Walking Labyrinths Helps Calm My Nerves During Hard Times

The practice offers a way to get centered, stay in the present moment, and (literally) take life one step at a time.

How one Philadelphia finds solace in the centuries-old practice of walking labyrinths. / Photograph courtesy of Bryn Mawr College.

Twenty years ago, I found myself in unfamiliar territory: I was about to relocate to a new city where I had no friends, move in with my fiancée, and start my first full-time job. While I was excited about this season of possibilities, I also felt an undercurrent of anxiety in my chest about so much change all at once. Doubts ran through my mind on auto-play. What if I didn’t make friends? What if my fiancée and I weren’t compatible as roommates? And what if I wasn’t skilled enough for my new position?

When these anxious feelings wouldn’t quite settle, I spoke with my rabbi Yael Levy — founder and director of local Jewish mindfulness community, A Way In — who invited me to try a ritual that she had personally used during moments of transition, but that I had never heard of before: walking a labyrinth.

Put simply, a labyrinth is a curving, continuous path that leads to a center. Different from a maze — which requires analytical skills to find your way out and is often meant to trick you — a labyrinth offers one clear route to a center point, and can then be taken back to the starting point. It has been reported that these unicursal paths date back to the Neolithic Age — with roots in many cultures, including Celtic, Greek, and Egyptian — though labyrinthine designs likely originated before their actual constructions were recorded in history.

Even so, people all around the world have been walking labyrinths for meditative purposes for centuries, since the journey involves repetition and summons reflection. Plus, mindfulness practices like moving meditation, yoga, and deep breathing have been shown to elicit our body’s relaxation response, lowering blood pressure and counteracting stress.

With nothing to lose, I decided to take Levy’s advice and try it out. I showed up to the grounds of Chestnut Hill College — a local labyrinth Levy told me about — expectant, all of my fear about my upcoming transitions in tow. I came seeking a way to quiet my mind, and maybe even find some inner wisdom to guide me.

The labyrinth at Chestnut Hill College. / Photograph courtesy of Sisters of Saint Joseph.

That first experience of showing up and walking forward with my fears, one step at a time, was profound for me. That particular labyrinth is set in a grassy patch of the college campus, with a brick path leading you to the labyrinth’s opening. I stepped forward into the first concentric circle, walked straight ahead, turning as the path turned. I walked slowly and deliberately, imagining myself walking confidently into my new home with each step forward. I followed each circle until it led me into the labyrinth’s center. Standing there, I paused. I took in the picturesque surroundings, felt myself breathing calmly, and felt my fears dissipate.

When I felt completely grounded, I made my way to the labyrinth’s exit (which is also its entrance), stepping with courage into the unknowns of the life that was awaiting me. While the labyrinth itself wasn’t very big, I took my time and discovered that I had spent almost an hour walking the winding, yet singular road. When I got to my car, I felt energized, ready for anything.

For anyone who struggles with traditional sitting meditation or mind-calming in general, walking a labyrinth may be a helpful alternative mindfulness practice. Author and therapist Melissa Gayle West notes in her book Exploring the Labyrinth: A Guide for Healing and Spiritual Growth that the process can help people tap into their creativity and intuition. Researchers have also suggested that labyrinth-walking can be a useful tool in couple and family therapy, and folks have even taken up planting their own labyrinth gardens as of late.

Ever since my first labyrinth experience, I have sought out the practice during times of intense change or difficult times in my life — when I was undergoing (and completed!) breast cancer treatment, for instance, as well as during challenging moments while raising my son, who has autism. I also walk one as a ritual to mark the change in seasons, setting a purposeful intention for the natural transition ahead.

The labyrinth on the grounds of Michener Art Museum. / Photograph courtesy of Michener Art Museum.

No matter when or why I come to a labyrinth, though, I always turn off my phone, try to leave my to-do list behind, and simply focus on walking step by step. The simple visual pattern helps to guide me away from my daily agenda into a more intuitive space, allowing me to feel connected to something greater than myself.

And when I finally reach the center of the circle — no matter if it has taken me 15 minutes or an hour — I stand and wait. Sometimes I hear a quiet answer to the question that I bring with me. Sometimes I am brought to tears — an emotional release, a catharsis, that the deepest part of myself needed.

And sometimes nothing special happens at all. But on those walks, I still come away feeling more peaceful and balanced than when I arrived. Walking a labyrinth helps me feel grounded, and sometimes, that’s enough.

Today, labyrinths can be found almost anywhere — churches, nature centers, museums, and colleges — and there are more than 60 of them within 25 miles of Philadelphia. Want to walk a labyrinth, but don’t know where to start? Below are five local labyrinths to explore anytime you find yourself needing to clear your mind and de-stress.

Abington Presbyterian Church

1082 Old York Road, Abington

This large labyrinth is painted right onto the church’s parking lot. Its design is based on the labyrinth found in the Notres Dame de Chartres cathedral in France. It is open to the public weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and noon to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Bryn Mawr College

101 North Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr

This beautiful labyrinth is set in a knoll surrounded by trees on Bryn Mawr College’s campus. It was created in 1998 and officially accepted as a gift by the college one year later. Since then, it has been said that students flock to it before exams. The labyrinth is also open to the public.

Church of Saint Asaph

27 Conshohocken State Road, Bala Cynwyd

Set back from busy Conshohocken State Road is another Chartres-style labyrinth on the grounds of St. Asaph’s. Surrounded by trees on the church’s grassy campus, this labyrinth is open to the public daily from dawn until dusk.

Gwynedd Friends Meeting

1101 Dekalb Pike, Gwynedd

This simple labyrinth made of bricks and set in grass was created as a Boy Scout project and sits in the fenced-in area of the Quaker meeting house’s on-site cemetery. It is open to the public daily, except during weekday school hours (8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.).

Michener Art Museum

138 South Pine Street, Doylestown

This artfully designed labyrinth is located on the residential side of the museum and is open to the public all the time. The labyrinth is managed by the community with the museum — a collaboration for the enjoyment of this unique outdoor space.