Saturday, March 21, 2020

Steps for Peace

     While chatting with my mom the other day, I mentioned being short on my step count and needing to remedy the situation. She responded with surprise. "I wouldn't have taken you for the step counting type." Probably because I've never been involved in any sports or fitness regimens. I tried doing leg lifts for a couple weeks in 5th grade, but that wasn't fulfilling. Of course there is yoga, which has always felt like a category of its own. Known as a goalless practice, nothing to chart there. So why count steps? Shouldn't they just be enjoyed?

One step at a time!
A few years ago I discovered that my  smartphone had been keeping track of my steps. I was shocked to see that most days had very few charted. Something about this reality check motivated me to find out more about my daily habits. I wanted to see if  I could rack up 10,000 steps on a regular basis. At first I quit whenever I felt like it. The tried-and-true 'listen to your body' wisdom served as my coach. I didn't see it as giving up either. I was happy not to be turning walking into some kind of punishment, like those 5th grade leg lifts.

One captivating day, I had the experience of really stepping into my feet. It happened while I was imagining the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh's suggestion to "kiss the earth with your feet." My pace slowed down and I really felt connected to my movements. It felt like my spiritual heart had moved into my feet! The next day I was back to focusing on my thoughts, which caused a great disconnect in my movements again. This felt so much like meditation and yoga. One moment it all feels so right, and the next moment it's back to the bombardment of the thinking mind.

Stepping into all the seasons.
Each step brings new information and an opportunity to be fully present with it. Bringing somatic yoga principles into a daily walking practice seemed overwhelming at first. It was easier to listen to a podcast about being in my body than creating the conditions to actually be in my body. Sensing and feeling is no easy task, especially if distractions are plentiful, or discomfort is perceived. Yet, allowing all the sensations to be noticed, felt, and eventually let go, has been key to maintaining a transformative walking practice. What started as a fact finding mission (how many steps do I take?) has morphed into an everyday practice of self-acceptance and love.

Switching up the way I walk is important for keeping it interesting. It's true that our mind/bodies crave novel movements. With an endless sense of permission, I change a little something here and there. Maybe I'll lead with my left foot for a while. Noticing the whole time, things like; How do my feet land? Where am I stuck? How are my shoulders moving today? Can there be some contentment in the discomfort? These are just a few of the questions I keep in mind while taking a walk. The work of Esther Gokhale and the return to primal posture gave me some other ideas for keeping it interesting. I listened to Esther's talks and began to experiment with some new (yet ancient) ways of walking. My body responded right away to this method. I noticed some adjustments in my hips, I felt taller. It's intriguing to remember her instructions for a portion of a walk and then return to simply kissing the Earth with my feet.

Of course 10,000 steps is just an arbitrary number. I know someone who aims for 4000 steps a day. Plenty of walkers don't count their steps at all. If I become fixated on the number as the goal, it quickly becomes something to be gotten through instead of something to be savored. 10,000 steps is my yoga, meditation and breathing practice, and not so much a time for catching up with friends. I enjoy walking with friends, but consider it more of a treat than a necessity. Much like meditation, it feels supportive to be with others who are engaged in the same practice at the same time, though ultimately this is inner work and a solo journey. There are definitely days when I struggle to prioritize my walks, and it sure is nice to have a supportive friend to help me get outside and start walking. Thankfully on most days walking is a joy, a highlight, a non-negotiable necessity.

For those who are unable to walk, focusing on the breath instead of steps is a wonderful alternative. Vipassana meditation encourages practitioners to have a one-hour sitting practice, twice a day. As someone who likes to question tradition, why one hour? Certainly 15 minutes of meditation is much better than none. It's the same with walking. However, these time frames are really designed for our mind/body organisms to get the full experience of mindfulness practice. The level of refreshment I feel after one hour of meditation is generally much higher than after 15 minutes. Still, I adjust practice times as needed, knowing it's all worthwhile. Even a short walk does wonders for stress reduction. Longer practice times feel like a substantial investment in physical, mental and emotional health. However many steps (or minutes of meditation), bringing an intention to mind such as; "I'm planting seeds of peace," helps with remembering the bigger picture and real purpose. On a more challenging day it might take 9, 999 steps before a sense of peace is felt. A longer walk or meditation provides the time it may take to really land in the present moment. The side effects of a longer practice include better breathing, establishing more functional movement patterns, and a extended window for healing to take place. One of my favorite perks about this practice is that it's available now. Nothing to sign up for, no gym to join. Appointments are available anytime. In fact, I feel one calling now.