This week has seen even more studies released about the benefits of nature on our health and wellbeing. From the ‘treatment’ of mental illness to childhood development, science is showing what many intuitively know about the positive impact of being outdoors and being surrounded by the natural environment. That might be the calmness of plants and trees in an inner city garden or park, or the deep sense of peace created by immersion in the bush, forest, desert, mountains, ocean, rivers and lakes.
“Nothing supports the opening of the heart and mind like the beauty, tranquillity, and silence of the natural world,” says Mark Coleman, author of “Awake in the Wild” and teacher of intensive wilderness meditation retreats.
Even though we often practice yoga in climate controlled studios and these become powerful and sacred spaces for our practice, I love to take my classes outdoors whenever possible.
Here are just 5 of my favourite reasons to practice meditation and yoga outdoors in a natural environment.
- Relaxing into presence. We are often able to access greater presence in nature as we have usually had spontaneous experiences of mindful awareness in the past. When we see a sunset or the play of light in a forest, or we hear sounds of birds or we smell the fresh rain or a beautiful flower we are able to access a feeling of present moment awareness where we are just right here with the experience rather than a story about it or judgment or a need for it to be different. When I ask people to reflect on times when they feel most alive and present on retreat, the answers that often come up involve simple moments in nature such as these. Therefore, when we practice yoga and meditation in nature (even though there might be sounds and sensations around that could be distractions) we usually actually find it easier to relax into presence.
- Grounding on the earth. Walking barefoot on grass, sand or dirt or swimming/paddling in fresh water such as rivers, oceans and lakes has been scientifically proven to increase our health and wellbeing (sometimes called ‘Earthing’). This natural material conducts negatively charged electrons through our bare skin (or natural clothing) which fight off free radicals that can cause chronic diseases (eating foods high in antioxidants is also important). Our disconnection from nature through our insulated dwellings, shoes and transport also, energetically, seems to be contributing to this habit of living up in our heads and losing our rootedness with the natural world around us. When we practice outside we have the opportunity to step off the mat and feel the earth under our feet or hands. Additionally, Japanese scientists found people spending time in nature — shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” — inhale “beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions” which interact with gut bacteria to strengthen the body’s immune system and improve both mental and physical health. Amazing!
- Calming for our brains. We spend so much of our lives in front of screens and moving from task to task on our ‘to do’ list that it can take us some time to unwind from this. Scientific research shows that the curves and colours of the natural world have a huge effect on calming our minds and enabling us to relax. When we look at the shapes of the hills, the colours of trees, the meandering of a river or the vibrancy of flowers, rather than the straight lines and muted colours of our built up environment, it seems to provide a signal for our brains to rest. Cognitive psychologist David Strayer’s hypothesis is that “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command centre, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle.” We did not evolve in cities and so our brains are not wired for the information overload that we get in modern life. The visual cues of nature help us to balance that.
- Visualising nature in our postures. Yoga poses have traditionally evolved from the natural world around us. Many of the postures we take in yoga asana classes are names after animals (dogs, cats, snakes, fish, birds … you name it), trees, mountains and more. We also often use nature as a metaphor for states of being in meditation. We can visualise embodying the concept of a mountain when we meditate to feel a sense of strength and equanimity and ability to weather the storms of life. I often include prompts to visualise ourselves as another element of nature in our practice, perhaps water or fire, or an eagle or tree. It can be powerful to be able to see a tree or mountain with our eyes during practice to be more able to visualise ourselves embodying it.
- Caring for the earth. When we spend more time in the natural world and practice yoga and meditation with a deep connection to the world around us, we are able to re-connect with nature within us. We see ourselves not as separate from nature, viewing it in some paternalistic way, but part of it. During classes we have an opportunity to honour those that looked after the land before us (where I live and teach the Dhuduroa people) and to reflect on how we can continue to care for the earth (including ourselves) in a sustainable way.
“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
Come along and practice with me to re-connect with your true nature:
- For opportunities to practice with me outdoors check out my Salute the Sundays class happening in the park in Bright THIS WEEKEND.
- For seasonal yoga practices to re-connect with the rhythms of the natural world check out my Yin Yang Seasonal Series.
- For beautiful retreats in our alpine setting in the high country of Victoria check out my Retreats page.