The Practice of Walking

For the last few years, my feet have become the muse for my work. I am following their lead on a journey of sorts to relearn perhaps one of the most basic truths that guides our health and evolving bodies: our intricate relationship with the earth from which come and return. I’m talking about the ancient art and practice of walking.

Walking has always been associated with the human instinct of curiosity and exploration. Our ancestors stood up and we’ve been on our feet ever since. Thousands of years of evolution have not changed this basic trait, nor the physiology that supports it. Our state of health depends directly on the full engagement of our body with the world. “We are the world in which we walk,” as Wallace Stevens tells us. This is not only a poetic observation about human perception, but also a fact we can understand from the study of ecology and neuroscience.

Our muscles are wired to work with our brains and vice versa. We think with our entire bodies, processing and carrying out our cognitive capabilities with movement and behavior. Walking is more that just ambling about in the woods, as recent studies have indicated marked differences in brain activity among those who walk regularly, particularly in environments that lead us outside of the linear cubed concrete world of cities.

I’ve enjoyed walking or hiking from the time I was a kid when my parents took me on hikes into the wilderness areas and along the coasts in America’s great national parks. And as a teen and college student I hiked with my friends around the country and in parts of Europe. In my twenties, I worked in a West African village with Senegalese farmers in the Peace Corps and it was there I first began to wonder what sacrifices we make in industrial economies when we remove ourselves from a direct relationship to the land we live in. There, too, I discovered how walking sometimes was the only way for me to handle the overwhelming emotional and psychological stress that haunted me from both what I saw and what I felt as I worked in this remote and struggling society.

Years later, as a writer I’m still fascinated by how something as simple as walking can be so profoundly important to our emotional and mental health and at the same time by a means to reconnect and re-educate us to our primary teachers—our bodies and the land where we live.

In my last book, I traveled far to listen and chronicle the stories of people working to educate and heal those vulnerable to the ravages of HIV/AIDS. I became keenly aware of the logic and social benefits of good public health service for people wherever they lived in our world, be it in Chicago or Cape Town. I learned, too, that as a writer I had to use my feet to feel and find the stories of people who were making a difference.

Now I’m interested in the paths themselves and the environments they pass through, be they city park, beaches, national trails, wilderness areas, National Parks, or rail road beds. In particular, I have focused on four areas: the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and New Mexico, the Appalachian Trail, the history and culture of walking in the British Isles, and the joys of walking where I live along the shores of Lake Michigan both the parks of Chicago and the dunes in the National Lakeshore Park in Indiana.

As a student and teacher of Hatha yoga, I’ve learned to incorporate walking into my practices and teachings of yoga. I’m struck by how easily concepts of this 5,000 year old practice parallels and augments what one learns about the mind and body as an avid walker. The two compliment each other, and it’s no surprise to me how spiritual traditions from all parts of the world have understood the profound effects of walking on one’s inner life. Poets and scholars, farmer and shepherd, worker and athlete, all know of the wisdom we can feel in exercising our legs.