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Labyrinths: Ancient Aid for Modern Stresses

More than a relaxing pastime, walking a labyrinth can be good for your health, too.
By Karen Leland
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD

What Is a Labyrinth?

A labyrinth is a pattern of pathways that weave in a circle around a central point. You walk through the pathways to get to the center.

Labyrinths are about the journey, at least as much as the destination. They can be calming, as they slow you down while you wind your way through the path. 

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A labyrinth is not a maze. There is only one way in and one way out, so you don't need to think about where you're going.

They've got ancient roots. They’re found on Greek pottery, on Spanish petroglyphs or rock carvings, and, in walkable form, on the floors of medieval cathedrals in Europe.

Now there are thousands of labyrinths, in places like public parks, houses of worship, and medical centers. More than 100 hospitals, hospices, and health care facilities in the U.S. have walkable labyrinths.

Labyrinth Walking Benefits

Strolling through a labyrinth can help you feel the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress "fight or flight" state, says Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Relaxation Revolution.

More than 30 years of research shows that the relaxation response brings slower breathing, a slower heart rate, and lower blood pressure, among other things, Benson says.

Lorelei King, RN, former director of surgery at Mercy Hospital in Grayling, MI, says she's seen firsthand the impact on patients who walk the hospital's labyrinth. "You can visually see them relax. Afterward, when I take their pulse, it's often slowed down dramatically. I've also had many patients tell me that their pain has decreased after walking the labyrinth."

When Liza Ingrasci was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer at age 52, she faced the stress of her own treatment, plus her sister's treatment for lung cancer at the same time.

"I was stretched emotionally and physically thinner than I'd ever been and needed to reduce the fear and anxiety about my own life-threatening illness as well as my sister's," says Ingrasci, chief executive officer of a nonprofit foundation in San Rafael, CA. She decided to make part of her healing a weekly walk through a labyrinth in a church in a nearby city.

More than 7 years later, and cancer-free, she still occasionally walks the labyrinth "to acknowledge important passages. It really helps."

How to Use a Labyrinth

Curious whether walking a labyrinth might ease your stress? King suggests these tips to get started.

Before entering. Consider a contemplative question, prayer, or favorite image to hold in your mind before you step into the labyrinth and begin walking.

While walking. Just follow the path. As you concentrate on your steps, everything else can melt away.

Upon reaching the center. Sit or stand with your eyes closed or looking downward. Take three deep breaths, and in silence ask yourself: What am I feeling right now?

Walking back. Bring to mind again the contemplative question, prayer, or favorite image you began with.

After walking. Try journaling about your labyrinth experience. What did you discover? What changed from the time you entered to the time you exited the labyrinth?

Reviewed on February 25, 2014
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