Labyrinths are becoming increasingly popular as a tool for meditation. Walking this complex pattern of pathways is an activity that leads one to a contemplative mood. It is transformational in nature, and helps one integrate the physical, mental and spiritual realms. The fact that the American Psychological Association has a 7-circuit labyrinth in its rooftop garden, and that the staff uses it to unwind themselves, underscores the calming and healing effect it has on people.
Labyrinth is often thought of as a maze because of the literary use of the word “labyrinthine” to mean irregular and twisting pathways. Though essentially a convoluted pathway, labyrinths are not irregular; they often follow a definite symmetrical pattern that invariably brings the person back to where he/she started. Mazes typically have dead ends and more than one option at several points, making it a complex puzzle to be solved. Walking a maze is often associated with anxiety and stress, and it is a left brain activity that tests our problem-solving skills. On the other hand, pacing a labyrinth relieves stress because the path leads you on without any active involvement of your wits. It is typically a right brain activity. As Augustine put it, it is “solved by walking,” as the labyrinth is a single path from start to finish.
Labyrinths through the ages
The legendary labyrinth devised by Daedalus, for King Minos of Crete to keep the Minotaur in, may be the most famous structure of this kind, but it is generally thought of as a branching (multicursal) maze because its creator himself found it difficult to leave the structure. The classical design of labyrinth is unicursal, and so are the many elaborate labyrinths found in ancient Rome. They may have been associated with religious rituals. Many cultures from around the world have labyrinths in a variety of shapes and complexity. Many medieval churches sported elaborate labyrinth designs. The one in Chartres Cathedral is a big tourist attraction.
How does walking the labyrinth help you?
Besides helping people to unwind and relax, labyrinth is purported to have several health benefits for your body and mind. Walking the labyrinth is a kind of meditation ideally suited to kinesthetic people who find it hard to sit still. For attaining concentration, the rhythmic and automatic pacing is as effective as a sitting posture. The deep calm thus attained can translate into physical benefits like slow breathing, lowered blood pressure, and relief from chronic pain.
Psychotherapists like Neal Harris of Relax4Life who use finger labyrinth as a relaxation technique during psychotherapy sessions report that they help their clients to open up faster and express their deep-rooted insecurities and other problems. They also see a definite reduction in the number of sessions required for them to resolve their issues and come to terms with realities. They often find solutions to their problems all by themselves.
The indisputable therapeutic effect of labyrinth is explained in different ways such as:
- Bilateral movement. Don’t you see people pacing up and down when in deep thought or faced with serious issues? Two and fro movements like knitting, reading and swinging eases anxiety, and frees the mind from the immediate situations. It may help people focus on real issues, and find solutions from deep within.
- To the center and back. The very concept of a journey to the center and back to the beginning has spiritual connotations. It represents your journey of self-discovery. It is not surprising then that many patients who use labyrinths at the psychotherapy sessions are able to find answers to their own problems without the help of the therapists.
Brain wave theory. Brain generates Beta waves during its normal day-to-day function, but gentle relaxation brings out Alpha waves, and deep relaxation, Theta waves. They both help balance the left and right hemispheres and bring about “Brain Synchrony” that is said to result in intuitive awareness and creative insight. Psychiatrist Dr. Wayne London reports perceptible improvement in mental acuity when labyrinths were used by people with brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia.
Here are some popular types of labyrinths:
- The classic labyrinth. This oft-reproduced design is almost semicircular with 7 circuits. It can be made with 3, 11 and 15 circuits also.
- Concentric labyrinth. As the name implies, it has concentric circles with a large center as the goal. The Santa Rosa design is a concentric labyrinth. The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth has a six-petaled flower at the center.
- Roman labyrinth. It can be square or circular; other polygonal shapes are also featured.
- Triple spiral labyrinth. The design has three interconnected spirals to pace.
How to make a labyrinth at home
Making a labyrinth  is not as easy as walking one, but it can be done. You need a flat surface like a lawn, play area or a large garage. Most designs take a minimum of 30 to 40 feet across when one foot paths are charted for a single person to walk. If space permits, 1 ½ – 2 feet paths are more comfortable. It is always better to have wider paths than more circuits.
Print out the pattern and accompanying instructions so that you can take them to the venue. Practice the sequence of the moves beforehand to avoid confusion. You would need a pole to mark the center of the circular circuits, (which is not essentially the center of the labyrinth), and a long rope on which you can mark the location of concentric circles. Use erasable markers like chalk or tape to transfer the design onto the surface. You may need extra hands to execute the design. Have a few pairs of knee pads ready for the volunteers.
To make an outdoor labyrinth
Using stones or small rocks to demarcate the paths is the easiest way to make a labyrinth on the lawn. You can adjust the curves and the path widths any time. It can be easily dismantled, but can remain as a permanent feature, too. When you are satisfied with the design, you can cut into the lawn to make grooves for the pathways. Or plant bushes on the outlines and chamomile or creeping mint on the paths to make a calming walk filled with heavenly fragrance. Laying bricks is time-consuming, not to mention the labor involved, but they make long-lasting labyrinths .
A temporary labyrinth for a special occasion can be drawn on the ground using chalk powder or birdseed. Bark mulch and sand are two other easily available materials.
To make an indoor labyrinth
A large basement or flat rooftop is ideal for making a permanent labyrinth with paint. Using masking tape is a quick way to achieve one. If you want to use it only occasionally, make the design on a large carpet or canvas that you can roll up and stove away when not in use.
If constraints of space and time dissuade you from making a labyrinth you can walk on, you can still use a finger labyrinth to take advantage of the therapeutic benefits this exercise offers. Print the design on paper and stick on cardboard. If you etch it into grooves on a wooden board, it may be possible to finger walk the labyrinth with eyes closed, too.