improving the mood and physiological effects of mild to moderate depression. Of course, one small study is not definitive, but the results are promising. So walk for your heart. Meditate while you do it for your mind.
If you haven’t practiced yoga before, it’s best to take a class with a qualified instructor first to avoid injury and get the most out of your practice. There are many different styles, but the style I practice most often and like best for mindfulness is Iyengar yoga. This style is also great for older adults or anyone with a physical limitations. Developed by B. K. S. Iyengar, this style combines the principles of all yoga practices with a variety of props and tools to help you do the postures correctly and hold the poses for longer periods of time. So, if you can’t touch the floor, you raise the floor with blocks or stools. If you can’t grab your foot, you make your arm longer with a strap. If you have poor balance, you use the wall or a chair for support. Iyengar’s mission was to make the benefits of yoga more accessible to everyone regardless of their level of fitness. I find that these techniques make my yoga practice more mindful because the props allow me to really focus on what my body is doing. Regardless of the exact style, research has found some evidence for the benefits of yoga for older adults beyond that of other exercise-based programs. Iyengar himself practiced regularly from the age of 16 until his death at 95 in 2014.
Like yoga, there are a variety of forms of Tai Chi and it is best learned initially with a qualified instructor. Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art and as such the movements have practical defensive applications. It is considered an internal martial art that focuses on balance and the flow of energy as opposed to external arts such as kung fu that focus on strikes and kicks. The focus on health, flexibility, or martial applications will vary by school. Movements in the various Tai Chi forms are done slowly, mindfully, and fluidly. The movements are gentle, but they are much harder than they look, both physically and mentally.
Research on the benefits of tai chi are limited at this point, however there is some suggestion that regular practice can improve cardiovascular fitness and balance, which can help prevent falls in older adults. The National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), one of the National Institutes of Health, funds a variety of ongoing studies to expand this research. NCCAM provides a nice introductory video to Tai Chi and Qi Gong (another Chinese discipline) here.
There are way too many yoga and tai chi classes in the Bay Area for me to begin to include them here. The important thing is to find one that is the best fit for you. In both cases, you should be able to attend a class or two for free to see if like the setting, the instructor, and the overall atmosphere.