We are healthier when we get outdoors

 

Spring is back! This weather seems to call every cell of my body outside. In my last post, I promised to provide some information about how being outdoors impacts our well-being. I am now here to deliver on that promise…

CO rockies

The majority of the information I am going to offer here was primarily drawn from the book the Nature Fix by Florence Williams.*

It is a wonderful read – I highly recommend it!

In her book, she discusses the research of Qing Li, an immunologist from the department of environmental medicine at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. Li’s research is fascinating… it focuses on NK cells, which are a type of white blood natural immune cell. He found that being outdoors boosts the number of these natural immune fighting cells in people’s bodies by 40%, with raised levels continuing to endure in our bodies for several weeks. Li suggests that our NK cells seem to be positively impacted by trees’ phytoncides, which are aromatic oils secreted by many kinds of trees.

In essence, trees support our immune system.

Andre and Amelie in xmas tree

Other researchers have found that just one leisurely walk in the woods decreases our cortisol levels (a stress hormone) by as much as 12%, decreases sympathetic nervous system activity by 7%, and decreases blood pressure by 1.4%

And did you know that a bacteria in dirt called Mycobacterium vaccae has been shown in multiple experiments to help promote the production of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter researchers associate with increased happiness?

Andre in Mohican

I am only brushing the surface of the research out there that supports the importance of our connection and engagement with the natural world.

So, get outdoors and enjoy!

Here’s to your relaxation, rejuvenation, and wellness.

Here’s to our precious natural world.

 

 

*Williams, F. (2017). the Nature Fix. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

The art of forest therapy (based on shinrin-yoku)

Due to the long pause in my blog writing, there is much to catch up on! I hope to do so in the coming posts.

For now, I’ll focus on a recent adventure Scott and I embarked on: we traveled to Costa Rica for a week-long intensive training in forest therapy with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. Since our return to the Midwestern US, we have begun our 6-month long practicum in order to become certified forest therapy guides (also known as forest bathing, based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku).

ANFT picWhat is forest therapy, forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku?

In a word? Beautiful.

It is also difficult to describe in words. Essentially, it is an immersive, guided practice in which we enhance our relationship with nature. The practice involves slowing down and listening to ourselves as we relate to and with nature, bringing gentle awareness to our relationship(s) with any or all aspects of the environment surrounding us. The physical and mental health impacts from this gentle practice are astounding… I hope to soon dedicate a future blog post to those impacts alone. Sunset at ANFT .jpegFor now, perhaps I can simply invite you… where ever you are as you read this… to notice the air around you as it touches your body with your inhale and departs, warmed, with your exhale… and to imagine that the air you meet longs for you just as your body longs for the air… and both you and the air are influenced by one another.

(pictured below is a forest therapy/forest bathing tea ceremony from our training in Costa Rica)

Tea ceremony ANFT.jpeg

While I love the rigor of backpacking and other higher-intensity adventures in the outdoors, I also deeply appreciate the gentle simplicity of cultivating conscious being. Though the forest therapy training was intensive, each day we practiced simply engaging in the practice of forest therapy ourselves for several hours. It was those moments, beyond any didactic content I learned, that held the most transformative impact.

While we were away in Costa Rica, we also learned of the passing of Mary Oliver, a beloved poet and native Ohioan. So, I will end with pictures taken during adventures in our Midwestern landscape and the words of Mary Oliver, whose poetry has been such an exquisite gift in my life and in the lives of so many others…

(most of the pics below were taken at Hoosier National Forest and Lake Monroe in Indiana in early November of 2018. The last 2 pics in this cluster were taken this February at Dawes Arboretum in Ohio, one of the places we will begin to offer forest therapy in our community).

“Everything That Was Broken”

Everything that was broken has

forgotten its brokenness. I live 

now in a sky-house, through every

window the sun. Also your presence. 

Our touching, our stories. Earthy

and holy both. How can this be, but

it is. Every day has something in

it whose name is Forever.

(from Mary Oliver’s book Felicity, (2015), p. 61). Indiana national forest monroe lake

(picture above was taken one early November morning in 2018 at Lake Monroe, Hoosier National Forest).

Namaste.

Exploring the wild spring in Indiana, Ohio, & West Virginia

In late May through mid-June, we journeyed quite a bit… relishing weekends camping, hiking, and white water rafting in three strikingly different Midwestern landscapes. I notice how my experience of my interior world is intimately and deeply impacted by my environment:

Within the lush green and gentle falls in Yellow Springs, Ohio, I find myself feeling protected by the cover of forest canopy above, and lulled by the sound of trickle and light fall of water.

YSYS kids crossing waterYS waterfallIn the sandy expanse of the Indiana Dunes disappearing into the waves of Lake Michigan at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, I am aware of my freedom, as well as the illusions of constancy I often cling to in life. I feel my surrender to the sand moving underneath my toes; the sound of the water rhythmically arriving and departing against the shore; the feeling of the breeze swirling around me… to the arrival and departure of my breath, of my thoughts, of each moment… to my ever changing and moving life.

IN dunes lake michiganUprooted rooted treeThe walk-in campsites at the National Lakeshore campground were lovely.  And during one of our hikes at the dunes, we had privilege of watching a bald eagle perched and gracefully take flight.

Rafting through the powerful rapids in New River Gorge, West Virginia, I was aware of my tiny size and the intensity of the forces around me. Those crashing waters! Those jutting rocks! That bright hot sun shining down on my skin! I was so small in the raft, using my little arms to push water with all my might, hands clutched onto the oar as I worked to maintain my balance and keep from being tossed into the water and rocks around me. My heart beat fast and my breathing was quick. And then we would pass through to calmer waters… and, as my heartbeat and breathing eased, I noticed the stunning nature around me. Then, helmets on, start to brace – we’ve got another rapid coming!

West Virginia New River Gorge sunset.jpgI am so thankful to find myself in each of these landscapes. For the land to bring me back to such different elements of my own be-ing. To be reminded of all the ways in which earth and I are truly one.

Geraniums in the woods

Easing into spring at Caesar Creek

As I witness the unfolding of leaves and petals, I notice my own physical and emotional being mirror their movements. From a position of snuggled up, holding in warmth to protect myself from frigid temperatures, I gradually find myself stretching out more, exposing my  limbs and feet to the sunlight, to the breeze, to the falling raindrops.

I find such an ease in this process of unfolding… as though there was a deep longing buried in winter that seems to emerge and eagerly soak up sunlight, raindrops, and as many floral scents in my landscape as possible…a reverberating exaltation… a resounding Yes!!

Unfolding bloom

This weekend my partner and I camped, rested, hiked, and mountain biked at Caesar Creek State Park in Ohio.

We found ourselves mesmerized by the movement of the water, by the brilliance of the sunset, by the chatter of the songbirds, by the dance and flicker of the campfire…

Spring has come back again. The Earth is
like a child that knows poems by heart.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Fog over a frozen lake

So often I hear about the gray gloom of Midwestern winter. While I certainly understand the impact clouds and cold can have on so many people for all sorts of reasons (none of which I discount), I’m going to let you in on a personal secret: I actually love wintertime.

So, from this loving place in me, I’ll offer a window into my little February jaunt to Buckeye Lake. buckeye lake elizabeth taking a picture.jpgThis was my first time exploring the area. I was lucky to be guided by a very special person who shared with me personal stories that had unfolded for him within this landscape. As we walked towards the thawing lake, I curiously listened to his rich stories of times past on this land.

I noticed how breathtaking the dense fog was over the snow and ice, how the chill in the air seemed to awaken my whole body, and how the slight movements of the thawing lake caught my eye… Such meaning those uniquely winter moments held for me.

And I’m reminded by a poem by David Whyte entitled “Enough”:

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
until now.

Until now.

Wonderland

I find snow dazzling… the way it seemingly mutes the landscape, appearing to sparkle as it reflects light, is just magical. This past Friday, my friend and I braved the treacherous roads to travel down to Hocking Hills in Ohio and immerse ourselves in the quiet, glistening landscape for the weekend. Wider landscape picture of HH.jpgI was coming off of a particularly stressful couple of weeks and weariness felt heavy in my body.  As we climbed out of the car and started our hike among the trails of Hocking Hills, it seemed as though I was gradually awakening; my fatigue lifted and my senses shifted into clearer focus. As Steven Harper eloquently states:

“Upon entering wilderness one of the first things that almost everyone experiences is an enlivening of the five basic senses. Suddenly, we are bathed with and sometimes overloaded with new sounds, awesome sights, interesting textures, different smells and tastes. People frequently comment about the surprise and excitement they have in rediscovering their sensory experience. This rediscovery and awakening of our senses, or perhaps better stated, ‘coming to our senses,’ is a subtly powerful and underrated experience. People learn how greatly some of our basic modes of perception have been dulled in order to survive in the urban world” (http://www.stevenkharper.com/wayofwilderness.html).Cold riverBreathing the frigid air into my lungs, my feet crunching over the snow, I couldn’t help but be called back to right now. My awareness of the vulnerability of my body deepened as I navigated the slick, icy ground. I felt the power of that slippery frozen earth calling my perspective back into check, reminding me of my exquisite smallness on this planet. Nothing that had felt so pressing before seemed urgent… or even relevant… now. Frozen waterfall.jpgAfter just 3 days immersed in the snow covered hills, I reconnected with a deeply felt sense of serenity and ease.

I traveled back home to begin the week renewed.

Autumn Reflection

Today we had a reflective outdoor practice at Highbanks Metro Park in Columbus, Ohio on a beautiful autumn afternoon. Nobody participating in this month’s practice had met before, and each was entering the experience with a personal intention around releasing and letting go, in honor of the season. Together, we began by engaging in two guided grounding exercises to softly and fully mindfully “arrive” to greet the land, one another, and our own internal presence.

highbanks feet.jpgWe then began walking along a trail on metaphorical and meditative journey involving three chapters…

Chapter One: As we began to move along the trail, we quietly explored the earth’s supportive process of letting go in autumn and our own personal process of releasing and letting go.

Chapter Two: We slowed down our movement and noticed what happened in our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as we shifted off the trail, each of us finding an area that individually resonated and engaging in journaling, meditation, or simply resting.

Chapter Three: We returned to the trailhead and, as we did, noticed what we were leaving behind, as well as the support we have and need in order to transition and grow.

Highbanks tree oct 2017.jpg

Some of us expressed finding greatest peace when we were moving, with the rhythm and sounds of our feet as we took each step through the fallen leaves. Others expressed finding peace in the quiet, reflective resting phase of our journey.

Tar hollow pic

I loved most of all the scent of leaves, the sounds of the wind rustling the branches above us, and simply being in the company of such kind and compassionate people as we celebrated the earth’s fall season – and our own processes of letting go.

Enchanted by the Cranberry Wilderness

It was the kind of wilderness within which you might actually expect to see little gnomes and fairies wandering around. Breath-taking beauty, forests with a lush mossy carpet floor, ferns and rhododendrons galore, and a striking abundance orchids; we just may have stumbled upon a version of paradise in the Cranberry Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia.

Toadstool mossy cottageElizabeth in a natural mossy chairIt had been 4 months since my colleague Russell and I had taken our last backpacking trip together. During that space in time, we both had some outdoor adventures separately and moved through significant life-altering experiences along the way. As we began our trip out to West Virginia, I noticed the comforting feeling of easing into an unknown wilderness with a familiar companion.

Russell and I set our intentions as we approached the trailhead. He named his intention of being present and awake to more fully noticing the landscape surrounding him. I named an intention of dropping down into a more grounded and centered space as I moved through and related to this natural landscape, as I related to Russell on this journey, and as I related to my own thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

Russell in the big forestElizabeth walking amongst the trees and rocksRussell taking a breakElizabeth taking a rest on the mossy rock As we shifted out of the overwhelming stimuli of our urbanized environment, I noticed my whole body quieting. I felt more spaciousness and allowance for simply what was in the moment. I noticed appreciating the richness of shared silence as much as the richness of meaningful conversation. I became more fully aware of the stars overhead (there was no rain on this particular trip, so we were truly able to sleep beneath the stars each night), the sounds of the birds, the lulling trickle of the creeks and streams nearby, and the cadence of my own breath.

Landscape view We experienced the physical exertion of carrying a pack, navigating some muddy trails, walking long distances in search of water, and moving up some steep inclines. We experienced deep relaxation provoked by the sensations of sunlight and the breeze against our skin, delicious food cooked over a camp stove while surrounded by a stunning environment, and by the knowing that both of us relied on one another in such fundamental ways on those trails, and that both of us would show up in support of one another as we navigated areas of smooth and challenging terrain.

Elizabeth and Russell looking up at the skyCairnDuring our car ride back to Ohio, we talked about our hope for future backpacking trips. As we reached the month of May 2018, we both agreed: of course we will return to the Monongahela National Forest. The plentiful orchids will be in bloom. The majestic Cranberry Wilderness will call us back.

 

The 6-, 36-, and 66-year-olds set out for a backpacking adventure…

This was an adventure. We were the explorers. Neither the 66 year old nor the 6 year old had ever backpacked before. I (the 36 year old) seemed a trusty guide. The time was now.

Andre with treking poles and mommyWe arrived in at Zaleski State Forest on a Saturday afternoon. It was a perfect September day. The grandson and grandfather were excited and uncertain…would they be able to do it? Would their packs be too heavy? Would the hills be too steep? Would the night be too dark? The animals too wild?

They bravely set off on the trail.

Andre and mommy backpacking

pappers and Andre backpacking

Surprised by our physical strength and eased by the cadence of the backcountry, we three backpackers trekked for a few miles before it was time to set up camp. Night descended and curiosity enveloped fleeting fears. The adventurers found that nightfall was brimming with its own special wonders.

Andre and tree frog.jpg

What memories! We cooked together. We laughed and rested together. We talked about the wonders of life and death together, as we looked up at the trees, just beginning to show signs of autumn foliage.

Andre backcountry cooking.jpg

And so was our little journey, woven by three generations of humans together on a simple, beautiful adventure.

Pappers and Andre backpacking Zaleski

Lost

Elizabeth contemplating

All of us have experienced those moments in which not even the best map and compass can help us navigate our sensations of feeling lost inside. In these moments, we might notice rolling waves of grief, confusion, sorrow, and fear. We might feel our world has turned upside down. In one such pivotal moment in my life, my mentor offered me a poem. This poem has become one of my navigation tools, nudging me back into being “found” in those moments when I seem to have lost my way.

So, now it’s my turn to offer it to you:

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

~David Wagoner, 1976.