Winding Paths Can Lead to Wellness

Reprinted from Toronto Star (January 05, 2007) by Janice Mawhinney, Life Writer


For centuries, labyrinths have been used to promote physical and spiritual health

Physiotherapist Angie Andreoli says it's an uplifting experience to watch patients from the Toronto Rehab foundation walk or wheel through the Toronto Public Labyrinth in Trinity Square Park.

"I have seen people with poor energy, who are unable to walk longer than the hallway, walk the labyrinth with purposefulness and a sense of joy. That is very special," she says.

This labyrinth, situated between Bay St. and the Eaton Centre, south of Dundas St., is not a multi-path maze where you can get lost or run into a dead end. It has one winding path that weaves left and right, eventually leading to a central point, then out again. It's an invitation to spend some peaceful, personal time moving quietly to the core of the labyrinth, then back out into the world.

Many people consider labyrinths to be calming and healing to the spirit. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie officially opened its labyrinth Oct. 29.

St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton has two permanent outdoor labyrinths and a portable canvas one for indoors.

The labyrinths at St. Joseph's are simple, and are not for decoration, says occupational therapist Ron Dick of the hospital's labyrinth committee.

"It's not a curative and it's not for everybody," says Dick. "But our committee advocates labyrinth-walking for staff and for many patients."

Dick says he knows of a number of cases in which walking the labyrinth has proved helpful for patients with mental health issues such as grief, anger, depression and anxiety.

"One woman troubled with anxiety walked the labyrinth in the morning, and that afternoon we got a call from her psychiatrist. He wanted to know what we had done. He had never seen her so calm."

Andreoli reports similar successes. "I see people follow the path perfectly when I know that can't be easy with their visual impairment. They can reflect on their success."

Psychiatrist Lawrence Martin of St. Joseph's and McMaster University says walking a labyrinth keeps a person's awareness in the present and provides a chance for positive thought processes.

"Being present to your thoughts has an effect on depression and anxiety," says Martin. "In a labyrinth you have to be present. If you don't pay attention, you will walk off the path. I'm a big supporter of labyrinths."

The Toronto Public Labyrinth recently added a ramp, making its wide paths fully accessible.

California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco was the first hospital in North America to install a permanent labyrinth. Many other hospitals, including Women's College Hospital in Toronto, as well as some prisons have since followed its lead.

Labyrinths have appealed to people for thousands of years. The most common pattern in Toronto is based on an 800-year-old stone floor labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, which was sometimes walked as a symbolic pilgrimage in the Middle Ages .

Today finger labyrinths also exist for people who are unable to walk a larger one. A finger traces the same pattern to the centre, and out again. There are plans to place a finger labyrinth near the entrance of the Toronto Public Labyrinth.

No two people experience a labyrinth walk in exactly the same way. Some people find it profound, and others find it simply quiet and relaxing.

Jo Ann Stevenson, chair of the Labyrinth Community Network, recalls one woman complained that she couldn't see what was so good about her labyrinth walk – all she felt was peaceful.

"Each one of us is walking our own path," Stevenson says. "The labyrinth is a place you can bring anything to. Everything that happens in the labyrinth can be a metaphor for something in your life."

The Labyrinth Community Network was founded in 1997 to bring public labyrinths to Toronto. It maintains a website and gives advice to others in Ontario with similar goals.

Stevenson initiated the idea for the Toronto Public Labyrinth. The network found support at city hall as well as at the Trillium Foundation, which gave a $100,000 grant matched by the city. A grass labyrinth was established in 2000 and, in September 2005, interlocking bricks were installed.

About five years ago, volunteers painted a labyrinth on asphalt in High Park, in a spot previously occupied by a carousel, north of the Grenadier Restaurant parking lot.

The first permanent labyrinth in Toronto was painted eight years ago on a corner of the St. James United Church parking lot in Etobicoke, and is still open for use by the public.

Coral Prebble, co-ordinating minister of the church, says she considers the labyrinth a walking meditation, "a chance to talk with the divine wisdom within oneself. At the centre is the opportunity to be still, listen and receive insight. Then we take that back out with us.

"I think that relieving anxiety and gaining another perspective in this way has huge benefits for our health."

Musician Debbie Danbrook has recorded a special CD for labyrinth-walking, called Circles of Discovery. She is often asked to play her distinctive Japanese flute, called a shakuhachi, to lead labyrinth walks.

"It just feels amazing to walk the earth in that pattern. It helps to balance us.

"I love the labyrinth. Like our lives, it's cyclical. It's a winding path."

The Labyrinth Community Network maintains a website at with labyrinth information and a directory of hundreds of private and public labyrinths in Ontario.

There is a worldwide labyrinth directory available at

Andreoli, research co-ordinator at Toronto Rehab, would like to see more research on the benefits of labyrinths for those with brain injuries. "It's a very useful tool, and one we'd do well to explore and expand."

Pathologist Vicky Chen of St. Joseph's Healthcare says she knows a woman who unsuccessfully tried all kinds of medications and treatments for depression, before finding that labyrinth-walking helped her out of her depression.

Chen has a labyrinth in her back yard at home.

"I walk it to quiet my mind," she says. "I like mystery. I have respect for things that are unexplained."