Mind, Body and Sole- The Benefits of Mindful Walking

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Walking is an incredibly useful movement that many of us are lucky enough to be able to do. After the first few years of stumbling around (and maybe a few more in our teenage years or when drunk) we move without conscious thought of how we are actually achieving the motion. Our minds will quite often be focussed on the destination and a million and one other things. Some people may be present enough to be taking in the moment, but are probably still not give the body a thought as to what it is physically doing.

Over time this process, along with a multitude of other every day factors, can lead to incorrect walking technique and bodily harm. There can be seen to be a relationship between incorrect posture and incorrect walking technique; incorrect posture can lead to incorrect walking and incorrect walking can lead incorrect posture so it is a vicious circle being created. Hopefully after reading this you will see how a little attention on posture, alignment, glutes (bum), feet and pelvis, could go a long way to helping your body, mind and arguably soul.

Posture

position_of_skeleton_in_good_postureYou will have no problem in finding many articles on correct posture and this isn’t meant as one, but this is the very first step (pun maybe intended). Our body is designed to be incredibly efficient but over time we can lose this from modern life and bad habits. When everything is perfectly aligned our body is in balance whilst held up by our bones and connective tissue; the muscles providing movement opposed to trying to keep us upright. As soon as this starting point is wrong our movement is less efficient and can lead to the wrong muscles being used…leading to further inefficiency and postural problems.

The first stage of getting this right is an awareness not only of our own body, but also where everything should be aligned. To put it VERY simply our ankle, knee, hip, shoulder and ear should all be stacked in a vertical line with our pelvis level in a horizontal line taking the weight of our upper body. Pilates can help improve our awareness of our body and provide exercises that assist in bringing us back to our most efficient posture.

Alignment

This alignment should remain as we lean forward very slightly from the ankles which then automatically leads us to take a step forward in order to not lose balance. Watch a baby first learning unassisted and you will see their correct forward lean, using their steps to stop them from falling over. Keeping this alignment and lean from the ankles keeps our walk efficient, using the assistance of gravity on our body to propel us forward [1].

With so much talk of standing straight and tall we can end up applying this vertical principal to walking; either bending forward at the waist leading to a lack of support of the upper body by the pelvis; or keeping everything vertical resulting in an overuse of the muscles to move the legs. This could lead to overworking and shortening the hip flexors which can go a great way in tilting your pelvis forwards; creating lower back issues which around 80% of us have experience at least once [2]. So next time you are walking try to imagine that you’re a puppet with someone high above you pulling you up and forward by a string on the crown of your head.

Glutes

We’ve helped our legs move forward but you can also bring a mindfulness to the leg as it goes back. How many of you have tight hamstrings? I include myself in this category and partly put this down to a lack of awareness when walking. Start focussing on what muscles you are feeling being used as your leg trails behind you. If you mainly feel it in your bum (gluteal) muscles then you’re doing a grand job! If like me you primarily feel your hamstrings then you could be in for a spot of bother. Without awareness the larger hamstring muscle group like to get overly involved, but the gluteal muscles are the primary hip extensor (which is the movement we are doing here) so should be active and used to help pull the the leg back to help you move forward. This same muscle helps in keeping the pelvis level, so if weak can also lead to lower back pains. So really focus your attention on your bum to not only get it working to walk better, but also getting it stronger and more toned (who doesn’t want that hey?) helping prevent lower back issues.

Feet

Photograph copyright Sussie Mellstedt http://www.sussiemellstedt.com

Photograph copyright Sussie Mellstedt http://www.sussiemellstedt.com

Now focus on your feet as they plant themselves on to the floor. The foot has as many joints as the spine to help us walk but we trap them all in brace…sorry….shoe. If we do not lubricate these joints by using them, they will stop functioning one of these days. It’s part of the reason you see so many elderly people shuffling along as they can sadly no longer flex their feet. Society seems to be slowly realising this with more flexible footwear, less heels etc but you can assist this with awareness and mindful walking. As you take a step forward think of spreading your toes apart to provide a wide support. Then as you move your weight forward over your foot really think of the toes flexing and perform the action. Again this will not only help your walking efficiency but also your body will be thankful for it. The synovial fluid produced from the movement will help assist mobility in the present as well as keep joint problems from occurring in later life. And movement is your freedom!

Your foot has more nerve endings per square centimetre than anywhere else on the body [3]. Use these nerves to really feel what is going on beneath you. Newton’s third law states that every force has an equal and opposite reaction so as you plant your foot try to sense that opposite force coming from the ground to help propel you forward. Your brain will love the signals your nervous system and your muscles will love you for making life a little bit easier for them.

Pelvis

anterior_hip_muscles_2In case you didn’t have enough to think about, we have one of the most important areas- the pelvis- to consider. As we have our very slight lean forward the pelvis won’t be level to the floor, but level to the rest of the body; I.E. a slight forward tilt in relation to the ground. Try and bring a focus on keeping your pelvis stable with the only movement being in rotation. Pilates is also great to help promote this pelvic stability and increase your awareness surrounding this area.

Think of the pelvis and whether it is rotating in the direction of the legs. This movement will help take stress away from the hip joints and utilise the psoas muscle, as well as over time helping to improve mobility in your lumbar spine and pelvic region [4]; again alleviating lower back pain. Whole books have been written on the benefits of a healthy psoas muscle which can be said to effect not only posture, but also nervous system, circulatory system and even emotional well being [5].

Mindfulness

images-2Speaking of which, mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular in Western society as a preventive measure for mental illness. One of the most popular authors on this topic is the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh who advocates ‘Walking Meditation’. This involves an awareness as you walk with my favourite quote of his being ‘Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet’ [6]. It is simply blissful to try to think of that as your spread your toes and leave them on the floor to flex…or rather…kiss.

Once you start focussing your mind on all these things (and please still remember to look before crossing the road after all that) all of the day’s ‘troubles’ will no longer be occupying your thoughts. The monkey mind will be put to bay helping you stay present. So you will not be helping your body be more efficient, pain free with a better posture and mobile for longer, but also help assist in creating a healthy mind. You never know, you may also see the light along the way 😉

 

I hope that this will make you at least think a little the next time that you walk. The more you notice, the more you will hopefully start to think about it, making an upward spiral instead of that vicious circle. Once you’re practised in bringing your awareness to these aspects you have the rest of the body to scan too. It really all is a lifelong study.

I would love to hear your thoughts, comments and any suggestions below 🙂

 

[1] http://www.chiwalking.com/what-is-chiwalking/faq/ Last accessed 12/10/16
[2] http://www.uptodate.com/contents/low-back-pain-in-adults-beyond-the-basics Last accessed 12/10/16
[3] http://www.podiatryinfocanada.ca/public/Facts Last accessed 12/10/16
[4] http://www.chirunning.com/blog/entry/improve-your-walking-and-running-with-pelvic-rotation Last accessed 12/10/16
[5] Kock, Liz, ‘The Psoas Book’ Updated & Extended Edition, CA, Guinea Pig Publications, 1997 & Stugaard_Jones, Jo-Ann, ‘The Vital Psoas Muscle’, Chichester, Lotus Books, 2012
[6] Hahn, Thich Naht, ‘Peace is in every step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life’,  NY, Peter Pauper Press, 2005

 

(Disclaimer: I am qualified in Pilates instruction and not biomechanics. Sources of information come from professionals in these fields which I have collated to form and express my opinion)

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