Heal and Tone with Natural Walking
The way we move throughout our day is one of the most powerful ways we can invoke comfort, enjoyment, and healing in our bodies.
After a few crazy athletic injuries in my 20s and a blown lumbar disc, a long stint with a bucket seat car (an ergonomic “kiss of death!”), and 8+ hours of sitting a day in med school, my body was far from happy. I was in my 30s wondering if I would ever be pain free again.
Physical therapy and osteopathy helped, but once I had a baby on top of it all I had to find a way to treat my pain and heal my spine without adding anything to my to do list!
You’d think as a spine specialist I would be ahead of the curve, but my work as an osteopathic physician requires a fair amount of sitting and is pretty physically demanding. Plus as a doctor and a mother there wasn’t much time for rest and relaxation, much less fitness. Not an unusual paradox for many of us!
Desperate for pain relief, I was determined to heal my spine and create fitness while going about my busy life.
Not only have I grown back at least half of the spinal disc I blew out in my 20s (MRI confirms), I have also gained fitness, energy, and a very welcome improvement to the shape of my whole body!
The revelation I had is this: as much as we are what we eat, we are what we do. The way we walk can hugely affect our fitness and healing. Every step we take can either be an impact trauma, or a full body massage.
With the eye of a physical medicine doctor, I’ve broken natural walking down into its parts, examined the physiological significance of each, and then blended these into an integrated understanding and practice that actually works.
Natural walking, step-by-step:
Feel your feet on the ground. Feeling your feet on the floor and the sensation of your toes inside your shoes activates the nerves in the legs and the sacral plexus of nerves in the pelvis. This circuit wakes up the restorative nervous system and helps the body ground and relax.
Imagine your legs sending roots down into the earth, and then a cord from the crown of your head to the sky. Our physiology doesn’t know the difference between real and imaginary. Your body might begin to soften and sway a bit. I imagine I’m a tall seaweed on the ocean floor. This visualization both relaxes and stabilizes the nervous system, making the body feel lighter, fluid and more grounded at the same time.
Next, without gripping, contract the pelvic floor a little to make sure it’s awake. This further stimulates the sacral plexus of nerves that oppose the stress response. The yogic tradition calls the sphincters of the pelvic floor Bandhas. Bandha activation is a mainstay of grounding the body and recruiting its central axis of power.
Next feel your belly button move toward your spine. Bringing your belly button inward helps the torso move as one powerful column. I visualize my spine rising like a cobra from a basket, and it does!
Waking up the central axis of the body, the “cobra,” has the added effect of allowing the limbs to relax. This is so key, and it’s so rare that I see people doing this. Freely swinging limbs mean that our joints are constantly lubricated by our movements.
When the trunk is active and the limbs are relaxed, the hip flexors (psoas muscles) release and unbind the diaphragm. This helps us breathe more deeply which massages the organs in the mid-section, including the kidney (renal) and the associated adrenal (ad-renal) circuit of the stress response.
Lastly, flatten the tongue on the roof of the mouth, especially the soft palate in the back. Stimulating this area wakes up the vagal pathway of nerves that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system that opposes the stress response.
Keeping your tongue to the roof of your mouth also ensures that you’ll breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing causes carbon dioxide to recirculate, which expands the smooth muscle of the blood vessels and airways and helps deliver oxygen to the body and brain. Breathing through the nose also delivers similarly retained nitrous oxide—the same gas that dentists use—which further calms the nervous system.
Now let’s move!
Looking ahead is the secret ingredient. Much like driving a car, when we look where we’re going, our forward motion is flowing and smooth.
Standing tall, lean slightly forward and let gravity start your movement. To keep yourself from falling, push off from the ball of one foot to propel your leg forward. This “pushing-off” is key. This powerful way of walking engages the entire back body, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, relieves stress, and mobilizes tremendous strength.
Feel your “tail” wag and your butt work! “Wagging, or “swagging”, as I sometimes say, runs a wave of motion through your whole spine with every step.
It’s interesting that “defensive posturing” in the context of walking can be likened to the military march, while natural walking, with its flowing and relatively provocative sway, is the opposite. Natural walking is flowing, elegant and inviting.
With each step, once the back leg swings forward, reach across the ground like you’re a cheetah crossing the Serenghetti. Deliberately “grabbing” the ground as you move across it brings the muscles of the legs into powerful action, which invokes marked strength and stability throughout the whole body.
When you land on the heel of the foot in front, roll fully through the whole arch and feel your natural “shock absorber” in action. The foot, ankle, knee, hip and pelvis is a spring mechanism that does a lot of the work of walking as it uncoils from the ground.
The arms, of course, are swinging easily back and forth, adding a flowing, rotational motion to the wave moving up the spine. Every cell in the body is soft, strong and engaged. That’s it!
Natural walking takes practice. In the United States especially, moving like a fluid is not the typical gait pattern; it’s more “provocative” than we’re used to. But we’re not learning anything new; we’re remembering the way we walked as children.
I have discovered that walking for healing is not only simple, it’s immeasurably pleasurable. Walking consciously, with just a touch of carefully wielded attention, can light up every cell in the body and invoke the magical combination of ease, strength and flow. The entire body can receive healing with every step you take. But don’t take my word for it—try it for yourself!