I am a walker. Growing up, I played sports that required both running endurance and quick sprints: soccer, track, and later on, squash. Until I was in my early 40s, I ran regularly for mental and physical fitness—typically between 2 and 5 miles. After a leg injury in my mid-40s curtailed my running routine, I began to walk and swim as a way to reap similar mind and body benefits. Now, aging into my mid-50s, with the associated joint and muscle wear, I sometimes prioritize swimming over walking; however, walks allow me to greet and join the seasons as they turn, and very little can beat deep, full breaths of fresh air.
Despite the contentment and gratitude that come with walking, there are times when my hips and legs make their need for rest and recovery known. The two techniques that follow are astonishingly simple and effective, whether you are recovering from injury or overuse, or if your work requires you to be on your feet. (And remember, too much sitting also does a number on your hip/knee/ankle chain of movement, which surprisingly can lead to back, neck, and shoulder problems.) Regardless of your need, the qigong exercise and breath patterning that I will introduce work wonders to help relieve achiness in your legs and feet.
The qigong technique requires that you be able to reach your feet from a standing position; feel free to bend your knees as much as you need to, in order to make a complete tour of the yin and yang meridians of your legs. To begin, stand with your feet slightly wider than hip width: Then, bend forward to touch the inside of your right foot and ankle with both hands. Inhale as you “sweep” your hands up the entire inner line of your leg, all the way to your groin; immediately turn slightly through the waist, so that you can exhale and brush your hands down the outer left leg, all the way to the ankle and outer edge of your left foot. At the end of the sweep and exhale, cup your hands together, and “dump” the collected stagnant chi out and away into the ground.
Repeat the exercise, inhaling up the inner line of the left leg, crossing at the groin, and exhaling down the outer right leg, culminating in the release of toxic qi that contributes to muscle fatigue and joint pain. Although you may have to start slowly (until your back, hips, and legs loosen up), repeat the exercise for up to 5 minutes, or at least 12 full sets (one set is a trip up and down both legs), at a fairly quick pace. When it feels right to stop, hang for a moment in a traditional forward bend, then slowly roll up to stand. Place your palms on the dan tien (three finger widths below the navel), one hand resting on top of the other. Concentrate on the lightness and vitality you have given your legs; breathe deeply and steadily for a few breaths, eyes closed, and then conclude your practice.
Another fun technique involves recognizing and consciously altering ingrained patterns of movement and breath. When practicing bilateral movements (e.g., walking or running), most of us typically breathe in to the same side of the body every time, and exhale as the opposite side moves. How many times you move back and forth on one inhale and exhale will depend on your rate of breath and motion; yet, once you become aware of how the breath attaches itself to movement, it is an intriguing—and restorative—process to reverse the pattern.
Additionally, you may have had the experience of lifting a weight, or of receiving deep-tissue massage for sore muscles. In either case, one is encouraged to exhale upon effort or discomfort. This same idea applies to using the breath as you walk or run. For example, I found that I generally complete 2-6 rounds of steps (right-left is one round), depending on the speed of my walk, per full breath, with an exhale ending as the right foot hits the ground.
These days, however, as I continue to recover from a persistent pain and stickiness in the left hip and leg, I have begun to guide my steps and breath, so that my left leg and foot receive the majority of exhales. Consequently, I encourage the leg to release and relax even as it does its work. The benefits come quickly, so that the stress or pain of walking on an injured leg lessens even as I move. The practice itself becomes a meditation, because the breath and body become consciously connected, by dint of intention and focus.