How The Labyrinth Revival Is Helping People Mellow

By Heather Ramsey on Monday, July 13, 2015
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“There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.” —Jorge Luis Borges

In A Nutshell

In health care facilities, prisons, parks, and even some private residences, meditation labyrinths are being set up to help people relax. By focusing on walking a circular pattern with no frustrating puzzles, you may experience health benefits like the relaxation response, including lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and slower breathing. A 2001 study showed that labyrinth walking calmed Alzheimer’s patients. It also helped cancer patients and their nurses to feel better.

The Whole Bushel

We often think of a labyrinth as a complicated set of pathways and secret rooms designed to confuse and trap us. But that’s not the type of labyrinth that’s enjoying a revival. In health care facilities, prisons, parks, and even some private residences, meditation labyrinths are being set up to help people relax. There are no puzzles or mazes to frustrate you. In these labyrinths, you walk through a pattern of concentric circles that leads you to a central point.

The center is actually irrelevant. It’s the journey that brings you the health benefits of the relaxation response, including lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and slower breathing. It’s especially helpful for hospital patients and their families when facing the stress of a medical crisis. “You can visually see them relax,” says nurse Lorelei King. “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.”

King recommends that you reflect on a question, image, or prayer as you start down the path. Meditation labyrinths are designed to subtly engage your mind without frustrating you. If you simply focus on walking, your outside concerns should disappear. King also suggests that you close your eyes when you reach the center, take some deep breaths, and consider what you’re feeling. Then reflect again on the question, image, or prayer you began with as you return to your starting point.

Although the concept dates from ancient times, there aren’t any true scientific studies to confirm the benefits of walking a labyrinth. But there are people who are convinced that they were helped by the experience.

One of those people is 37-year-old Nelson Aponte, a prisoner in Hampshire County Jail in Massachusetts. He was sentenced to 10–12 years for larceny. Even though Aponte had signed up for a class on labyrinths, he considered the whole thing to be a big joke. Criminals walking in circles? How would that help anyone?

When he arrived for the fourth class, he was feeling tense. As he walked the labyrinth, he relaxed and his mind began to ease. “I was just thinking about my family, those I harmed, and what my life has become,” Aponte wrote, according to The Atlantic. “I can honestly say that on my fourth visit, I had a sense of freedom.”

He believes that his time walking that labyrinth and constructing another in a prison garden has helped him learn some self-control and patience.

Of course, no one knows if the labyrinth itself actually promotes the relaxation benefits. Maybe you could get the same effect by walking near your home. But physician Thomas Ferrara, who has recommended labyrinth walking to some of his patients, believes it’s a good way to reduce our pharmaceutical usage. A 2001 study showed that labyrinth walking calmed Alzheimer’s patients. It also helped cancer patients and their nurses to feel better.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Stan Shebs
Labyrinths: Ancient Aid for Modern Stresses
The Atlantic: The Labyrinth Revival
Smithsonian: Labyrinths in Prisons and Hospitals Might Actually Help People Relax