The first time West Philadelphia jewelry designer Athena Dugan walked a labyrinth — a spiraling path within a circle or square — she felt “transformed,” she said. Her initial experience took place one summer on a mammoth, 100-foot-diameter labyrinth at a retreat in upstate New York.
“I slowly walked the path with its short and long twists, to the left, then to the right, and an eventual turn into the center,” she recalled. “The labyrinth created a calm within me, and eased whatever thoughts or concerns I may have had at that time.”
Twelve years later, Dugan, now in her mid-50s, spreads the word about the soothing effects of labyrinths in her role as a volunteer coordinator for the Labyrinth Society, a group that promotes the construction and use of these pathways.
As the pandemic has heightened stress and anxiety for many Americans, this form of moving meditation can be a free resource to aid in relaxation.
Labyrinths, which have one clear path, are different from mazes, which have multiple walkways that can lead to dead ends. In short, labyrinths are calming, while mazes are intentionally confusing. There are more than 60 labyrinths within 25 miles of Philadelphia, located inside and outside churches, senior living centers, nature preserves, colleges and private homes, according to the Labyrinth Society. Most were built in the late 1990s.
Even before the pandemic cut down on socializing, Dugan and other local walkers bemoaned the fact that these facilities are so underused. Yet, “walking a labyrinth is an easy tool anyone can access to improve their well-being,” said Darshan Mehta, medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Labyrinth walking may counter some of the harmful effects of stress by eliciting a relaxation response. First described by physician Herbert Benson, director emeritus of BHI, the relaxation response changes the levels of activity in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates functions such as blood pressure. When you are in a relaxed state, your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing all slow down — the opposite of how your body reacts to stress.
Some small studies suggest that walking labyrinths can reduce distress in county jail prisoners and hospitalized psychiatric patients. Stronger research has reported the calming results of other forms of moving meditation, such as t’ai chi and certain kinds of yoga, according to Mehta. The key is repetitive movement. “You could consider knitting a moving meditation,” he said.
Many walkers also see the pathway as embodying a deeper meaning, such as the journey of life. You walk to the center, stop and reflect, then slowly go back to your day-to-day existence. Some labyrinths, especially those connected to churches, are filled with subtle religious symbols. “But labyrinths are going to help people of all faiths,” said Daniel Kline, assistant rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill. The church kept its interior labyrinth open during the pandemic, even when it was not holding in-person services.
Kline said that he has released grudges while walking slowly on his church’s labyrinth. Many labyrinth walkers set an intention before they start moving, such as a problem to be solved. When their minds are quiet of chatter, answers may suddenly come to them.
“There’s always a metaphor,” said Bill Garrow, 74, a CPA in Haverford. “It may be that I’m not meant to reach the center today. That means I’m just not going to complete those tax returns today.”
This walking meditation can be helpful for those who are too restless for sitting meditation, a more common practice that provides well-documented stress-reducing benefits.
“So many people, including myself, feel like a failed meditator,” said Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest who was until recently the canon of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Twenty-five years ago, Artress founded Veriditas, a nonprofit that trains labyrinth facilitators and holds events. She is widely credited with the renaissance of labyrinths in the U.S., especially in the West and Southwest, that started in the late ’90s.
Labyrinth walks are generally socially distant, and most outdoor labyrinths in our area are available to the public. But since early in the pandemic, some walkers tried to replicate the experience at home. “Walkers’' use finger labyrinths — two-dimensional circuits on paper (easy to print out for free from the internet) or three-dimensional patterns with grooves for a finger — to trace a path, either alone or in a virtual group.
“It’s not the most comfortable experience for me,” confessed Rasheeda Hastings, 52, a labyrinth facilitator who lives in Olney. Harvard’s Mehta said these finger movements could evoke the relaxation response because they are repetitive.
Online events have since continued as they recreate some of the camaraderie that people may have found during group walks. In Athena Dugan’s free monthly online walks, attendees “walk” for only about 10 minutes, but spend the rest of an hour sharing experiences.
“The online walks are a shared connection with like minds,” said Dugan. “What you can gain with the online hand/finger labyrinth walks is a sense of calm, introspection, reflection, and renewal.”
Labyrinths near Philadelphia
Here are some of the most attractive labyrinths in the Philadelphia area. All are free to visit unless otherwise noted. Find others near you at labyrinthlocator.com.
Healing Garden Labyrinth, Ambler Arboretum at Temple University, Ambler
Started as an exhibit in the 2006 Philadelphia Flower Show, this labyrinth moved to the Ernesta Ballard Healing Garden at Temple-Ambler in 2009. The compressed four-circuit labyrinth is edged with common and lemon thyme.
Peace Labyrinth, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia
Located at the entrance of St. Paul’s sanctuary, the Peace Labyrinth is a small (22 feet in diameter), octagonal-shaped circuit made of limestone and slate. The labyrinth is surrounded by seven haiku poems.
Delaware Art Museum Labyrinth, Wilmington
In 2007, using seven tons of Delaware River rock, numerous volunteers remade a reservoir by the back of the Copeland Sculpture Garden into a dramatic, 80-foot, medieval-style labyrinth.
Green Labyrinth, Bowman’s Hill Nature Preserve, New Hope
Nestled in Bowman’s forest, the rustic Green Labyrinth is intended to be an oasis from the stresses of daily life. Advance tickets to the park: $8.
Bryn Mawr College Labyrinth, Bryn Mawr
Often used by students before exams, this 1998 labyrinth is open to the public. Paths on the 66-foot-diameter circle are wood mulch; the edges, mostly grass, come alive in spring with crocus and early-tulip blooms. The labyrinth is currently closed to the public but available for staff and students.