The healing power of nature can have an incredible restorative effect on your mind,body and soul says our intrepid tree hugger Jini Reddy
The healing power of nature can have an incredible restorative effect on your mind,body and soul says our intrepid treehugger Jini Reddy
We all know instinctively that time spent in nature can leave us feeling grounded, energised, calmer and more creative.
Who hasn’t set off on a long walk in order to solve a problem and on their return, magically found the solution? Who hasn’t sat against a tree and felt its peaceful presence? Or been lulled by the lapping of waves on the beach, or uplifted by the scent of wildflowers? As my friend Lisa puts it “Nature is the cheapest and best form of nurturing for the soul.
”There are acres of studies that prove that time spent in nature is good for us. In April, researchers at the University of Kansas found people who’d spent extended time in nature experienced a 50 percent boost in creativity and higher levels of insight and problem-solving. And in his Natural Childhood report published by the National Trust earlier this year, Stephen Moss, original producer of the BBC series Spring watch cites a survey which found that 80 per cent of the happiest people in the UK claim to have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40 per cent of the unhappiest. “In the longer term, continued, regular contact with nature brings an increased level of satisfaction with life in general,” he writes.
Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and the man who coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’ said:“Certainly, nature is a tonic that helps us feel less alone. A report published by the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex in 2009 noted that natural environments can calm us,enhance our mood and self-esteem while reducing feelings of anger, depression,tension and confusion.” he says. “What we experience personally, studies confirm:meaningful time spent in nature can be a powerful therapy for the toxic stress in our lives.” Deepening our connection with nature can be as simple as going for a walk in the park – or as full-on as a sustained period of immersion in the wild. These days we also have the option of green gyms,animal-assisted therapy, and a variety of pioneering wilderness therapy programmes. The latter aren’t about bootcamps or extreme adventures – rather a growing band of outdoors-lovers,environmental educators and trained therapists are harnessing the healing power of nature and placing it at the heart of their work.
“Issues to do with depression and disconnection are helped by engaging in nature,” says Brighton-based psychotherapist and lecturer Martin Jordan. In his own practice, he offers one-to-one and group therapy sessions outdoors, in natural settings. On them, clients might find themselves practising nature-focused meditation, exploring their relationship with nature, experiencing solo time in a wilderness setting and more. In so doing,he says, “new internal landscapes start to emerge in interaction with external landscapes which reflect, sustain,challenge and support the person on their therapeutic journey. The myth that the self is somehow separate from nature becomes exposed as the fallacy that it is,” he says.
More informally, for 18 months Hetti Dysch, a psychotherapist and wilderness therapy practitioner, ran the Wilderness Inquiry Group. “The group met for three hours a month to explore and deepen their connection with nature, self and community through seasonally inspired exercises and activities –with a tea break around the fire. “We did exercises under the stars of the winter sky and the sunshine and clouds of the summer,” says Dysch, who now runs Babes in the Woods, which hosts Wilderness-themed hen weekends. “Taking the time to inhabit the natural world is a truly restorative pathway to wellbeing and an integrated sense of self. This sense of wellbeing may be felt through shared woodland activities, sitting around a central hearth or wandering alone amidst the trees,” she says.
Perhaps as a reaction to the relentless distractions of social media and mobile phones, organisations which offer nature-based activities are rising in popularity. 51-year-old Josephine Mackay, from St. Ives,went on a retreat in Sweden, with healer Lynn Forrest, for a restorative time-out. “I really did benefit from spending time in nature. It seems to support you in slowing down and taking a step back. You begin to make sense of the seasons and cycles in your own life and it really does put things into perspective,’ she says.
Wilderness therapy practitioner Hetti Dysch’s top tips for deepening your connection with nature
1. Sit Spot
Take 20 minutes outdoors in a spot that you feel drawn to, and sit in silence.Open to the sounds, sensations,smells and any feelings or thoughts that arise, allowing all to be just as it is. This draws on ancient roots from indigenous cultures, and overtime the length of the sit spot maybe increased so that the number of minutes match your age!
2.Walk Barefoot Outside
Choose a designated area to walk in for 15 minutes. See how slowly you can walk, paying attention to the impulses and sensations in the body and their relationship to your thoughts and action.Experiment with walking more quickly, and you may like to contemplate,‘who is doing the walking?’ This draws on the mindfulness practises within the Vipassana tradition of meditation. The Buddha had four poses: sitting, lying, standing and walking.
3. Lie On Your Back Outside
Lie for at least 10 minutes outside, watching and being part of the natural world(we all spent the early months of our life lying on our back, watching, observing, engaging without words with our world, and this is such a therapeutic thing to do).
4. Take An Impulse Walk!
Dropping beneath your familiar thoughts, allow yourselfat least an hour to leave the front door and go out’under cover’. This may be done in an urban or more wildenvironment, the most important thing is to follow your impulses.Allow your body to be drawn to where and what it wants to investigate –you may spend an hour watching ants, or chasingseagulls, climbing a tree, or stalking an animal… anything’s possible
5. Gather And Eat Wild Food
There’s always something wild available to eat and in my experience it’s the most immediate way to connect with nature –drinking nettle tea from the garden, wild garlic leaves in a salad, elderflower fritters or cordial.
6. Sit Around An Open Fire At Night
Sometimes we just need a nudge to remember how wonderful it is to sit alone or in good company around a fire, listening and looking into the flames, smelling the sweetness of the smoke.
7. Eat Fruit From The Tree
One of the most sensuous and exciting pastimes I know.
8. Medicine Walk
When burdened with a problem, take some dedicated time out to contemplate. Find a simple ‘how’ or ‘what’ question such as, ‘what do I need right now?’ or ‘How can I get through this difficult experience’ and then on foot leave your front door or alternatively find a park/some wild landscape, and just travel through it. Let go of the question and open up to nature guiding you. Keep in your own space rather than getting drawn into dialogue or interactions with others.
This is a very reduced version of a deep practice called a medicine walk that is part of various indigenous people’s way of seeking guidance from ‘spirit’, ‘nature’ or ‘other’.
9. Swim Outdoors
There’s simply nothing more refreshing and immediately connecting with nature than to swim in a wild lake, river or the sea.
10. Play Hide And Seek Outdoors
I know it’s many adults’ idea of nightmare to get drawn into playing games –but it is really fun to do.
Back in Devon, the excellent Wildwise hosts a wide range of camps, courses and events, everything from nature awareness, bushcraft and storytelling weeks for children, to courses in bird language and sacred hunting for grown-ups. “I want to create positive experiences and leave people feeling moved, touched and in a deeper relationship with themselves through contact with the land,”says founder Chris Salisbury.
Tristan Gooley, Sussex-based natural navigation expert and author of The Natural Explorer teaches people the art of finding their way, using only nature,including everything possible –the sun,moon, stars, weather, land, sea, plants and animals, as our ancestors did, while social enterprise Wild Running, founded by former athlete Ceri Rees, offers sensory-awakening guided runs in nature in Devon.If you can’t afford to attend a course,read Skimming Stones by Rob Cowan and Leo Critchley – a book of skills to help us all achieve a deeper connection with nature. The activities sound fun and inventive – and yes, skimming stones on a beach is in there. ‘We teach how to make a fishing rod and catch a fish, track animals, build a leaf litter den, forage for food, make the perfect fire, and dam a stream,’ says Cowen.
Jo McGain, 32, from Devon,a freelance administrator and events organiser, attended Wilderness Inquiry sessions
“I found the sessions very rich, deep and nourishing. They offered me an opportunity to connect with the natural world in a held, guided and supported way, and the exercises creative and inspired. The sessions took place in a stunning location and I really appreciated the contact with nature through the seasons –the dark, crisp and starry nights during the winter through to the wonderful warm evenings of summer full of an abundance of nature and wildlife.”
Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (£14, Vintage Books)
Skimming Stones Rob Cowen & Leo Critchley (£14.99, Hodder & Stoughton)
The Nature Principle by Richard Louv (£9.56 Algonquin Books)
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (£9.99, Algonquin Books)
The Natural Explorer, by Tristan Gooley (£16.99, Sceptre)
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