Sometimes, as she sat here, she imagined herself as her own distant ancestor: One step ahead of something large and hungry, she had leaped into branches and shinnied up a tall tree. At these times she looked out over the rooftops toward the sea, but did not, she said, see the cityscape. She saw savanna—the rolling, feminine, harsh yet nurturing plains of Africa. She felt her breath slow and her heart ease.
“Once our ancestors climbed high in that tree, there was something about looking out over the land—something that healed us quickly,” said Brooks. Resting in those high branches may have provided a rapid comedown from the adrenaline rush of being potential prey. “Biologically, we have not changed. We are still programmed to fight or flee large animals.Genetically, we are essentially the same creatures as we were at the beginning. We are still hunters and gatherers. Our ancestors couldn’t outrun a lion, but we did have wits. We knew how to kill, yes, but we also knew how to run and climb—and how to use the environment to recover our wits.”
Today, we find ourselves continually on the alert, chased by an unending stampede of two-thousand-pound automobiles and four-thousand-pound SUVs. Even inside our homes the assault continues, with unsettling, threatening images charging through the television cable into our living rooms and bedrooms. At the same time, the urban and suburban landscape is rapidly being stripped of its peace-inducing elements.
A recent article in the New York Times has been all over my Facebook feed the past few days. Have you seen it?
The article references a study about how spending 90 minutes walking in nature significantly modifies activity in the brain in an area (the subgenual prefrontal cortex) linked to rumination and brooding, precursors for depression. Rather by chance, my morning walk lasted about 90 minutes and the Pandora app on my phone was not working, so I incidentally tested out this experiment for myself. I’ve got to say, aside from feeling a little stiff and realizing that I need to move more than I do, I notice that I am more relaxed.
I’ve noticed, too, that my children are much more focused, sleep better, and are generally more easy-going after spending time outside. Lately I’ve begun to incorporate more mindful moments outdoors with each of them. This can take on various forms of yoga and mindfulness for my youngest children, who are under three years old. I only expect to keep them engaged for 15-20 minutes at this age. There’s a lot to do with yoga beyond the asanas/movement – I mix up the movement piece with mantras and pranayama (breath work), so we end up humming then moving, then breathing funny through silly faces. The point is to get them focused for any amount of time on their bodies and their breath, using the spaces in between activities to notice the stillness. Sometimes they copy my movement, other times I copy theirs. We pretend to be animals or other things from nature. When we can practice outside, we spend some of that time observing through our five senses, so there’s a mindfulness component to it. (We look at the sky, we listen for birds, smell the grass, crinkle leaves, feel the air, etc). The great thing about yoga is that it teaches you to listen to and trust the wisdom of your body, so all of this just helps them to create a daily practice doing that. Of course I don’t explain all that to the girls. My son, on the other hand, is older, so he can grasp the concepts.
For my oldest, we prefer to hike in nature. Our most recent adventure was through Ruby Falls, an underground waterfall, reached by walking about a mile and a half through winding tunnels of a cave deep within a mountain.
A reflective pool within Lookout Mountain
Ruby Falls, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Of course our days are interspersed with electronics. These technological devices surely serve a purpose, both for functionality, as well as entertainment and education. But we try to maintain a balance and hope that most days tip the scales toward natural environments.
The beautiful words by Richard Louv written at the top of this post remind us how integral the Earth is for not only our physical survival, but for our psychological and emotional well-being, too. Do any of you have any fitness goals for the week? How will you spend more time in nature? I’d love to hear what you all are doing!