I’ve been so excited about this month’s Garden Designers Roundtable topic about therapeutic spaces in the garden! Mostly because my life and career have taken a circuitous route through both therapy and gardens, but usually separately. My father was a therapist when I was in high school and college, and I went to school to become a therapist myself. I never fully went down that road, but chose another and never could have imagined where it would take me. Along the way, about 10 years ago, I developed anxiety and panic attacks–I had a great therapist, wonderfully supportive friends and family, and a perfect dose of medication so see me through. But I also discovered another therapeutic tool–labyrinths. I never really knew anything about labyrinths until my issues with anxiety arose; then I had a good friend who suggested walking one as a calming activity. Sounds kind of hokey or mumbo-jumbo? I sort of thought so, too, but I’m usually open to most experiences and hey, I was desperate. Anxiety is no walk in the park!
So, what is a labyrinth and how does it work? A labyrinth is a flat surface containing an intricately designed pathway, but it’s important to note that it is not a maze. A maze is a left-brained puzzle, full of different pathways containing tricks and turns. Fun, but not therapeutic! A labyrinth has only one pathway that moves back and forth from side to side until you reach the center–no need to figure out where you’re going; you just walk and the pathway will lead you. In fact, a favorite quote of labyrinth enthusiasts comes from the philosopher and theologian St. Augustine (345-430 A.D.) who said, “Solviture ambulando. It is solved by walking.”
There’s a thought that labyrinths are a calming activity because of something called “bilateral movement.” It’s that back-and-forth movement of the body/brain that is said to have a calming effect–think of other back-and-forth movements/activities that calm you: pacing, knitting/crocheting, reading. The side-to-side motion of the labyrinth path can help ease anxiety and depression, aid people with ambulatory/balance issues and supplement meditation or prayer. I used to walk the labyrinth at my church, praying for others as I slowly walked in to the center, while raising up prayers for myself on the walk out.
How can you add a feature like this to your outdoor space? I’d like to show you a number of labyrinths from humble to extraordinary, using a variety of materials. I know you’ll find some inspiration here:One of the most beautifully humble labyrinths is formed with salvaged rocks.
In just this one part of this planted labyrinth, I counted about 100 golden barrel cacti. That’s at least $500 worth of plant material if you get the wee ones–whew! This would be great for our arid environments, but I’d trade smaller ornamental grasses such as Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima) or blue fescue (Festuca glauca) if smaller children will be walking it.
How much do I love this beach labyrinth? Environmental artist Kirk Van Allyn created this one on a beach in Encinitas, CA, using, among other items, a casting pole and a hockey stick! I think it’s stunning.
Ah. This has to be one of my all-time favorites, created by my wonderful and talented friend, Laura Schaub, at a project in New Mexico! Laura used rope lighting to illuminate this labyrinth–it’s just breath-taking. My friends and I would be gathered in this area every night if it was in my backyard.
Late fall or early winter is a perfect time to create a luminaria labyrinth, like this one that I created back in 2005 in my church’s parking lot. We had a live string quartet as people quietly walked the labyrinth, and offered warm comfort food in a contemplative environment indoors. Well over 100 people came to walk.
Labyrinths can be permanently built with pavers or plants, or temporarily constructed of sand, snow or strings of Christmas lights. They can be 75′ across or sized to fit in a tiny postage-stamp backyard. They can be gorgeously elegant or rustically simple. What’s important is to find spaces in your garden that allow you to reflect, center, calm and recreate. It’s why we’re gardeners–there is something soulful in the garden, regardless of religion or specific spiritual beliefs, where we find our peace. I hope your garden is where you find yours.
Check out our other colleagues’ posts on therapeutic spaces:
Photos by: laureskew (flickr), Deb Torby, The Bulb Project, soekersof.com, allthingslabyrinth.com, TeleMeditation Retreats, Mercian Gathering, Laura Schaub, Scott Johnson.