Walking In Circles For Your Health: The Calming Effect Of Labyrinths

Photo by Rita Robinson.


by April M. Short

on May 1, 2015

If you’re feeling stressed out, what you might need is to go walking in circles. No joke.

There is a growing movement of people from all walks of life — from new-age wellness advocates to doctors and therapists, even some hospitals — who swear by the calming, centering effects of labyrinths.

Unlike a maze, which is essentially a puzzle with an eventual solution, a labyrinth is a fluid, single path. Usually circular, a labyrinth winds intricately in on itself towards a center point. The walker does not set out on a labyrinth path in order to navigate it or figure it out, but to simply experience it. Originating in Ancient Greek mythology, they have existed for more than 4,000 years and have been used in spiritual practices across various cultures — from fertility rituals to symbolic pilgrimages.

Photo by Pefkos.

Photo by Pefkos.

As Douglas Quenqua put it in a recent Atlantic article:

“Some people do yoga. Others meditate. These days, there are those who walk labyrinths, swearing by its emotional and spiritual benefits.”

Many people report feelings of lessened anxiety and stress after walking labyrinths, and some cancer patients have even reported reductions to their chemotherapy-induced nausea.

Sally Quinn, a Washington Post columnist, wrote for CNN in 2011 about how daily labyrinth walking has changed her life. One of the first times she tried it, in California almost 20 years ago, it transformed her attitude toward her son, who was experiencing “severe learning disabilities at the time and was in a special school.”

She writes about entering a labyrinth alone, with no one around, and at the center resting her eyes on a “huge pine tree in front of me that I hadn’t noticed before.”

“It had beautiful spreading boughs, as though it was embracing the circle of the labyrinth. It was one of the prettiest trees I had ever seen and it was the only pine amid the live oaks. I suddenly experienced a shocking stroke of clarity. That tree was Quinn. He was different from all the other trees but he was more beautiful than they were. I began to cry. How could I not have realized this all along?”

Quinn writes that, rather than resembling a maze, where you can easily get lost, “a labyrinth is a place you go to get found.”

There is a research group,  Labyrinth Society Research Committee, founded in 1998 completely dedicated to collecting “labyrinth experiences” and information on their psychological and physiological effects. On their website, the group has posted an “open call to researchers and discoverers” interested in delving into the effects of labyrinths, which are largely anecdotal to date. The Labyrinth Society is made up of labyrinth-lovers from around the world who are working to introduce the paths to places like hospice care facilities, schools, hospitals and workplaces. They’ve found it difficult to introduce the idea to many of those facilities for lack of empirical data to back up the countless personal reports of labyrinths’ effects.

Photo by MayaTheB.

Photo by MayaTheB.

In recent years labyrinths have become more widely appreciated. In Quenqua’s Atlantic piece, he notes that at the Colorado Children’s Hospital there is a pamphlet informing patients that “walking a labyrinth can often calm people in the midst of crisis.” He also notes that the Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Oregon offers a “finger labyrinth” to patients who can’t make it to the outdoor labyrinth, so that they can trace the labyrinth pattern with their finger from their beds.

David Gallagher, the executive director of the Labyrinth Society told Quenqua there are historical waves of revived interest in labyrinths.

“We happen to be in a moment of one of those revivals,” Gallagher said.

Perhaps a reflection of that revival, May 2 is World Labyrinth Day, during which people are invited to walk labyrinths in solidarity with others, “to promote peace.” According to a press release for World Labyrinth Day, they are “in resurgence as more people seek out sacred spaces that promote insight and inner wisdom.”

While a double-blind, placebo controlled lab study of labyrinths has yet to be proposed, Quenqua notes there are dozens of small studies, which have hinted at some genuine benefits. Quenqua writes:

“One 2001 study found that walking a labyrinth provided ‘short-term calming, relaxation, and relief from agitation and anxiety’ for Alzheimer’s patients. Others show that everyone from pediatric cancer patients to nurses feel happier and less stressed after a good labyrinth walk.”

Thomas Ferrara, an M.D. in Indianapolis who has referred several patients to local labyrinths, told Quenqua that regardless of scientific research, labyrinths appear to reduce stress — which is significant in and of itself.

“We’re using way, way, way too many pharmaceuticals in this country right now,” he said to Quenqua. “This is a very easy way [to reduce stress]. It takes a little bit of time, but there’s very little risk to it.”

Photo by  lero.

Photo by lero.

If you’re interested in walking a labyrinth, but don’t know where to find one, this Labyrinth Locator could help.