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Labyrinth: This path is made for mindful walking

Wounded warriors at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence are introduced to the indoor labyrinth during early days of their four-week intensive outpatient treatment program. (Photo courtesy of NICoE) Wounded warriors at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence are introduced to the indoor labyrinth during early days of their four-week intensive outpatient treatment program. (Photo courtesy of NICoE)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Wounded warriors arriving at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence may be surprised to learn their intensive outpatient treatment program includes a labyrinth – or, as NICoE wellness coordinator Allison Winters describes it, “contemplative walking, in a nutshell.”

Labyrinths have been used in a variety of religions and cultures for thousands of years. They symbolize a meandering but purposeful path, Winters said. Unlike mazes, which are meant to confound and confuse with myriad routes that may lead to dead ends, labyrinths are simple. There’s only one way in, and one way out.

“A labyrinth provides a structural path, so you don’t have to think about where you’re going and how to get there,” Winters said. “You don’t need to make any decisions, so your brain can stay in the moment. It’s like a walking meditation.”

NICoE is part of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It opened in October 2010 to advance understanding and treatment of traumatic brain injury and associated health conditions. Each four-week program involves cohorts of six patients who have not responded to traditional treatment. Weeks one and two focus on diagnosis, evaluation, and pain relief; the third and fourth weeks concentrate on treatment planning and education to help patients understand their symptoms and gain skills to take charge of their own care after they leave.

Winters said she introduces the labyrinth to patients during their first days at NICoE. The indoor labyrinth, crafted from maple and cherry hardwood planks, is part of a room that also features a skylight ceiling and potted plants. Patients can walk the labyrinth individually or in group sessions.

“You start at the perimeter and then walk along the path to the center,” Winters said. “Then you turn around and walk out. There’s no right way or wrong way.”

Winters and others who promote labyrinths for therapeutic use offer suggestions to enhance the experience. Walkers might set an intention – a values-based, internal goal such as peace, joy, or understanding – to focus on while traveling the path. Or they can pause at each turn to inhale slowly and then exhale slowly before continuing the walk.

“Breath can be useful for navigating a transition, whether it’s on the labyrinth or in life,” Winters said, adding that wheelchair users also can use the labyrinth.

Labyrinths have been featured in other military settings, such as Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and Beale Air Force Base in California, which have used labyrinths printed on canvas to encourage service members to take contemplative strolls. But do labyrinths actually do any good? There may not be military-specific research on the topic, Winters said, but empirical findings suggest that they do work.

“One patient told me he thought walking along the labyrinth was like ‘moseying through the brain’s gray matter’ and finding yourself in the center,” Winters said.

Another patient said walking along the labyrinth relaxes him. “It allows my mind to get rid of the distractions of everyday madness, and to focus on things like self-improvement and self-actualization. It allows me to let go of negative thinking.”

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