ANYONE WHO'S tried meditation has probably discovered that the awakening mind can often be accompanied by the falling-asleep foot.
The solution? Don't stop meditating -- just get up and walk, say those who practice walking meditation.
Walking meditation in some form is a part of most religious practices, Eastern and Western -- walking in labyrinths and cloister gardens is often used by Christian denominations for contemplative prayer.
One of the most accessible forms of the practice is based on the Vietnamese Zen teachings of peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who was exiled from Vietnam during the war and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Among Nhat Hanh's many popular books are two focused on mindfulness in walking and other everyday acts, "The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation" and "Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life."
Several groups around the area meet regularly to practice this "mindful walking." Like all meditation, it's both simple to learn and a complex lifetime practice. "We sit, we walk, we sit, we do a short reading, we greet each other and we go on with our day" is how the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center puts it. (The major groups that hold meditation sessions and classes are called "centers" but exist as organizations rather than at a particular physical location; their events are held at various locations around the area.)
That's the basic structure of most meetings for walking meditation. After about 20 minutes of sitting, people get up and walk slowly -- timing their steps to their breath -- around the perimeter of a room or a set of mats, holding their hands folded over the midpoint of the torso. In such "formal" walking meditation, one step is taken with an inhale, and one with an exhale. Other styles are faster and freer, but even formal style is gentle, with a greater emphasis on being mindful of individual thoughts, breath and feet than strict adherence to rules.
Paradoxically, walking can be useful for meditators who are "hyper" with restless energy and those who find themselves getting "dull" or sleepy, practitioners say.
"One reason for walking is practical," says Mitchell Ratner, a senior teacher who leads classes and gatherings for Still Water, which has held mindfulness meditations for about eight years. "After a while of sitting, it's good to get up and walk; it helps refresh you."
During a recent morning gathering of Still Water in Silver Spring, a reading from one of Nhat Hanh's books gets right to the point: If your foot falls asleep, get up and move, don't sit and suffer, he wrote. Just do it mindfully.
"There's a long history of walking in the history of meditation," Ratner says. "Many great teachers were enlightened when walking, not sitting."
Although the practice is based in Buddhism, those who lead walking meditation sessions keep it nonsectarian. "There are no Buddha statues, no incense," says Anh-Huong Nguyen of the Mindfulness Center of Fairfax, which began about five years ago. "People who do not have a tradition and people from all traditions can come and enjoy the practice."
Gatherings might have a small fee or request a donation. While outdoor walking practice is traditionally done barefoot, indoor walking meditators are asked to wear socks.
There's more to it than just hitting your stride. "If we can practice sitting, we should be able to practice jogging meditation, even," Nguyen says. Walking indoors or outdoors brings a meditator into a new relationship with the body and with the earth, practitioners say. "With every step, we kiss the earth with the sole of our foot," Nguyen says.
Practicing the slower formal style can seem awkward at first, Nguyen says -- people can find it hard to keep their balance, but usually catch on in a few minutes.
"When we started sharing the practice at the Mindfulness Center, we did not share the practice of slow walking indoors, because we knew people here were used to moving at such a fast pace, we thought they would be so shocked and never come back," Nguyen says.
After a few months, they began to offer the slow walking, and they were proved wrong. At some gatherings, the Fairfax center also offers outdoor walking meditation, which is a little faster-paced, with a breath for every two or three steps.
"We want people to enjoy walking meditation everywhere they go," says Nguyen. "If we walk to the supermarket [in the indoor, slower pace], people will look at us like we are not normal," Nguyen laughs.
So the practitioners at the morning gatherings of Still Water talk about practicing mindful meditation walking to the Metro or even walking down the halls at work.
Further training includes being mindful of your eyes and vision while walking and even learning how to smile in a way that relaxes the body and promotes mindfulness.
Although beginning walking meditators might be free of foot tinglings, there are other challenges. One of the biggest is getting away from a sense of hurrying to a destination. Nhat Hanh composed a poem meditators can focus on as they walk: "I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell."
"We think our home is in the future, our destination is the future, and we have to run quickly to get there," Nguyen says. "But the truth is, we never arrive -- we always have something to do next. In walking meditation, in every step we arrive. We don't have to worry about the destination, because the destination is right here and now. And that's a relief."
WASHINGTON MINDFULNESS COMMUNITY -- The Washington Buddhist Vihara, 5017 16th St. NW. 301-681-1036. Visit www.mindfulnessdc.org to receive an e-mail for a full listing. Sundays from 7 to 8 p.m., sitting and walking meditation is followed by viewing a taped talk by Thich Nhat Hanh and discussion and social time from 8 to 9:30; newcomer meetings are 6 to 6:30 on the last Sunday of the month;
STILL WATER MINDFULNESS PRACTICE CENTER -- Walking meditations held at Crossings: Center for the Healing Traditions, Suite 202, 8505 Fenton St., Silver Spring. 301-270-8353. www.stillwatermpc.org. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., sitting and walking meditation; also weekly guided meditation and discussion and classes on mindfulness and meditation.
MINDFULNESS PRACTICE CENTER OF FAIRFAX -- Walking meditations held at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, 2709 Hunter Mill Rd., Oakton. 703-938-1377. www.mpcf.org. Monday-Friday from 8:15 to 9:15 a.m., sitting and walking meditation; Thursdays from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., sitting and often outdoor walking meditation; monthly Day of Mindfulness includes walking meditation.
INSIGHT MEDITATION COMMUNITY OF WASHINGTON -- 202-986-292. www.imcw.org. Walking meditation taught at daylong retreats. The next is Jan. 24 from 9 to 5 at River Road Unitarian Church, Bethesda.
The Web site www.blissis.org has a listing of meditation groups in the mid-Atlantic area of many religions and traditions, including contemplative prayer and labyrinth walking meditation.