When a friend invited Jo Ann Stevenson to walk a labyrinth, she had no idea it would have such an impact on her life
When a friend invited Jo Ann Stevenson to walk a labyrinth, she had no idea it would have such an impact on her life. As she followed the circular path, her thoughts turned to her recent cancer diagnosis.
“I was aware of the curves and that breast cancer seemed to me a curve that had been thrown into my life, so I had the feeling that I was walking on my life path,” says Stevenson.
That first experience was in 1994. Stevenson has gone on to become president of Ontario’s Labyrinth Community Network. She also conducts labyrinth workshops, at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, for people in all phases of cancer—from those newly diagnosed to those in long-term recovery.
Possibility, peace, compassion, fulfillment: those are words people use to describe their feelings after they’ve walked a labyrinth. The ancient meditative practice is gaining popularity in modern times and is being applied in health care settings to promote well-being.
Unlike mazes, which are designed to confuse users, labyrinths consist of a single path that winds its way from the outside of the circle to the centre and back out again. Not only are they being used to complement traditional cancer treatment, but they are also a supportive measure for family members and caregivers.
Meditation is often recommended for those diagnosed with cancer to help reduce stress, to gain perspective, and to work through emotions. Stevenson believes walking a labyrinth is helpful for those who have trouble with conventional meditation. “Your body is moving, so you’re controlling your mind a little bit, just with the process of walking,” she says.
Following the circle’s gentle twists and turns engages the body, and walkers often describe a feeling of being rocked and soothed. As they progress along the path toward the centre, walkers’ thoughts turn inward. Stevenson says this connectedness to the inner self persists long after leaving the labyrinth.
Some users report profound experiences: connecting with their spirituality or experiencing extreme peace. Others report less dramatic effects such as feeling of release of centredness. Public health nurse Diana Ng, known in Surrey, BC, as the Labyrinth Lady, reminds clients to forgo expectations. “Experience the experience for itself. Just walk it. Enjoy it.”
Ng also suggests those with cancer may benefit from a labyrinth walking group. Even though walking the labyrinth is a solitary activity, Ng believes that a group can provide support and prevent feelings of isolation.
Not only does labyrinth walking foster peace and calmness, but it also adds the benefits of physical activity. Low- to moderate-intensity walking has been found to increase muscle strength, lower blood pressure, and improve mental function.
Because labyrinth walking has only recently been used in a health care context, there are relatively few scientific studies on the subject. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing concluded more study was needed into the exact physical effects of the activity. It noted, however, that the majority of cancer patients in the study continued to walk the labyrinth after the study was over—an indication that they found some benefit.
Walking a labyrinth
- Before starting, take several slow deep breaths to clear your mind.
- Step into the labyrinth. Follow the path at a comfortable pace, allowing your body to find its own rhythm. Keep your mind clear and in the moment. If this is difficult, try repeating a poem, a prayer, or reflect on a dream or image. This stage is called releasing, or journeying in.
- When you reach the centre you are in the receiving stage. Focus your thoughts on healing, renewal, and wholeness. Sit or stand until you feel the inclination to move on.
- Once you choose to leave the centre you begin the returning phase, a gradual return to the everyday world. Reflect on your journey through the labyrinth.
- If you are part of a group, you may want to have a debriefing session afterward to discuss how people felt during the walk, or you may want to take a few minutes to journal about the experience.
Those without access to a life-sized labyrinth can use a small hand-held replica and follow the pattern with a finger of their non-dominant hand. These are useful for guided meditation during chemotherapy, or prior to radiation or surgery.
Whether in an outdoor space or at the bedside, the journey through the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey through life. And just like life, it’s an experience unique to each person.
Labyrinths at the end of life
In 2006 Crossroads Hospice, in partnership with the city of Port Moody, BC, completed construction of a labyrinth in the city’s Pioneer Memorial Park. Surrounded by native plants, its path is laid out in stone pavers and is wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. An arbour marks the entry and along the way are stones inscribed with inspirational words. Benches allow walkers to pause for a rest.
The Crossroads Hospice labyrinth is used by patients, caregivers, and hospice staff as a tool for meditation and wellness. It is also the focal point for a bereavement walking group that meets weekly and starts each of its outings with a meditative walk through the labyrinth. Patients too ill to venture outside use finger labyrinths, handmade by a local craftsman.
- The Labyrinth Society connects the worldwide labyrinth community. It provides information and resources, and lists events. Also available are printable finger labyrinths. labyrinthsociety.org
- Check out the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator at labyrinthlocator.com for a labyrinth near you.
- The Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth website, carolshieldslabyrinth.ca, is a good source of information and provides detailed instructions on how to build labyrinths.
- Making Your Own Labyrinth the Easy Way by Anne Nesbitt. Available online at carolshieldslabyrinth.ca or by mail: Manitoba Labyrinth Network, 697 Patricia Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3T 3A8.
- A variety of labyrinth products are available online—everything from large canvas labyrinths to small finger labyrinths. Find them at Ontario-based Labyrinth Network. labyrinthnetwork.ca