I was lingering over a pasta dinner in Rome over the holidays this year, sitting back in my chair with one hand on my full belly and the other holding my glass of red wine when it hit me: I have to do this more often. Not the trips to Rome or even the pasta—although more of both would be nice. What I found myself craving in that moment was more of that kind of slowing down—giving myself space in everyday, non-vacation life to really experience and even savor what I’m doing.
Slowing down is a serious challenge for me. I’m a self-proclaimed productivity fiend: The more I can get done in a day, the better. My job, writing and editing for YogaJournal.com, stokes this natural instinct in me. In digital media, praise comes flying at you when you work quickly. I’m also a born-and-raised New Yorker, which means my go-to pace is almost always a little (OK, a lot) faster than those outside the big Apple.
So, when I returned home from Italy to Boulder, Colo., and was asked to practice moving meditation every day for 31 days, it seemed like a logical fit. I’d been sporadic with my usual, mantra-based meditation practice, solidly in a new habit of making a beeline for my computer—not my meditation cushion—after brushing my teeth each morning. Would moving meditation help me slow my roll, and infuse my life with more mindfulness? I wanted to find out.
What is Moving Meditation?
Last year, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long retreat in beautiful Red Feather Lakes here in Colorado with yoga and Tibetan Buddhism teacher, Cyndi Lee. The retreat was held at the Shambhala Mountain Center, high in the Colorado Rockies and home to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. My first experience practicing moving meditation was there, with Lee guiding me and the rest of the 20-some-odd group, on a walk to the Stupa.
Lee explained that just as in a sitting meditation, where your attention might be on your breath or repeating a mantra, in a moving meditation, you place your attention on the sensation of your foot touching the ground with each step. How does your foot feel in your shoe, or on the earth? What does it feel like as your heel strikes the ground before rolling onto the ball mound of your foot and then your toes? You get the drift. When you first start out, it’s recommended that you walk a little slower than usual, so you can really feel your feet with every step.
As we practiced this walking meditation on retreat that day, I felt awkward at first. With every step, a thought popped into my head: There’s my heel; What would an outsider looking in think of us walking in a line so freakin’ slowly?! Oooh, so that’s what my foot’s arch feels like when my weight rolls from the back of my heel toward the front; Ugh, how long is this going to take us?!
Luckily, Lee normalized this common monkey-mind activity. “The idea is not that you’re going to have absolutely no thoughts,” she says. “What you’re doing is cultivating your ability to recognize that you don’t have to buy into everything that comes up. Part of the experience is recognizing that your mind will stray, so when it does, you bring it very gently with precision back to the feeling of your foot on earth. Step, step, step.”
The Challenge: 5 Minutes of Moving Meditation Every Day
While I can’t say my first experience of moving meditation was profound, I was intrigued enough by its potential to help me slow down and be more mindful in all areas of my life that I committed to at least 5 minutes of moving meditation every day for the month of January. Before I got started, I asked Lee if I should continue my already-established (if sporadic) mantra-based practice.
“Will repeating my mantra while practicing moving meditation help me focus?” I asked Lee.
“No,” she replied. “When trying a new meditation practice, it’s best to stick to just one rather than dabble in many,” she told me.
I started out simple: From the Yoga Journal office, I took solo walks to the coffee shop around the corner and didn’t ask a co-worker to join, like usual. The typically 5-minute stroll took about 8 minutes at moving-meditation speed, and while my mind did wander—mostly to my long list of to-dos—I didn’t beat myself up about that fact. Instead, I kept coming back to the feeling of each step. I found myself noticing things I hadn’t before: the subtle feeling of my foot on a crack in the sidewalk; the sound of the wooden heel of my favorite pair of booties on a day-old snow-ice mix; the feeling of one part of my foot on pavement and another on grass.
After each of my walking meditations during my first and second weeks of this challenge, I had to try hard not to brush off the seemingly insignificant sensations I was having. How would it serve me to know exactly what it feels like to simultaneously have my heel on pavement and the ball of my foot on grass? I stuck to the practice on my walks to the coffee shop and abandoned them en route back to my desk.
The Ah-Ha Moment: When I Knew Moving Meditation Was Working
The third week in to my moving meditation experiment, I had a game-changing therapy appointment which, it turns out, would alter the way I thought about my new, mindful walks.
I was talking to Leah, my therapist, about my near-frenetic pace and its impacts on my life. It was making me more gruff and less compassionate. It was inspiring me to race through my writing and editing, which meant I was more careless with my words. It was making me less present with my boyfriend, friends, and worst of all, myself.
“So, what’s the antidote?” I pleaded, practically begging her for an assignment I could add to my to-dos. “If I can’t move to Tuscany, how can I finally slow the heck down?”
Leah shot me a knowing smile.
“You don’t need another to-do,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you to meditate for 20 minutes every morning in order to get more present. You can show up more fully, and in better alignment with who you are and how you want to be in the world, by doing what I call ‘one eye in, one eye out.’”
Think of this concept as the epitome of taking your practices off your meditation cushion and yoga mat and into the world, Leah continued. When the practices are working, the world is your mat. One eye in helps you stay in alignment with your central channel—the place from which you move with your heart, not a head full of fear. One eye out helps you interact with others and field all of the things that will inevitably come flying at you, many of which will be completely out of your control.
“The secret to experience this kind of embodied presence is noticing your physical sensations,” Leah told me. “Try it now. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your thighs on the couch. Feel your back supported by the cushion behind you. Now, can you do all of that and simultaneously talk to me?”
Of course, I thought to myself, smiling at how messages often show up a few times for them to finally sink in. This is what moving meditation is also about. One eye in to feel the sensation of my feet on the ground; one eye out to help me get where I’m going, only more mindfully.
During my final week of this moving meditation challenge, I started looking forward to my daily walks—which became longer than 8 minutes—and found myself tuning in to how I take up space in my body and in the world. Sometimes, this meant that even my 15-second walk to the office printer became an opportunity to clue in to the physical sensation of my feet on the carpet and my hip flexors and thigh bones initiating the movement of each leg. Other times, it meant simply taking a few seconds to feel my finger pads on my keyboard before I started typing.
Best of all, little hits of my newfound sense of embodiment started happening even when work and this moving meditation challenge were the last things on my mind. One night, I sat down to dinner with my boyfriend, Brian, at home. Before I dug in to the grilled salmon and roasted broccoli I’d raced to Whole Foods to buy and then cook for us after a busy day, I consciously felt my feet on the ground, my thighs and back supported by the dining room chair, and I and connected to my heart space—all of which happened in what felt like milliseconds.
And it felt even more satisfying than that belly full of ravioli and glass of Chianti in Tuscany over the holidays.