When Liza Ingrasci was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at age 52, the stress of surgery and chemotherapy was compounded by 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, managing director of a nonprofit foundation in San Rafael, Calif. She decided to make part of her healing a weekly walk through a labyrinth in a church in a nearby city.
What Is a Labyrinth?
A labyrinth is an ancient pattern of concentric pathways surrounding a central goal.
Found on Greek pottery, on Spanish petroglyphs or rock carvings, and, in walkable form, on the floors of medieval cathedrals in Europe, labyrinths are enjoying a renewal as a form of meditation for stress reduction and self-reflection. Thousands are in public parks, houses of worship, and, increasingly, hospitals and medical centers across the country. More than 100 hospitals, hospices, and health care facilities in the United States have walkable labyrinths, and 36% of these have been built in the past five years, according to The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator.
Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of RelaxationRevolution, says a stroll through a labyrinth can evoke the relaxation response, “a bodily state directly opposite to the stress or ‘fight-or-flight’ state.
“Our more than 30 years of research shows that the relaxation response is characterized by decreased metabolism, heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, and [also] slower and distinct brain wave activity,” Benson says.
Lorelei King, RN, former director of surgery at Mercy Hospital in Grayling, Mich., says she’s seen firsthand the impact on patients who walk the hospital’s onsite 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.”
As for Ingrasci, she’s seven years out from her treatment, cancer-free, and still occasionally walking the labyrinth “to acknowledge important passages. It really helps.”
How to Use a Labyrinth
Curious if 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… 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. 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?