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Shinrin-yoku Lessons learned from a walk with nature

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Today I decided to take a walk. To put on the breaks, disconnect from society, and the turmoil we are currently experiencing, step outdoors, and maybe even take in a little sunshine. Winter is hard. Winter is hard on a lot of people. I am ready to feel the sun kiss my face again and warm my skin.                            

I started in a bit of a fog, literally and figuratively. It was overcast and drizzling slightly. Not enough to derail my plans, though. I had already decided on the 6-mile trail. I wanted to spend the morning without distraction. I had also just finished reading “Go Wild” by Dr. John Ratey, and I was fascinated by his chapter called Biophilia. This chapter contains many reasons why we should get out of houses and urban settings into the wild. Nature and all its beauty can have significant effects on the mind and body. From Dr. Ratey's book, I learned that there are potent chemicals called phytoncides, which plants and trees exude. Phytoncides make our way directly to our olfactory system and then straight to the brain. Many of these chemicals have significant effects on the brain. Phytoncides can lower stress hormones, regulate pain, and reduce anxiety. One of the most powerful abilities of phytoncides is the ability to up-regulate our immune system's natural killer cells. Natural killer cells are the first-line of defense against certain infections like colds and the flu. Phytoncides can be undetectable, but they are there. They have been studied extensively in Japan, leading to a national movement called shirin-yoku, which translates into bathing or basking in the forest.

I was seeking shirin-yoku today in the hopes it could provide something—clarity or stress release, a little bit of both maybe. At the trailhead, there is a choice. Continue the planned route, or choose the short path due to the current weather conditions. There wasn't a wrong answer here, but my mind almost wanted the short path. It looked easy, there were perhaps only a few turns or rocks to climb, but then it didn't seem like much of a challenge. I think my stress level was still high, and that stress was causing my brain to want to take the easy way out. I then remembered why I came out today and chose the long trail.                         

Somewhere around mile 1, there was a fork on the road. Right or left. One would take me to the old mill, and one would take me up the hill. I chose right, towards the old mill. I'll come back the other way. It didn't take long for the simple act of walking along the river to provide a peace that I hadn't felt in weeks or even months. I missed the outdoors and had forgotten how much I loved being in a forest. It made me smile and open my eyes, and then the sun came out. Hallelujah, the beautiful sun. Peace all around me, calming sounds of robins singing and water bouncing off rocks. There is no wrong trail when you are with nature.

The trail started to climb, and I picked up the pace. Now it was time to look ahead at the hill I needed to climb. There were tons of roots to trip me up, so I had to pay attention to my foot placement. I started to breathe a little heavier and a little bit faster. Baby steps up the hill, rather than long strides, keep you going more quickly and allow you to climb without getting so winded. I thought about how much I feel overwhelmed by changes I want to make and the type of life I am trying to lead, and I realized it was just like this big hill that I was climbing. Change is hard; it can seem like a mountain that is too high to climb. It can seem like you won't make it and that it is just too hard. Maybe you even want to turn back. Don't let it overcome you. Don't let mediocrity be acceptable to you. Change your stride and take a few shorter steps, one in front of the other. It won't seem as hard or as long if you focus on the small steps you do each day to reach the peak.

Breathe Deep. I repeated that mantra to myself through most of the walk. Breathing deep felt good. I felt like with every breath; I was releasing something pint up inside. I felt a release and a form of alertness that I hadn't felt in a while.

There weren't many people out at the beginning of my walk, but as the day warmed and the rain moved on, I began to pass a few more. There wasn't one single person who didn't greet me with a smile and a quick good morning as we passed along the trail. It was a nice change from the hustle of busy people on sidewalks, glued to their smartphones, disconnected and unobserving the world and the people right beside them.

The trail meandered up and down hills and alongside streams and jagged rocks. It was like I was far from civilization, and it felt like all would be right with the world. I thought I could do some deep thinking and plan my next steps in my career goals and my life, but I found that I was thinking of everything and nothing. Thoughts were moving in and out so quickly that it was like they weren't even there. Nothing concrete or stressful. No thoughts were telling me I'm not good enough or that I can't achieve my goals. No bad-mouthing myself and letting my inner critic win when I am in the forest. It was a release to know that these thoughts are just that, thoughts. They are not me, and I can release them quickly when I am on a walk.

I found a clearing and a large rock to sit on. I got my book out and started to read and journal a bit. I truly felt like I was finding a better, calmer self in nature. I was genuinely experiencing biophilia. Biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. It is a deep attachment to nature and is rooted in us by our genetic programming and evolution itself. If we as a species are connected to the natural world, we will survive. Our modern life and jammed packed urban neighborhoods disconnect us from nature and keep us from experiencing the calmer effects of the natural world.

It began to drizzle. I packed my bag and started walking again. Usually, rain bothers me because it messes up my already unruly curly hair, but today it felt ok. It felt ok to get rained on and to experience that as I was walking. It just made me appreciate the sun all the more when the rain ceased, and the sun broke the clouds. The end was near, and I didn't want to stop walking. I felt like I could keep walking, and it would be ok. Maybe I could pick another trail and keep going. My mind did not want to go back to the fast-paced life I was leading. Could I just stay here? How long before I had to leave?

I smiled, and I took a deep breath. I did want to stay, but I had more things to check off my list today. I won't forget my walk, and I won't forget how important it is to be in nature and let it soothe me. Now I know where to go when I am stressed. In nature, I can connect to something bigger than myself. The natural world grounded me today. It rooted me into myself and my connection with who I am and what I want to achieve. Shinrin-yoku started a warm glow in my body today. I can't wait to experience it again. Maybe another hike tomorrow? 

"If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk." Hippocrates

This informative story on the importance of time spent in nature is courtesy of Laura Alexander, Doctor of Pharmacy and Certified Personal Trainer. Laura’s mission is to inspire people to live a healthy lifestyle and to be able to avoid medication and live a more productive life. Here at Excel Body Fitness, Laura works as a Personal Trainer and will begin Nutrition coaching within the near future. 

#nutrition #fitness #nutritionlabel #pharamacy 


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