Stepping out the Afghan way

Adopting a new way of walking can have beneficial effects on our health, resulting in reduced stress and greater energy levels…

Adopting a new way of walking can have beneficial effects on our health, resulting in reduced stress and greater energy levels, writes ISABEL CONWAY

WHEN A GROUP of friends suggested Afghan walking, as a dog lover I was delighted, but wondered whether there would be enough hounds to go round and whether they were easily managed beasts.

By the time we piled into a minibus in the beautiful French alpine town of Morzine in the Portes du Soleil region and prepared to ascend hairpin bends into the mountains, the penny had dropped.

We were to destress and put a spring back into our step by embarking on a novel approach to walking, one practiced for centuries by Afghanistan’s Kutchi and other nomadic tribes.


Breathing techniques allow their bodies to be efficiently oxygenated so they can walk for longer without tiring, travelling vast distances in the traditional migration as they herd their livestock to fresh grazing grounds.

Unlike the Kutchi and nomadic tribes as far afield as Kenya, who instinctively know how to practice conscious walking – breathing and walking correctly to give optimum results – to today’s hurried stressed-out urban dwellers it is an unknown art.

So our teacher Catherine Gallioli had to take us back to basics and teach her pupils – who included a media consultant, a college lecturer, a beautician, a physiotherapist and a nurse – how to walk properly.

But why should a group of reasonably healthy adults have to re-learn such a basic skill? The answer is that many of us walk incorrectly, often we do not breathe properly, and our posture is wrong – we lean forward causing back pain, or look down and not up. And bad posture can sneak up on us as when we’re stressed.

Medical professionals have stated time and time again that exercise can greatly reduce stress, but with so many things to do and so little time, going to the gym can be difficult. By taking up this form of walking you can quickly and effectively reduce the harmful effects of stress as the body releases feel-good endorphins, known as the happy hormones. Once the body’s chemical levels are balanced feelings of depression, panic and anxiety quickly vanish.

Conscious walking has been praised by fitness and meditation experts because it makes the walker more aware of how they walk, getting the tempo and pace correct, relaxing between steps and clearing the mind.

A day earlier, we had had an introduction to another de-stressing activity, Qigong, in which techniques to breathe properly and exercises to relieve anxiety, promote restoration and regulation of the body’s organs, strengthening the immune system, were taught.

Such programmes are enticing to us women “of a certain age” who have to juggle jobs and households and look after families, often including the responsibility of aged parents. We are also far more vulnerable to stress, depression and panic attacks throughout the menopause.

Amid the hordes of winter sport fanatics, some looking rather stressed as they contemplated descents on icy black runs ahead, we were an oddity. Our goal was to master the arts of conscious walking to relax us, sophrology to harmonise body and spirit, and Tai Chi to improve our co-ordination.

Following some warm-up exercises and strict instructions to shut out the world, the Afghan walking began. By concentrating on our breathing and walking, our teacher promised that we would soon leave our everyday problems behind.

It all sounded a bit “New Age” to this confirmed sceptic, and I half expected that we might round it all off with a spot of yogic flying above the snowy summits. But it did appear to work – once you got the hang of the pacing and breathing techniques.

Conscious walking is all about awareness of one’s body but especially one’s breathing. Many people breathe in the wrong way, especially when doing aerobic exercise, walking, cycling, dancing and so on.

As well as teaching the group how to walk and practice a sort of “mobile meditation” in the mountains, Gallioli also outlined how to breathe properly:

  • Always breathe through the nose, taking short soft strides, matching your breathing to your strides.
  • Concentrate on the mechanics of each step and each breath – three steps forward, inhale and exhale on the fourth step, working gradually up to taking more steps with each breath.

I found it very hard to get the knack of keeping my mouth shut and using my nose. I had always breathed through my mouth but this technique definitely worked – I felt more calm.

Why is it so important to inhale through our noses, you may wonder. US fitness and aerobics breathing expert Dennis Lewis explains that when we inhale in this way the hairs that line our nostrils filter out particles of dust and dirt that can damage our lungs.

Another reason involves the maintenance of the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. Some researchers believe that breathing through the mouth can result in asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease and other medical problems.

One of the members of our group, Gil from London, told us that this was her second Afghan walking course. She had returned home after the first, decluttered and relaxed, and began using the technique on her long daily walks, discovering how she could cover long distances without noticing, and blot out the constant noise of city traffic.

Another participant, Bernadette, takes her holidays to co-incide with the course in Morzine. As a rehab nurse, she teaches the breathing techniques used in Afghan walking to patients recovering from surgery.

As for myself, I was concentrating so much on every step that my mind had no chance to wander and it was impossible to chatter. Even a word or two would have shattered my silent inner mantra of all that counting, and break the rhythm. So for the first time in years I was temporarily silenced, much to the relief of those around me.