On a dull grey October morning, Snigdha Anand woke up at six and decided to go for a walk. “I have never really been an outdoorsy person. But that day when I woke up and stepped into the balcony, I just had this urge to go for a walk,” says the 26-year-old Delhi-based advertising professional. She remembers leaving her Vasant Kunj home and walking into the neighbouring parks. The lush green surroundings and the morning quiet filled Anand with a new feeling of beauty and freshness. Encouraged, the next day, she ventured further to Sanjay Van, a sprawling city forest. “I’m hooked now. When I walk, the to-do list in my mind recedes automatically. I come back all rejuvenated for the day. And when I go to bed, I experience a peaceful sleep and look forward to a new ‘walkathon’ the next morning,” she smiles. Unbeknownst to Anand, she had just started experiencing the beauty of ‘awe walks’.
As the name suggests, an awe walk is a stroll where you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inwards. And let’s be honest, in this age of deadlines, stress and lack of boundaries between work and life, being present, learning how to take pleasure in the small things and appreciating the magic in the mundane, can help us lead better lives.
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Research certainly indicates as much. Since the early 2000s, psychologists have been studying the science of awe and how it helps transcend one to experience joy, well-being and inner calm. Multiple studies indicate that a sense of wonder and reverence descends on your mind when you go for such a walk. It makes you feel a part of something vast, larger than you.
Last year, the journal Emotion published a report on the impact of awe walking. Led by Virginia Sturm, an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who collaborated with Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, the study explored the idea of “awe walks” and the benefits it offered. The researchers—who followed 52 healthy people over eight weeks—concluded that ‘awe walks’ help deactivate “the part of your brain that ticks along when you are distracted from the world around you”.
Experts confirm that time spent in silence can bring numerous health benefits. “By definition, an ‘awe walk’ has two components: The first being walking, which is a physical exercise, and the second being focusing on the surrounding, which in psychological terms we call mindfulness. Both these components have been extensively researched to foster mental well-being,” says Dr Akshay Kumar, Associate Consultant, Mental Health and Behavioural Science, Artemis Hospital, Gurugram.
Another recent study led by the University of York and published in October 2021, pointed out that participating in outdoor, nature-based activities led to improved mood, less anxiety, and positive emotions. The study, which was published in the journal, Population Health, adds that such activities help to connect us with nature in meaningful ways beyond passive viewing.
“Researchers define awe as a response to things we perceive as grand, that transcend the way we understand the world. Experiencing awe not only enhances happiness and physical health but increases generosity,” says Shradha Lohia, Founder, Ekaanta: Mindversity on the Ganges, a Haridwar-based mindfulness centre.
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When you go on an awe walk, you are no longer thinking about deadlines, the strain of relationships or fears associated with the pandemic, she points out, adding that awe walks are simple, short, easy and cost-free. “Shifting our energy and attention outward instead of inward may lead to improvements in our overall emotional wellbeing. More connection with our present and harnessing joy with our surroundings is something all of us can use nowadays,” says Lohia.
THE BEAUTY OF THE BIG PICTURE
In many ways, an awe walk is similar to the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. This is essentially a sort of eco-therapy that allows a practitioner to experience a mindful walk in the woods. On the other hand, an awe-walk could be anywhere: an empty beach, a park, or even a familiar cityscape. The idea is to see it with fresh eyes—to be in the right frame of mind and really soak in the surroundings.
Of course, the benefits of walking are well-known; it can you in a better mood, improve your health and help you sleep well. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School last year proved that walking three times a week for 20 minutes produces the same amount of serotonin in the body as the most powerful anti-depressant medicine. Immersing yourself in a place takes it up a notch, especially when it comes to your mental health. Lohia says, “Our ancestors are known to have worshipped nature and its elements—the earth, wind, water and fire. They drew inspiration and guidance from them. Today, the fast-emerging concept of ‘awe walks’ harks back to that ancient wisdom where people are encouraged to be awake to the beauty and power of nature.”
An awe walk can easily transport you to a sublime place, should you be willing. It can make you feel small (in a good way). As a result, you realise the beauty of the big picture. “The feeling of smallness and humility in the company of greatness is unsurpassable,” says Lohia. According to Sturm, such walks present “a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you”.
BETTER BRAIN HEALTH
Though most of these walks are solitary, they negate feelings of loneliness and could be a simple, low-cost intervention to improve brain health and overall well-being. Anuja Kapur, a Delhi-based psychologist, says, “As and when we come in contact with nature, our body releases dopamine, often referred to as the ‘feel-good’ hormone which uplifts our mood and well-being. Therefore, a walk in the lap of nature is therapeutic to an individual. The best part about awe walks is that it is a medicine, a therapy which is free of cost, and this is something which all of us could use a little of.”