Travel Well: What is mindful hiking? Walking for wellbeing boost

There’s something special about leaving the urban lifestyle in exchange for a few hours – or days – in the bush. Hiking is a form of exercise, and being out in nature has been well documented to provide a reprieve and a release, especially for those of us living in big cities or spending most of our time indoors.

But if you’re anything like me, hiking can make my brain go a little haywire. I’ll switch from being in awe of my surroundings to stressing about all the things I need to do back home, to huffing and puffing and anxiously awaiting the next pit stop.

If I’m with mates, I’ll spend half the time chinwagging and sharing a few yarns along the way. That’s all fun and great to connect – but what if there was a more powerful way to go tramping? A way that had longer-lasting mental health benefits that don’t just disappear when you return home?

Kylie Rae runs Nature and Nosh gourmet hiking tours but is a passionate advocate for taking people on mindful hikes.

She says mindful hiking is similar to the ancient Japanese ritual of forest bathing, shinrin-yoku, with the added benefit of light exercise.

“It’s more than just taking in a bit of the sights as you go along, but also using all your senses actively and letting your mind roam and not thinking so much about what your next conversation is going to be.”

“You don’t have to be a practising meditation specialist to go on a mindful hike. I usually say focus on your breath, focus on your footsteps and how your feet touch the ground each stride, engage all your senses at the same time.”

Benefits of mindful hiking can include improved concentration, improved memory, and a boost to your creativity, as well helping gain perspective on life’s challenges.

“Your prefrontal cortex is given a chance to breathe and reset, because you’re decluttering. You’re away from all the stimuli of an urban setting – your phones, your laptops – you’re away from that environment, so people say they feel much more relaxed, their stress levels remarkably reduced. And they feel happier, and really grateful in the moment to be there and have the opportunity to do something like that.”

Rae has been hiking with her husband Steve for years and says they’ve been reaping the benefits of mindful hiking for years. She noticed when they hiked together, they were able to bounce business ideas off one other better than if they were talking while sitting down at a table.

“It might not solve everything but it gives a sense of perspective.”

The couple now run hikes and “bush boardroom” meetings for corporates, so other workers can reap the same benefits, productivity and creativity they have in their own lives and in business.

“There’s nothing more magical than being out here in any patch of native bush in New Zealand, in the early morning. You’ve got dappled light coming through the trees, the birds singing, and you just feel this great sense of being just a small piece in a big world; you feel very humbled, a sense of natural gratefulness overwhelms you in a good way.”

Kylie Rae's tips for mindful hiking

Set your intention

The best mindful experiences occur when you set your intention at the start. That means stating what you’d like to achieve in the experience – which can help channel your focus. Rae encourages her hikers to set an intention of gratitude.

Listen to your footsteps

Using all your senses is a key part of mindfulness practices, including mindful hiking. How often do you really listen to your footsteps? And don’t forget to look around you to take in all the sights and surroundings, ask yourself what you can see, what you can taste, what can you smell? Being out in the bush can have a different “taste” than the city. Take the time to physically touch the ground, the tree bark and other flora to stay grounded.

Focus on your breathing

You don’t need to do any special breathing exercises during your hike, but focusing on the breath can help you stay in the moment. It can be especially helpful when your thoughts start to run away from you and your mind drifts elsewhere during your hike. Always bring it back to your breathing to stay present.

Questions on keeping good mental health when travelling? Email [email protected] or find me on Twitter at @j_sivertsen

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