Picture yourself meditating: eyes closed, legs crossed, sitting on the floor, the backs of your hands resting on your knees, scolding yourself as your shoulders hunch and your mind wanders.

Picture, now, a different kind of meditation: walking through the woods, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of damp earth, the warm sun on your skin, mindful of the thoughts that flow in and out of your mind, present in the moment.

Once a month, through spring, summer and fall, Conservation Halton and Moksha Yoga come together to host meditation hikes in our parks, which not only offer the benefits of meditation and but also the benefits of spending time in nature.

Before the meditation hikes, the partnership with Conservation Halton and Moksha Yoga began with Yoga in the Park, which is a yoga class that is held in the park at Rattlesnake Point each week throughout the summer. Yoga in the Park was launched by Rebecca Ketelaars, Visitor Services Coordinator at Conservation Halton, and most of the classes were lead by Tracey Dos Anjos, Instructor at Moksha Yoga. What began as a small class has turned into a community gathering, with more than 100 yoga mats rolled out in the park each week.

Ketelaars and Dos Anjos couldn’t be more pleased with how Yoga in the Park has grown but they both wanted to create something more intimate and more mindful. They felt that the beauty of the parks and the serenity of the trails would be perfect for meditation and that is how the meditation hikes were born.

“We thought meditation hikes would be a great way for people to be more aware of their surroundings, focus on the present and let go of the stress that they have,” Ketelaars says. “When people go for a hike, they may not be notice the different scents that they smell or the different hues of green that they see. These hikes allow people take in and appreciate their surroundings more completely.”

The hikes begin with gentle yoga and simple breathing. Then, the group heads out on a slow, silent walk through the woods, pausing at quiet spots along the trail for a moment of rest, reflection and meditation. The beauty of these hikes, Dos Anjos says, is that each one is different. They each include yoga, meditation and hiking but some include chanting, smudging or essential oils. Sometimes, her husband plays the guitar.

“People picture meditation as sitting on the ground, in lotus position, for half an hour, which is actually quite difficult.” Dos Anjos says. “We wanted to do something to open meditation up a little bit.”

Of course, walking and meditating in nature is a perfect way to make meditation more approachable for those who have never practiced it before but there is a growing body of research that shows the deeper benefits of this kind of meditation.

In a 2011 study from Massachusetts General Hospital, participants took part in an eight-week mindfulness program, which included guided meditation audio recordings, to be practiced each day, and meditation meetings, to be attended each week. The researchers took magnetic resonance of the brain structure of the participants two weeks before and after the eight-week program. The results showed that there was an increase in grey matter in the parts of the brain associated with learning, memory and other cognitive functions in participants who took part in the meditation program. Of course, these benefits are well known but this research demonstrate that these benefits may be the result of actual changes in brain structure, not just temporary changes in mood.

In a 2015 study from Stanford University, one group of participants were instructed to walk in a natural area—a grassland scattered with oak trees and shrubs—and the other group was instructed to walk in an urban area—along a road with heavy traffic—both for 90 minutes. The researchers had participants fill out questionnaires, performed brain scans, measured their heart rates and measured their respiration rates, before and after the walks. The results showed that neural activity in the part of the brain that is associated with repetitive, negative thoughts decreased more in participants who walked in a natural area compared those who walked in an urban area. This part of the brain is also associated with depression, which is why the results of the study add to a growing body of research that indicates that urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness and that time in nature is imperative to mental health.

Just about anyone who meditates will tell you that their meditation practice brings them peace and makes them feel more focused but studies like these are able to put data behind some of these claims.

“Meditation and yoga have taught me to slow down, pause, breathe deeply, observe what I am feeling with awareness and then act mindfully, with acceptance and compassion toward myself and others” says Lucia Newland. Newland meditates every morning and practices yoga every couple of days. She has also taken part in each of the meditation hikes so far and intends to take part in each of the hikes coming up.

With the merits of meditation being studied, the practice of meditation becoming more common and the opportunity to meditate in nature, which Conservation Halton and Moksha Yoga have created, it comes as little surprise that the meditation hikes are attracting more participants each month, including those, like Newland, that come back for more.

So far, each of the meditation hikes has sold out but Ketelaars and Dos Anjos are already looking to host more of them. Sunset meditation hikes and a summer solstice meditation hikes are just a couple of the ideas that they are dreaming up.

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Last modified: September 19, 2017

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