The many ways Mother Nature can heal our physical and mental health and how we can access them
Not long ago, therapy was something people discussed in hushed tones, the topic of mental health shoved under the rug in the “shrink’s” office. Nowadays, it has become much more commonplace to go to therapy. It is no longer a secret that many of us are struggling from burn-out, anxiety, depression… We suffer from heart conditions and stress-induced illnesses at increasing rates, the price of an overloaded body and mind. We are a generation of seekers: looking for something that will dissolve the tightness in our chest, free us from the voices in our head and the fast-paced, material world rushing all around us. We may turn to all kinds of methods to heal, whether it be traditional therapy and medicine or numbing out on social media and substances. We may even over-burden and re-stress ourselves with the complicated task of “healing”.
Sitting behind the four walls of our office or bedroom we look out the window and watch the sky morph and change color. We walk down the street, past tree branches and leaves shivering in the wind. The healing power of nature is all around us, laying in wait to offer a refuge of wisdom and peace. Perhaps this was the original therapy of human-kind, to which we were once intimately connected. The good news is that we can mend this severed connection, and as individuals, intentionally tap into this source of healing for ourselves. The healing power of unplugging and spending time in nature has the ability to profoundly transform our entire sense of well-being. Best of all: it is always simple, eternally available and completely free.
Nature Healing Modalities
Health and Wellness
The average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors, according to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. We can envision how a plant might begin to look if we shut it up in a closet without sunlight and water. Humans also become withered and our entire well-being deteriorates when we spend too much time inside. Many of us have jobs or lifestyles that require (or compel us into) spending long periods of time sitting inside and staring at a screen. Our backs strain, muscles stiffen, and vision blurs. Our minds too, begin to strain and blur from the barrage of stimulating images and information. Cortisol levels increase, a stress hormone which can disrupt the body’s processes when activated for extended periods of time. It doesn’t take reading a study to know the experience of how your body and spirit feels after spending too many hours inside, scrolling through your phone. Most of us have come to know this feeling all too well due to recent events. Making an effort to spend time outdoors has become more important for our health than ever. (Read: Taking Your Yoga Teacher Training During the COVID Pandemic)
You take a walk in the forest, inhaling the fresh air and drinking in the deep, green aliveness of the trees and plants around you. You are not only witnessing the beauty of mother nature, but simultaneously healing and rejuvenating your entire being. This is not just a pretty thought, but a studied cause-and-effect. Forest bathing (shin-yoku) is a practice originating out of Japan in the 1980’s. It is considered an accepted form of preventive medicine in the Japanese healthcare system, due to countless studies demonstrating the benefits of what occurs when humans connect with and spend time in nature. Some of these benefits include reduced stress, improved immunity, lower blood pressure and accelerated recovery from illness or trauma.
We are grateful to live immersed in the jungle of Costa Rica, embraced by two flowing rivers where our yoga teacher training school, The Sanctuary, is located. If you live in a city or don’t happen to live near any forest, you can still experience healing benefits by taking a walk in a nearby park or trail. In truth, one of the most important aspects of this practice (even more so than the perfect location) is that of mindful awareness. Switching your phone off and shifting your focus to the sensations and sights. Allowing all of your senses to explore, linger and connect with the earth beneath your feet, the light filtering through the leaves and the breeze moving the branches overhead.
We don’t need to stress about condemning or tossing out our devices altogether, but we can instead cultivate a balanced, harmonious relationship with modern life and technology. A positive feedback loop: the more we experience the stress-lowering effects of being in nature, the less inclined we will be to numb out or mindlessly consume.
Stress and Anxiety
Anxiety, in one form or another, is something that many of us have experienced at some point. These days, acute and life-disrupting levels of anxiety are on the rise, deteriorating our quality of life as well as our physical well-being. We can point to a hundred different contributing factors, namely the advent of technology and a fast-paced, unconscious modern society. But if we look more deeply into the crux of anxiety, there is a very human condition which stares back up at us: the desire for control. Our racing thoughts are often an attempt to predict, circumvent or fix the events and circumstances we find ourselves in. The irony is that this (in vain) attempt to control is often the very thing which causes our suffering. Even our attempts to heal can become tainted by this need for control and “fixing” oneself.
The Art of Surrender
Nature is a powerful antidote to this anxiety as it teaches us the art of surrender. The waves in the ocean beat on, unconcerned with where they end up. The mountain stands perfectly still and steady, unburdened by it’s past. Leaves fall lazily from the tree, landing wherever the wind carries them. We watch a forest, and are imbued with a sense of it’s perfect, absolute harmony. Decomposing and dying material flows back into wild and brimming life. Everything has its place, and the overall picture is one that can bring us to tears with its beauty. Imagine what our minds, our lives, might look like if we aligned with this flow?
A practice you can try to begin tapping into this, or to simply bring peace in the midst of a mind-storm, is one of no-practice. Go into nature, whether it be by an ocean or deep in the forest, and imagine you are dropping everything: any attempts to heal, fix, guess, alter. Let it all go…and let your energy begin to sync up with that of the steady hum and deep wisdom of nature.
Questioning of Self and Purpose
We have built a world (at least, in the first world) where most of our basic and survival needs are met. We have easy access to comforts such as groceries stores filled with food, electricity and running water. No longer do we wonder where we will lay our heads to rest at night. We can watch movies on a big screen or a little screen, we can choose between mint chocolate chip or peanut butter cup ice cream. This leaves room in our minds for more existential questions to arise: who am I, what am I doing, what is my purpose? A lot of us are asking ourselves these questions nowadays. Many of us are also beating ourselves up for not having the right answers. Not achieving enough, not having attained the ever-elusive illusion of “perfection” and suffering from chronic low-self esteem or a sense of meaninglessness as a result.
A Perfect Mirror
How does Mother Nature wave her magic wand and relieve us of this affliction? By showing us who we truly are. When we sincerely look at a tree or a single leaf, without any mind-distortions or labels, we are seeing the deeper essence behind it. By witnessing this in nature, we are more easily able to access and tap into this energy within; that of presence, aliveness and beauty. We are thus witnessing and experiencing our true selves, without any of the so-often destructive mind-distortions and labels.
In the midst of a field of grass swaying in the wind or standing before a tall, oak tree we appreciate these elements in their simple, innate purpose: to be. To observe them both enthralls and instills in us a deep sense of peace. If we can admire and experience this in the external reflection of nature, what is stopping us from appreciating this deeper purpose within each of us? To exist, in this one precious moment. When we derive our sense of self from this deeper truth, anything else we pursue can flow more easily and become an enjoyable expression, rather than a nail-and-tooth struggle for survival and justification to belong.
“Imagine a ray of sunlight that has forgotten it is an inseparable part of the sun and deludes itself into believing it has to fight for survival and create and cling to an identity other than the sun. Would the death of this delusion not be incredibly liberating” – Eckhart Tolle
At the end of the day, by turning to nature, we are remembering that we are a part of nature ourselves. The technological advancement and infrastructure that human-kind has created is an impressive and inspiring feat, a profound accomplishment of the mind. The same mind, which if left unchecked, can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. In response, we can choose to unplug from the mind-made creations and the noise, and submerge ourselves in nature. Listening to the birds, sinking our toes into the soil and breathing in the fresh air. We can reconnect with the intuitive, powerful flow of life itself. Our shoulders relax and our breathing slows. The cells in our body sing and we feel more energized, confident and centered. We are free to move through life more in harmony with the world within and around us.