Our neighbours recently showed us their vacation pictures. They pointed to a picture of themselves in a big hedge and proudly claimed that they had walked through a labyrinth. We asked them, “was it a labyrinth or a maze?” Puzzled, they answered, “a labyrinth.” They then excitedly described how hard it was to find their way out and how long it took them to “figure it out”.
What they were describing was really a maze. Most of the time, labyrinths and mazes are referred to interchangeably, but they’re actually very different. In fact, the specific nature of the labyrinth has led people to see it as a meditation tool that can improve our mental well-being.
What is a labyrinth?
At a basic level, the labyrinth is an ancient symbol that combines the circle and spiral. In a labyrinth, there is only one path that leads into the centre, and the same exact path leads out of it. It has no dead-ends, so you cannot get lost in it. When people walk a maze, they need to solve a puzzle: this is a left brain task. On the other hand, walking a labyrinth focuses more on right brain functions, such as intuition and creativity.
Even though you can’t get lost in a labyrinth, the twists and turns of the path may make you feel disoriented at first. Ultimately, they force you to slow down and help you stay centred. The effect is similar to that of other activities like yoga, qigong, or walking meditation.
Just like yoga and other forms of meditation, labyrinth walking can help you stay centred.
As you follow the path, your brain will naturally focus on how you feel. Since there’s nothing to “figure out,” you can let your mind go, and be fully receptive to whatever is happening around you or within yourself.
Origins of the labyrinth
Labyrinths are nothing new: they date back to at least four thousand years, and have been found in all cultures all around the world. Some famous labyrinths include the Cretan labyrinth in Greece (which you may know from the myth of the Minotaur) and the Chartres labyrinth found on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France.
In the past, labyrinths were often seen as metaphors for gaining deeper insight into yourself, your relationships with others, or a spiritual higher being. Today, we’ve also come to see them as a valuable relaxation tool. Many people release physical and mental tension by walking a labyrinth. This is especially true for those who find sitting meditations hard to do, because they tend to get restless.
As an activity that engages both your mind and your body, walking labyrinths allows you to practice mindfulness while being physically active. Because of this, several studies have focused on the therapeutic effects of labyrinths: among other things, results have shown that walking a labyrinth can have a positive impact on our attention and affect, as well as our stress levels.
How to walk a labyrinth
The fun part about labyrinths is that there’s no one way to walk them. You can use them for different purposes, depending on what you currently need. At a basic level, any labyrinth walk can be divided into three stages: 1) the walk into the centre; 2) the centre; and 3) the walk out.
As we walk into the centre, we release whatever we need to release: stress, concerns or questions that have been on our mind. When we arrive in the centre, we pause to receive: a creative idea, a resolution, or just a sense of calm. This stage also gives us an opportunity to look forward to new projects. On the way out, we return with a fresh resolve, or a new way of seeing things.
While walking, you can ask yourself a few questions to help guide your journey. Are you walking slowly or quickly? How do you feel about people walking around you, the noise and movements you perceive? What are you thinking or telling yourself about this walk?
Where to find them
Today, labyrinths are found everywhere: in public parks, gardens, churches, even hospitals and prisons. Many labyrinths are permanent fixtures: for example, we have walked the indoor and outdoor labyrinths at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, and the brick Chartres design labyrinth outside a Buddhist Temple in Montreal, Quebec. If you’re curious, you can use this locator to find a labyrinth anywhere in the world.
Alternatively, there are also many pop-up labyrinths: you can even make one yourself! If you live in a climate where it snows, you can make and walk a snow labyrinth. Sand labyrinths can be made if you live near a beach. A canvas labyrinth can be laid out, or you can draw one on the floor.
You don’t even need to use your feet to walk a labyrinth: there are portable labyrinths, drawn on paper or carved in wood, that can be walked with your fingers. Today, there are even apps where you can follow the path with your finger or computer cursor.
As you can see, the world of labyrinths is vast and varied. And we have just begun to scratch the surface! Many studies are still being carried out about the potential clinical benefits of labyrinth walking. Labyrinths may have existed for thousands of years, but we still have a lot to learn about them.