D.C.’s 10 Best Places for Walking Meditation

September 21, 2015

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Gardens of the Franciscan Monastery / all photos by Alexa Mergen

COMPUTERIZED ACTIVITY TRACKERS strapped and clipped to wrists and waists count steps. With a smidgen of intention those steps can really count.

Any walk becomes mindful through breath awareness and focus. In walking meditation, we notice surroundings at the pace of the body. The ability to just be, with ease, reduces stress and contributes to mental and physical health.

Stand. Feel the connection of your feet with the ground. Sense the body’s organization, hips aligned over ankles, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders. Relax the outer corners of the eyes. Keep the chin parallel with the ground as the gaze lowers. Clasp hands in front of or behind the torso or let them swing freely.

Start at a crossing-the-room pace. Then walk more slowly. This may feel off-kilter, as if you are relearning the body’s relationship with gravity. Slip into what meditators call “beginner’s mind,” a perspective of openness and receptivity.

Apply a sense of spaciousness to thoughts as well. Imagine the mind made of baleen, the keratin bristles found in a whale’s mouth. Gather through the senses what nourishes; filter out what doesn’t.

If a thought tugs annoyingly at the sleeve of your awareness, pause and give it full attention. Settle it. Then resume walking with an unhurried, steady pace. Continue for five to twenty minutes.

Two breath techniques can help with concentration.

The first is covert — an observer won’t know you’re meditating. Count the number of steps taken on inhalation and the number on exhalation. Be curious. For example, three steps inhaling and five steps exhaling. Or 2-3. Or 4-4. Any set of numbers will serve to bring you to the moment.

The other method is palpable. Lift a foot on an inhalation, carrying it through to touch down on the exhalation. Noticeably slow the motion of stepping, as if playing a 45 record at 33 rpms. Imagine the foot imprinting the ground.

By synchronizing movement with breath, the slog to carry out the rubbish or a jaunt across a parking lot can function as walking meditation.

But D.C. abounds with special spaces for mindfulness excursions. Here are 10 favorites, free of charge, open to the public.

1. Courtyard at Freer Gallery of Art

Listen to breezes in Japanese maples. This sheltered, serene space is as pleasant on a sunny day as a rainy one. Imagine each footstep as a gesture, the brief walk as a dance.

2. Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden and Plaza


Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden and Plaza

On the middle level of the garden, look for the bronze Sphere No. 6 by Arnaldo Pomodoro. Walk on either the grass or the paving stones. Or try both surfaces and compare the experience; welcome each.


3. National Museum of the American Indian

Along the building’s north side, the museum’s water feature guides a curvy walk. With each step, reflect on time. The fountain pays tribute to Goose Creek, renamed Tiber Creek, which served as a canal in the city’s early years.

Across from the fountain’s east end, look for the memorial garden in honor of United States Senator Daniel K. Inouye. The small round garden provides a still space.


National Museum of the American Indian

4. Butterfly Garden at the United States Botanic Garden

Tucked to the side of the National Garden find a stretch of bright flowers. Mosey, airily taking in sounds of sirens and engines mixed with buzzing bees and murmuring voices of other visitors.

5. Bartholdi Park

Walk a circle around the the cast-iron “Fountain of Light and Water” or choose one of the straight paths. Offset the weightiness of the surrounding office buildings by bringing a gentleness to your gait.

6. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

This sliver of land bound by busy streets is a haven for pedestrians. Rows of thin, silent ginkgo trees contrast with the hubbub. Passing through the memorial of water, glass, granite and bronze, embody a sense of dignity.

7. Birds of the District of Columbia, National Museum of Natural History

Tucked on the ground floor of the museum is a display of hundreds of birds recorded in Washington, D.C., preserved by taxidermy. Pause in your walking and contemplate the beauty of a bird, standing eye-to-eye with a tundra swan or soaking in the cerulean of an Eastern bluebird.

8. United States National Arboretum

Seek out the Gotelli Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifer Collection and find the gazebo. Use the gentle grassy hill for a meditation walk. Take note of the breath while ascending and descending. Let the spine echo the strong trunk of the white oak.


United States National Arboretum

9. The Yards Park

Cross the wooden bridge, flanked on one side by the Anacostia River and on the other by D.C. Water’s Beaux Arts Main Pumping Station. Drink each breath of air as if it were water.


The Yards Park

10. Gardens of the Franciscan Monastery

Saunter under covered breezeways in the tranquil hill-top garden. Notice contrasts: gray stone/colorful flowers; shade/light; in-breath/out-breath; raised foot/grounded sole. Notice where boundaries blend.

This list is just the beginning. Tell us what places you suggest visiting for a meditation walk.

– Alexa Mergen
Alexa Mergen teaches private lessons in yoga and meditation in Washington, D.C. and edits Yoga Stanza.

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