Walking Meditation in Psychotherapy

You don't need to sit like a pretzel

Posted Jul 10, 2014

Most people think that you have to sit still to meditate. In fact, you don’t need to sit at all, which is welcome news. Many clients, especially those with anxiety or trauma, prefer walking meditation as it is active and engages the entire body. For patients who are not interested in sitting, this is a good place to begin and a good way to engage challenging clients. Farah, an adolescent who had been abused, struggled with depression and addictions. She would show up at my tiny, windowless office at the urban hospital where I worked. It was hard for her to sit still and she often felt claustrophobic in the confined space. “I hate this place, it reminds me of a prison,” she would say at the beginning of each session.

Given her history of trauma, I did not want her to feel trapped. “We can go outside,” I suggested, “Let me teach you something that I think you will like. Let’s try this as an experiment.” Science was her favorite subject in school, so this helped her engage. Although she rolled her eyes and  commented that it was “dorky,” she was happy to be out of my office. We started the session walking quietly side by side, feeling our feet touching the ground. After a few minutes she began to open up about the stresses in her life. “It’s nice to have some quiet in my life,” she reflected as the cars whizzed by on a main street. “At home the TV is blasting and people are always fighting and yelling.” Walking meditation soon became a respite in her chaotic life.

While Farah liked to practice walking meditation outside, this isn’t always possible. And that’s OK. Walking back and forth in an office or in a corridor can be just as effective. It’s not the space that matters, but simply bringing attention to the present moment with kindness.  

  • Start by standing, feeling the weight of your body, feeling your feet planted firmly on the floor.
  • Shift your weight back and forth, side to side, finding a sense of balance.
  • Take a breath or two, knowing that you are standing. Try this maxim from rock climbing, Stay over your feet. Notice what this feels like in your body, notice any sensations in your feet.
  • Bring attention to the act of walking, noticing the lifting, moving, and placing of each foot.
  • Feel each foot touching the ground, anchoring you to the earth.
  • You can walk at a normal pace. You don’t need to walk in slow motion or mimic a zombie walk.
  • After three to five minutes, return to standing. Elicit feedback, “How was that? What was it like for you?”

Our aim in integrating mindfulness into psychotherapy is not to turn each client into a dedicated meditator who engages in silent retreats, but to give people ways to live their lives with more balance, awareness, and kindness.

Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School