Why Labyrinth Walking Is A Powerful Meditative Practice + How To Do It
When I am feeling stressed or frustrated, I often head outside and go for a leisurely walk to sort out my thoughts and feelings. There's something so healing about being around nature breathing in the fresh air, listening to birds chirping, and appreciating views of greenery and vivid flowers.
As someone who has spent years researching and writing about the mental health benefits of nature through my Ecohappiness Project and book, Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities To Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer, I know how powerful nature can be to calm us down.
There are many ways to take a meditative moment outdoors—but one that may be new to you is taking a mindful walk through a labyrinth.
Why nature is so healing.
We as humans have an inherent instinct that pulls us toward nature (sometimes called biophilia). Being outside surrounded by nature's many gifts—water, sunlight, trees, animals, scents, sounds, fresh air, etc.—stimulates our senses and restores us. The natural world offers solace and comfort unlike what we can find in any human-made environment, helping to improve our mood1 and reduce feelings of stress and anxiousness2.
Stepping outdoors can also help us slow down, quiet our minds, and stay in the present. Can't you just get lost in the moment when staring at a gorgeous sunset, butterfly fluttering by, or the dancing ocean waves? Nature fills us with so much curiosity, awe, and pleasure that it helps us feel a deep sense of stillness and peace, easing our overactive minds.
How outdoor labyrinths boost mindfulness.
Cultures around the world have utilized labyrinths for about 4,000 years. These circular or spiral structures have a single path that leads in and out of the center. Unlike a maze in which you have to work to find your way around, there are no tricks to a labyrinth, and no dead ends.
Labyrinth walking is a meditation practice, and some believe it represents the journey to the inner self. The goal is to move slowly without having a specific destination in mind as you follow along the twists and turns of the path. This can be done with or without shoes on. Mindful walking helps us stay focused in the present moment by tuning in to our body's sensations, which helps reduce stress3.
Lisa Gidlow Moriarty, labyrinth designer and master labyrinth maker at Paths of Peace, explains that "labyrinths provide a finite space and time for a personal meditative experience, one where a person can step outside of the frenzied world and walk in a contemplative way with an inner focus."
She also highlights the physical benefits of outdoor labyrinths: "Physiologically, there appears to be a balancing effect that occurs when walking a labyrinth in that one experiences the same number of 180-degree turns to the right and to the left, which seems to balance the body, the hemispheres of the brain, resulting in a deeper sense of calm. Add nature to the labyrinth walking experience when done on an outdoor labyrinth, and the relaxation is even further enhanced."
Spending time at a labyrinth can be comforting and even life-changing. The last two times I visited a labyrinth, I walked away feeling rejuvenated. The trick was to consider an issue that was causing me stress before the experience. I acknowledged this anxious or frustrating feeling and then left it behind by carrying a stone with me into the labyrinth and placing it at the center. As I exited the path, I waved my arms back several times to physically push my negative thoughts and feelings behind me so they wouldn't be with me any longer. It really worked!
To find a labyrinth near you (or plan a special trip to visit one), head to this Worldwide Labyrinth Locator.
Tips to enhance the experience.
While there is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth, Lisa Gidlow Moriarty suggests setting an intention before you go. "This could be carrying a thought, an image, a blessing, a prayer, or a concern as you walk. Or simply walk with an open heart and quiet mind. Above all, let go of the distractions, the nagging 'shoulds' or the to-do list, and give yourself the gift of quiet time for yourself. Let whatever feels important arise, and let go of anything that seems to be a distraction."
While you walk the labyrinth, focus on the ground beneath you with every step you take and pay attention to everything you see and hear. If your mind begins to wander, remind yourself to keep coming back to what your feet and legs are doing. This rhythmic movement of lifting each foot slowly and purposefully, while also taking in the environment with all of your senses, can help you reach a calm, mindful state.
Here are some additional ideas to enhance your time in the labyrinth:
- Choose a peaceful word or phrase as a mantra to repeat as you meander the walking path. Some ideas include I am peaceful, I feel happy, om, chill out, this too shall pass, serenity now, or one that especially resonates with you.
- Write down an intention on a card and then walk the labyrinth while holding your card and focusing on your intention.
- Walk the path while listening to relaxing music or recorded nature sounds.
- Pay attention to the different emotions you feel when you enter, as you twist and turn along the winding path, as you reach the center, and as you exit. Journal about these feelings once you finish your walk.
So much can happen during the magical time you spend walking mindfully outdoors. If you are looking for a restorative and transformative experience, then head to a labyrinth to enjoy everything it has to offer.
Sandi Schwartz is an environmental author and journalist specializing in the intersection of nature and mental health. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Verywell, and more. Her book, Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer, is available now. Learn more at www.ecohappinessproject.com.