Monday, April 8, 2013

Connect with nature, soothe your nerves

Yesterday I stumbled upon an inspiring 2012 article from Outside Magazine. The author, Florence Williams, writes at length about ongoing studies by Japanese researchers on the health benefits of spending time outdoors. The theory is that a simple walk in the park or forest can lower blood pressure, stave off depression, reduce stress and improve immune function—and thereby prevent a host of stress-related illnesses, including cancer.

The lore of the positive effects of nature on the mind, body and soul is centuries old. Quotes from Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" - and why he "went to the woods" -  pepper countless inspirational films, books and blogs. We know we feel good when we get outside, even on a miserable New York winter day - even if we don't really know why. As a pragmatic yogi with an engineering degree, I am always delighted when the mystical meets the measurable - and we can validate these romantic ideas scentifically.

By measuring heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and mental activity in those engaged in a sylvan stroll, scientists are proving that exposure to greenery - and trees in particular - has an effect on the nervous system that can be likened to meditation. Leisurely forest walks, compared with urban hikes, yielded a "12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate." More subjectively, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety. Other studies have also shown improved cognitive function, test performance, and creativity. Amazingly, the Japanese scientists are gathering evidence that the aromatic volatile compounds - i.e. scents - of soil and trees have a tangible effect on the immune system. Sniffing these substances while walking under a canopy of trees has been shown to promote the body's production cancer-killing white blood cells and proteins. Incidentally, just looking at pictures of nature has a salubrious effect on people. Ansel Adams, anyone?

As a modern yogi it is always a delight to learn a new way to trick the parasympathetic nervous system into being awakened, and push that growling sympathetic nervous system that dogs us back into its cage. The more tools we have in our toolbox to combat the negative effects of our hectic lives, the better off we are. Happier, healthier, more brilliant and innovative, more successful, more loving. We know that yoga and meditation are both tonics for the part of our brains that help reduce stress. And knowing that a walk with the dog in Central Park can have a similar effect is eye-opening and encouraging.

I too am guilty of spending far too much time in front of a backlit screen, and far too little time smelling the roses - or the aromatic compounds from trees, as it were. This article (read the original here) was a welcome reminder to power down and get my green on. I often recall one of my favorite ee cummings poems when feeling inspired on a gorgeous spring day: " i thank You God for most this amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky..." Thanks indeed: nature is medicine.



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