Tag Archives: Stress

Trees Please – Forest Bathing for Health & Wellbeing

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image: John Mundy @golfphotostore

Shinrin-Yoku is the medicine of simply being in the forest. As a remedial tonic to the over-stimulation of modern life, this practice of “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”, of taking a walk, breathing in the fresh air, opening our senses and feeling contact with the earth and our natural surroundings has become a cornerstone of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine.

What kind of sickness can be cured from walking in the woods? An age old remedy to get some colour in your cheeks, as Grandma would say, it’s now scientifically proven that getting outside can help you heal and increase your vitality. We all recognise that we feel better and generally more alive when we step away from our technology and screens for an hour (or a whole day) and just practice being mindful of our surroundings, opening our senses of smell, sight, sound, hearing, taste. We have more energy, we feel more inspired, more in touch with our surroundings, we make healthier choices, and we develop a closer connection to the natural world around us, more aware of how our individual choices have an impact on our environment.

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Image: John Mundy @golfphotostore

In the last several decades there have been a number of scientific studies on the healing effects of simply being in wild and natural areas. It is no coincidence that this comes at a time when the popularity of outdoor adventure, environmental consciousness, adventure tourism, and alternative therapies such as wilderness therapy for troubled or at-risk youths are increasing ten-fold. A number of organisations are creating programs incorporating mindfulness meditation, hiking, just being outside. People are recognising the importance of our natural world to the health of our internal landscapes. This scientific research proves that our plants and trees are designed to heal. There is an incredible life-supporting synergy and cycle in the natural world, and forest therapy places us as humans amongst this healing environment. Many trees give off organic compounds which support our ‘natural killer’ cells – an integral part of our immune system’s way of fighting off cancer.

Other benefits of spending time in nature? Reduced stress, better sleep, increased recovery from illness, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, increase in ability to focus on one thing at a time, more energy. Opening our senses to nature also develops our intuition –  we learn to contact the world around us in new ways and in turn listen to what our bodies are telling us – messages that can be clouded by technology, mixed messages and distraction. When you spend too long in the city and all you want is to lie in the park, this is your cells sending you a message about what it needs. Other long term benefits on a more personal level include better relationships, increased flow of life force energy, overall increased happiness, a better understanding of the land on which we live, and the condition of our natural environment.

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Image: John Mundy @golfphotostore

One of the most significant problems in our age of connection is that, ironically, we are becoming more and more disconnected from reality. We develop relationships over social media rather than in person, we hide behind our technology, we don’t understand that our actions have a knock-on effect in the world. The more technologically wired we are, the more isolated we become, to the extent that we don’t need to leave our house all day. We order food online, we talk to our friends online, we work online, we shop online, we entertain ourselves online.  By stepping out of our homes, walking into the forest, we are aligning ourselves with nature and taking a step towards healing the chronic modern illness of disconnection.

And the idea, in returning to nature, is not to achieve anything, which is exactly the opposite of the demands of our daily lives. We are conditioned to always be achieving, working towards something. In the forest, Forest Bathing masters do nothing, and gain illumination. As Einstein wisely proclaimed,

“I think 99 times, and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me”.

So just be with the trees –  no need to count your steps, track your calories – just sit, or meander around, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything.

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Image: John Mundy @golfphotostore

The healing power of nature isn’t a new scientific discovery. John Muir, also known as “John of the Mountains”, an American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, glaciologist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States, recognised this as early as the 1800s. He wrote “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” So we’ve known it for centuries, but age-old wisdom brings new significance in modern times, as a remedy for modern illness.

And on that note, I’m going to step away from my computer and get back to nature, back to where I came from.

You didn’t come into this world.
You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.
You are not a stranger here.” 
Alan Watts

Beginning a Meditation Practice

Mindfulness

Meditation is another practice recently added to our never-ending list of things that we could do to improve our lives and our wellbeing, and is quite possibly the easiest, most simple of them all, but in many ways it is also the most challenging.

You would think that we would be able to find the time and the inclination to sit for as little as a couple of minutes a day and just do nothing. In fact, you would think it would be a welcome relief from the chores of everyday life.

Unfortunately over the course of our lives we have been conditioned to constantly be moving, occupying, thinking, planning, analysing, assessing, stressing and all the other “doing” words that imply the opposite of meditation, which is simply “being”.

So how do we get back to that space of “being”? That place of just settling into stillness and observation without reaction, without feeling the need to run away from our thoughts and into the welcoming arms of distraction?

Below are a selection of tips and tricks to ease yourself slowly into a regular meditation practice. Nothing too intimidating, starting small and easing yourself into a daily habit that can make you feel more peaceful and focussed, more comfortable with discomfort, more aware and more appreciative of the little things in every day life. Meditation helps you to understand yourself from the inside out; why you react to certain things in a certain way, how you make decisions, why you are the way you are. It also gives you a greater awareness of, and control over, your thoughts, and the ability to choose whether to listen to them or not.

It’s worth a try.

Start small.  Start with 2-5 minutes of just sitting in a relatively quiet, calm place with few distractions.

  • Focus on your breath. Breathe in and out through your nose, which activates your parasympathetic nervous system, activating your rest and digest hormones, which tells your body that it is safe, and it’s okay to relax. Focus on the rise and fall of your stomach, or the tickle of the air as it enters and leaves your nose.

  • Get comfortable. The first barrier for most meditation practitioners is finding comfort in the physical body. You want to set your body up then forget about it, and get to the real work in your mind, but it takes a lot of trial and error to get to that point. Find what works for you. And remember that we have spent our lives sitting in chairs, not sitting on the floor, and it will take time to build a new habit for your body. Be kind to yourself whilst finding this stable seated position. Try not to lie down, because our body tends to associate lying with sleeping. You want to relax, but not too much.. You can try sitting cross legged, propping your sit-bones onto a firm cushion to give your hips more space to breathe. You ideally want your hips higher than your knees, otherwise you’ll know about it after about 5 minutes of sitting. If cross-legged isn’t comfortable or accessible for you (which for many it isn’t), try kneeling. You can again place a cushion (or three) under your bottom, between your legs, or a folded blanket under the knees or under the ankles. If this is no good, move to a chair and simply sit calmly. Try to have your feet in contact with the ground. The most important thing in your seated position is that your spine remains upright, so that the energy in your body can move efficiently up to your head.

  • Try yoga to get into the meditative headspace.  A gentle restorative practice can slow you down at the end of the day and get you more in touch with your internal atmosphere. A vigorous vinyasa flow can make you forget the stresses of the day, release some feel-good endorphins and approach a short meditation at the end of the practice with inner calm and clarity. Yoga will also help to warm up your body in preparation for meditation, and traditionally the two go hand in hand, for very good reason.

  • Do it anywhere. Planes, trains, cars, the daily commute, in the ad break, as you walk to work. Meditation doesn’t have to always be a stationary practice. Try to bring a mindful attentiveness to little actions in your day, and instead of filling up each idle moment in your day with technology or distraction, try just noticing what is, and taking a moment to check in with yourself.

  • Body scan. Starting from the soles of your feet, work your way up your body, each little part, drawing awareness to the sensations of comfort, discomfort, warmth, coolness, tingling, contact with the earth or another part of your body, noticing how everything within you is intrinsically connected.

  • Guided meditations. There are a number of apps and guided meditation programs that help with establishing a regular practice. The Chopra Centre regularly offer free 3 week programs, and the Headspace App is an easy to use, practical approach to meditation.

  • Be kind. Go easy on yourself. Don’t expect fireworks and floating in the clouds. Go into each practice with no expectation, start small, and build it up slowly. Observe without judgement the patterns in your mind, gently inquire into yourself, then let it all float away, coming back to your breath, every time. At the end of your practice, smile and be grateful for this little space in your day to check in with yourself.