Sensory Walk: A free gift from nature
A sensory walk optimizes one of the best forms of exercise: walking. Walking lowers blood pressure, improves blood circulation, strengthens bones and muscles, and improves sleep. Walking in nature has even more positive physical and emotional health benefits.
Research comparing walking in nature versus walking in urban areas showed that individuals who walked in nature experienced lower levels of stress, increased attention span, as well as improved creativity and problem solving. An easy way to optimize the physiological and psychological health benefits associated with walking is to take sensory walks.
Sensory walks are a mindfulness practice that enables you to have a whole body experience with nature while walking. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Sensory walks are an easy way to integrate mindfulness into your daily health and wellness routine.
How To Do A Sensory Walk
Sensory walks, like many other mindfulness practices, encourage you to use all five of your senses to connect with the natural world. It can be helpful at some points in the walk to stand still and close your eyes. Ending your reliance on sight can heighten your awareness of the other senses. Whether you are walking or standing still, the goal is to notice as much as possible the beauty of the world surrounding you.
Here are some questions to ask yourself that can guide your focus as you practice your sensory walk.
What are you hearing?
Sound is a powerful sense that activates our emotions, promotes visual imaginations, and strengthens our memory recall. As you engage in your sensory walk, pay attention to the distinctive types of sounds that you hear.
Can you hear your footsteps? Are there birds chirping? Can you hear running water? It’s important to take the time to really notice the sounds of your external environment rather than drowning them out with your internal dialogue.
What are you feeling?
No, I don’t mean identifying your emotional state. I mean paying attention to the largest organ in your body: your skin. Skin is a primary vehicle through which we experience the world, both sensations of pleasure and pain. Our skin has the most nerve endings that provide us with a fine tuned gradient measure of our environment. We can even sense very subtle changes in the environment with our skin and respond quickly with goose-bumps or having the hair on our necks stand up.
As you engage in your sensory walk, pay attention to your skin and the sensations it communicates to you. Depending on the weather, there may not be a lot of your skin exposed to the outside elements. However, even when covered with clothing and shoes your skin is still communicating important sensory information about your environment.
Can you feel the sun on your skin? What does the ground feel like under your feet? Is it firm, mushy, rocky? What does the temperature feel like on your skin? Again, stopping to closely your eyes briefly will help you better tune into all this lovely information your body is experiencing.
What can you smell?
Smell is often thought of as one of our most potent senses. It is closely connected to our memory and can quickly recreate feelings associated with a past experience. We are usually aware of smells at the extreme of the spectrum, either very pleasant or very offensive. But as we practice mindfulness we can become aware of all the varieties of smell around us.
Practice using your sense of smell to create a “map” of your sensory walk. What smells are associated with the various areas of your map? What smells can you identify? Can you distinguish the distinctive smells among the various flowers? What about the trees?
It’s useful to stop and get up close the the objects you are smelling. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Yes, I do want you to stop and smell the roses…and the daffodils….and the pine trees. Allow yourself to fully savor the sensations of the smells of nature.
What can you taste?
Our taste sensations are closely connected to our sense of smell. As you allow yourself to experience more fully the smells associated with nature, you may notice an activation of your taste buds. You may even begin to salivate. Great! Enjoy these tastes of nature.
Those of you who are more knowledgeable about the various edible flowers, nuts, and berries that grow freely in nature may want to partake in enjoying these delicious gifts during your sensory walk. My children and I love the smell and taste of wild growing honeysuckle and often snack on these sweet treats. Nature provides us with so many gifts and fully experiencing and enjoying these gifts is one way to say thank you.
How are you moving through space?
This is known as our proprioceptive sense and is often overlooked in our discussions of our sensory experiences. However, proprioception is responsible for our perceptions of our body position, motion, and balance.
Without proprioception we wouldn’t experience the excitement of our stomachs dropping when we ride on a roller coaster or the relaxation we feel when sitting in a swing or a rocking chair. Proprioception allows us to know where our body is positioned in space even when our eyes are closed. Our proprioceptive sense also helps us to be more alert when on an unstable or elevated surface.
As you practice your sensory walk, vary the surfaces you walk on and notice the changes in your body. Do you feel different walking on a gravel path than walking across a fallen tree? How does it feel when you cross a stream using the river rocks as your bridge? Vary the pace of your walk (fast then slow) and notice the differences in your body.
What do you see?
Sight can be a very pleasurable part of our experience of nature. Just looking at a beautiful nature scene can bring feelings of peace and relaxation. As you engage in your sensory walk, imagine that you are a cinematographer trying to capture footage for National Geographic.
Take the time to see what is likely a familiar environment for you with fresh new eyes. What are the “postcard moments” of your walk? What images bring you feelings of warmth, pleasure, relaxation, excitement, or awe?
As you notice these sights, stop and focus on them to intensify your experience of the moment. For at least 20 seconds, pause and focus on the image, breathing deeply and enjoying the feelings that are evoked by this sight within you.
Remember, what you focus on becomes magnified. As you focus on the pleasure of nature and wonderful feelings you are having at this moment, your joy and gratitude will be magnified. Moreover, these feelings will stay with you and can be brought back to mind long after you are physically removed from this experience.
Capture Your Sensory Walk
As you complete your sensory walk, reserve time at the end to sit quietly and capture the beauty of these moments. You may want to bring a sketchbook or a journal to record your reflections. Regardless of your artistic skill level, draw at least three items that you noticed on your sensory walk.
Although the drawing activity is visual, you do not want to rely only on the sights of your sensory walk. How might you be able to visually represent the smells or physical sensations that you experienced on the walk? What about the tastes and movement sensations?
After you’ve captured at least three sensory memories of this walk, write 1-2 sentences of gratitude for what you have just experienced.
As you focus on the sensations and emotions produced from the sensory walk, your awareness of the gifts of nature will abound. These gifts of nature are free and always available to you whenever you need them. Even when you can not physically return to the site of this walk, you can review your journal reflections and activate a full sensory recall of the memories of this experience.
As we celebrate the beginning of spring and Earth Day, I encourage you to add a 10-15min sensory walk into your routine. You will find that this practice greatly reduces your level of stress, expands your sense of joy and connection to a larger world, as well as increases your energy and feelings of well-being.
Today, give yourself a gift of vitality and joy! Take a sensory walk.
What are the benefits you received from your sensory walk? Leave a comment below or you can email me directly at [email protected]. If you have pictures from your walk, please share so we can expand the joy!