By Saurabh Bhattacharya
With a growing sedentary existence, mankind seems to be losing touch with the simple act of walking. Are we aware of therapeutic benefits we are missing out on when we stop using our legs?
Way to walk
Dr Madhu Gupta Shastri of the Krishna Dutt Health Center gives the following tips for best results while walking:• Always walk in a brisk and upright manner.
• Walk till you feel exhausted. Feeling tired means your body can’t take more exertion.
• Walk at the most for an hour.
• Walk for the sake of walking, not as an exercise that must be undertaken.
• Keep a fixed time for walking, preferably early morning.
• Be consistent. Increase time gradually.
• Don’t talk while walking. It reduces your energy and prevents concentrating on the act of walking
I am Homo sapiens—the only creature of Nature who walks on earth. I don’t crawl, or slither, or crouch, or fly, or shamble along sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four. I stand erect, my head held high, my feet planted firmly on the ground, and I take a step—a confident, bold, progressive step. Soon my legs move like a repetitive inverted V, the sign of victory, my arms swinging in tempo. I, Homo Sapiens, walk—and take the world in my stride.
Come to think of it, walking is a pretty bizarre phenomenon. It lacks balance (tripping and falling mid-stride is passé), it is arduous to learn (averaging 12-15 months from birth), often uncomfortable, frequently tiresome, and almost always slow. Yet, since mankind’s evolution, walking has remained his only natural form of locomotion. One would have thought that, over the years, we would strike upon a better option.
Not that we haven’t. Over millennia, we have developed bullock carts, bicycles, scooters, bikes, cars, airplanes and much more with the sole intention of better, faster, safer, more comfortable and easy-to-use mobility. Of course, we have succeeded.
With a major flip side. Too much of technology and consequent comfort may not be such a good idea after all, say experts today. Exit walking, enter arthritis, heart attacks, constipation and sundry ailments that ensure a long and painful life of ill-health. As a result, doctors from either side of the mainstream-alternative divide are increasingly encouraging walking and emphasize on the therapeutic benefits of walking. Almost every fitnasium worth its sweat has a swanky treadmill for your legs. Urban professionals are ironing out the creases of sedentary life with early morning walks. Health resorts with landscaped gardens for a one-with-nature stroll are the in-thing. From being the only mode of mobility to being relegated to a gimmicky protest form, walking is reentering our lives—garbed in the quasi-medical jargon of ‘therapy’.
‘It is tragic that a natural form of exercise must perforce be called a therapy today,’ says Dr Madhu Gupta Shastri, director of the Krishna Dutt Health Center of Yoga and Nature Cure in New Delhi, India. ‘But if you don’t make it sound like something medically necessary, fewer people will take the trouble to walk. You get ready, slide into your car, drive to office, slump down in your chair and remain there for the rest of the day, not getting up for even a glass of water, as all your needs are being taken care of by others. Come evening and you drive back home, slump before the TV, eat and go off to sleep. Where did you actually walk?’
A pro-luxury logic may well be that if, because of our intelligence, we can make our lives less cumbersome, then why not? In reply, Dr Shastri has a long list of benefits that come through walking. ‘Strictly on medical grounds, walking is by far the best possible form of exercise,’ she says. ‘For one, a brisk walk before meals gives sufficient movement to the intestines. This leads to better digestion. Deep breathing while walking increases your lung capacity and the brisk movement itself provides better blood circulation.’ The Jindal’s naturopathy hospital in Bangalore, India, even provides a pebbled pathway for barefoot walking. Their logic: the exercise blends the benefits of walking with a soothing acupressure on the soles.
But then, if the point is to exercise, why do such a boring thing as a walk? Why not jog, or cycle, or attend some snazzy aerobic class? The reason is simple: because everybody who is able can walk. Add Les Snowdon and Maggie Humphreys, authors of the fitness book The Walking Diet: ‘If exercise is to be effective it must become as natural to us as breathing, eating, or cleaning our teeth. Otherwise most of our efforts are a waste of time and energy.’ Ergo: the walk. Further, walking, unlike jogging or aerobics, poses no threat of pulling a leg muscle or spraining your back because the whole mechanism is too deeply ingrained in us, something like the flight of a bird.
In India, walking has been the mainstay of most pilgrimages. In fact, among Jain monks, it is the only approved form of mobility. The late Acharya Tulsi of the Terapanth Jain order and pioneer of the Anuvrat movement had, in his lifetime, walked over 1,00,000 km administering the Anuvrat oath. This emphasis stems from the innately nonviolent and ecological tenor of Jain thought. As Tulsi once said: ‘Walking puts the least amount of pressure on the earth’s resources.’
Although the environmental undertone of walking has few takers in India, thanks to an increasingly consumerist society that considers more wheels as the ultimate status symbol, it has not gone unnoticed abroad, especially in the more eco-sensitive Scandinavian countries, where walking to work is neither demeaning nor unpopular. It is simply the best, if not the fastest, way to reach your destination. In the words of Delhi-based journalist and self-confessed peacenik Kajal Basu: ‘When you walk, you will always reach.’
And when you want to reach your self, there’s nothing better than a stroll through nature. It is a new day and the sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon. Your bare feet press down dew-drenched grass. The sweet and soothing smell of fecund earth seeps into your lungs with each deep breath, making you one with nature’s creative force, asking you to throw out your arms and embrace creation. Intimacy could never be more profound.
In A Dictionary of Symbols, Tom Chetwynd states: ‘Walking restores a sense of balance and brings an inner calm… the left foot alternates with the right, the conscious side with the unconscious, between heart on the left and reason on the right. Walking erect and balanced, like a vertical line, the world axis, can unite conscious and unconscious mind and matter, in a way that thinking
Picture a shaded street of Athens, circa 430 B.C. A stout, balding man in his sixties ambles along in deep conversation with an aristocratic youth, discussing ethics, politics, morality and other ideas. The logical flow of thought smoothly permeates into words with each step, and the plinth of western philosophy is laid on the walks of Athens. The elder teacher is Socrates, walking with his acolyte Plato. A century later, Plato’s favorite disciple Aristotle will create the Peripatetic school of philosophy, modeled on the walks he took with his students in the natural environs of his academy.
Walking plays an equally, if not more, important role in the development of eastern thought. France-based Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh has even developed a form of meditation on these lines—the walking meditation. Describing this, he says: ‘We walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips. When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease, and our steps are those of the most secure person on Earth. All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.’ Thich, or Thay (teacher) as he is popularly known, considers walking the best way to deal with stress and anger. ‘Practice walking, even with your anger still within you,’ he says. ‘After a few minutes, your anger will subside.’
‘Walking,’ notes author and teacher Makarand Paranjape, ‘allows you to engage with the local mode of reality.’ He gives the examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who effected great sociopolitical good by raising the act of walking to the level of an inspired statement—Gandhi through his Dandi march and Vinoba through the Bhoodan movement. Man’s two legs have often changed the course of Indian history. Intimacy, being one with nature, mindfulness, and a healthy body and mind—a brisk walk can do all this and more. After all, centuries of evolution have fine—tuned this unique form of movement in man not without cause. Then why, as Snowdon and Humphreys put it, ‘after evolution has worked so hard to perfect the human body, is Homo Sapiens going out of its way to turn back the clock?’
Why, indeed? Perhaps it is time that I, Homo Sapiens, seek the answer
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