Mindfulness can be explained a lot of different ways, but most simply, it’s the ability to be present and aware of the current moment. It’s bringing awareness to what you are directly experiencing through your senses.
Why is mindfulness so effective? In a world that’s hectic and high-energy, it’s incredibly beneficial to stop and re-center by noticing what’s around you. I often find myself stuck in one of two places. I am either ruminating on a past — perhaps revising what I wish I would have said in a certain moment or reliving a better time on a past vacation. Or I am desperately worrying about and planning the future — what if that project doesn’t get done on time or what if someone I love gets really sick? I can easily spend the majority of a day doing what’s been described as “rehasing the past” or “rehearsing the future.”
The biggest problem with rehashing or rehearsing is that those thoughts can often be a source of stress and anxiety. This is where mindfulness can become a powerful antidote. Spending time each day meditating and grounding ourselves in the present has been tied to less stress, fewer unwanted thoughts, heightening creativity, encouraging gratitude and combatting overall mental fatigue.
Similar to mindfulness, many studies tie nature therapy, or ecotherapy, to increased awareness and decreased stress. Research has even tied nature to increasing the part of our nervous systems that helps our minds and bodies relax and calm down after being provoked. No wonder I immediately fell in love with mindful hiking: Mindfulness and nature are two of the best strategies — available at my fingertips — to relieve stress and re-focus. (Read: “It’s About Time We All Unplugged.”)
So let’s get into how.
Whether you’re a mindfulness beginner or experienced pro, mindful hiking can be both a great entry point and a great way to take your mindfulness practice to the next level.
Set an intention.
Mindful hiking is intentional, beyond briefly noticing a leaf or an interesting rock as you hike. So, set your parameters before you start. Are you going to practice mindfulness for three 15-minute intervals? Are you going to start your practice from the beginning of the trailhead or after you get into your hiking rhythm? Make sure you have a plan so that you can be as focused as possible once you start.
Sometimes to help me be intentional, I like including a mantra or an affirmation at the beginning to set the tone for my mindful hike. I might say to myself: “I don’t need to be anywhere else right now. No one needs me. I can take this time to focus and be in nature.” If you’re new to affirmations, they can feel a little awkward, but you’re just reminding yourself of your purpose and giving yourself permission to be present.
Once you’re ready to start your practice, try to remove unwanted distractions. This will set you up for success as you seek to focus and be in the moment.
For example, if you have made it a goal to practice mindfulness for a certain amount of time on your hike, set a timer so that you don’t have to constantly look at a watch or phone. If you don’t want to be so tied to time, pick a point in the distance and practice mindfulness until you reach that tall tree or the chunky bolder. Another consideration, if you’re a hiker that loves music, leave the headphones in your backpack while you’re trying to be present. Being focused requires more energy than you think. Removing the distractions in your control can help you, especially if you’re new to mindfulness practices.