Walking outdoors is a simple and accessible way to find calm.
Walking has been my lifeline during the Coronavirus lockdown. In the early weeks of fear and tension, I escaped into nature and rested in the rhythm of my footsteps. I discovered new and lovely places to walk near my home. A path beside a stream led me to a bluebell wood. Under a tunnel of trees, I saw cows snoozing beside a pond. My daily walks soothed me and helped me cope with uncertainty and disappointment.
Walking Outdoors is Good for You
Walking in natural outdoor environments has been demonstrated to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, improve immunity and calm the nervous system[i]. Leg exercise such as walking is crucial for the health of our brain and nervous system[ii]. Our early human ancestors spent most of their lives outdoors. There is increasing evidence that urban environments overstimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain, leading to a myriad of health problems. Spending time in green spaces makes us feel better[iii].
Walking in New and Familiar Places
I love discovering new places on foot. Walking is a slow and gentle way to explore a space. When I arrive somewhere on holiday I don’t feel settled until I have taken a walk around my new environment. A simple stroll grounds me and I begin to feel safe and at home here. I wonder what views or pleasant surprises might be around the next corner.
But there is also something special about walking familiar routes. Close to home, we don’t have to worry about getting lost or planning our journey. We have time to enjoy the subtle changes in the weather and seasons. A new bird in the hedgerow. Rabbits in the fields. Brambles flower and blackberries ripen. Ferns unfurl and flowers grow tall. Fluffy seedheads attract finches. Birdsong matures, mushrooms sprout and rain fills puddles which reflect the sky. Our own home territory can be a daily journey of discovery.
Walking in All Weathers
We all enjoy walking on a sunny day. But sometimes it can be exhilarating to walk in other weathers too. Last night my house was busy and noisy and I needed to escape for a while. Torrential rain was splashing off the roads, but I put on a coat and went out anyway. I strode out through the storm, hearing thunder clash and watching the lightning. I came home drenched but refreshed, feeling much calmer for my encounter with the rawness of nature. Sometimes a little wildness can soothe the soul.
Silence, Music and Stories
I often try to leave my phone at home when I walk. That way I can lose myself in the experience of being outdoors. Freed from distractions, I can let my thoughts drift and enjoy the unfolding world around me.
But other times I like to listen to music or maybe an audiobook. If it is difficult to motivate myself to get outdoors, the opportunity to hear the next chapter of an exciting story can make all the difference. Listening to a favourite song can help my steps skip along. Sometimes I join in and sing too – usually when I think no one is listening!
Meditation, Prayer and Pilgrimage
Walking is a wonderful opportunity for prayer and meditation. The rhythm of our footsteps helps our thoughts flow freely. Being outdoors, even in an urban environment, we can see the sky and other reminders of realities greater than ourselves. It is easy to settle the mind and focus the heart. Our lives may appear in a bigger context, and we can become aware of things we would like to change or people who need our loving attention.
Many faith traditions share the concept of pilgrimage – a special journey to a sacred place. Lockdown has made many physical pilgrimages impossible for the time being. I am aware that many of my Muslim friends were deeply saddened at being unable to undertake the Hajj this year. But we can still assign meaning and purpose to our walking, and maybe dedicate it to a person or cause close to our hearts. I have now nearly completed a virtual Camino de Santiago, having walked almost 480 miles this summer. One day I hope to make this traditional pilgrimage in Spain, but for now I can still enjoy the benefits of walking the distance.
Walking Where You Are – City, Sea and Forest
We all have different environments available to us. If you live in a city, maybe you can walk in a park or beside a river or canal. Getting outside and feeling the air on your face and seeing the sky will calm and settle you. Even walking around streets and beside buildings can be relaxing.
I particularly enjoy walking beside the sea. Much of my virtual Camino has been trodden out along the sea walls of Essex and East Anglia. The salt air blowing across the marshes seems to cleanse my mind.
Many people report huge benefits to their mood and sense of wellbeing from spending time in forests. Forest Bathing, known in Japanese as Shinrin Yoku, is a growing movement in the UK. Immersing yourself in the sights, aromas and peace of a woodland or forest can help you relax, enhancing your health and wellbeing[iv].
Today’s Calming Practice
Whatever the weather, go for a walk outdoors today. If you can, go somewhere with green space, trees or water. Leave your phone at home if possible. Breathe deeply. Pay attention to the sights and sounds of nature. Let your senses enjoy the experience. Come home feeling calm.
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk