5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors

After three days of constant rain, I feel myself starting to go a little ‘cray cray’.  I miss my daily walk up the country road where I live.  Not surprisingly, I come down with a cold and by day three it turns into a headache.   Does this happen to you?  After days of not venturing outside, your health starts to deteriorate?

It makes a lot of sense, given that being in nature or green spaces is scientifically proven to promote good physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Don’t despair.   I have some tips for bringing the benefits of nature indoors, so you can enjoy the sensory experience even when stuck inside.

1. Pot up the pesky weed and bring it inside.

Plants are not only a visually pleasing and calming addition to your home, but can be a great source of air purification. Two of the best plants to remove indoor toxins and chemicals are Mother in Laws tongue (a weed in the garden) and the Peace Lily.  With increased oxygen levels in your home, you will also breathe easier.
Houseplants also reduce the incidence of dry skin, colds, sore throats and dry coughs.  Put a plant on your desk to give your eyes a rest from your computer screen, boost concentration and be more productive.   One study showed that hanging out with indoor plants can increase memory retention up to 20 percent.  Weird but true.

2. Knock on Wood.

A lot of research has shown that using wood indoors in the form of furniture, fittings and features helps us to relax.  Simply running your fingers across a wooden benchtop can calm your nervous system, lower your heart rate and reduce brain activity, promoting an instant soothing effect.  The smell of naturally dried wood has a similar effect and can be replicated by spraying some essential oils such as cedarwood, siberian fir or eucalyptus around your home.  Always choose naturally dried wood products, not heat treated wood for your home as the aromas produce very different results.  A good excuse to treat yourself to a new chopping board!

3. Create a nature table.

Dig out that shell collection in your bathroom, then go gather some stones, pine cones, feathers, or other forest finds that bring you pleasure. Not just for kids, a nature table or basket is a good ‘go to’ to distract us when feeling stressed, anxious or depressed.  In this situation, pick up something that attracts your attention, find a place to sit, and just explore this treasure with your sense of touch, smell, hearing and sight.  Notice how this feels in your body.  Notice what memories arise for you.   Does this natural object have a story to tell?  Allow yourself time to be mindful and present.  Let feelings arise and fall away.  Just notice without judgement.

4. Uber some fresh cut flowers.

There isn’t a human being around that doesn’t get pleasure from admiring and smelling cut flowers.  But did you know that flower arrangements also offer physical benefits too?  Simply looking at fresh flowers in a vase has been shown to decrease the sympathetic nervous system response to stress and increase physiological relaxation responses.  A similar result is experienced when smelling floral essential oils, inducing relaxation and comfort.  So go pick a wild bunch and knock yourself out.

5. Bring nature imagery inside.

This is a great one, particularly if you live in an apartment in the city, or have very little green space around where you live.  Science has shown that showing prisoners photos and videos of forests, glaciers and waterfalls reduces tension, improves sleep and results in less violent angry outbursts.
Install some nature artwork, change your screensaver to a majestic landscape or watch a nature documentary.  Or simply close your mind and put yourself in your favourite natural landscape.  The brain doesn’t know the difference between real life and mindful imagery.  You get similar mental health benefits either way!

So if you’re stuck indoors, know that nature with all its healing properties is there for you.  Go out there and invite it in.  Do it mindfully with intention and purpose.

You might like to also read:   5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

References:

Miyazaki, Y. (2018).  Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese way of forest bating for health and relaxation. Octopus Publishing Group, London.
Rokas, L. (2017).  ‘NASA Reveals A List Of The Best Air-Cleaning Plants For Your Home’ at https://www.boredpanda.com/best-air-filtering-houseplants-nasa/
University of Utah, ‘Nature Imagery Calms Prisoners’, https://phys.org/news/2017-08-nature-imagery-calms-prisoners.html

5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

Want to spend more time in nature?  Well if you need an excuse, here’s one.  Spending more time mindfully in the outdoors will boost your immune system, take away your stress, help you sleep better and boost your creativity.

With the explosion of scientific research on the benefits of being in nature for mental health and wellbeing, you really can’t afford to not go outdoors.  Here are five quick and easy ways to include more nature in your day.

1. Take your lunch break. Outside.

Too many of us work through our lunch break at work, either because that’s what everyone else does and we want to fit in, or we just don’t have time.  Well, the truth is you will have a more productive afternoon if you give your brain a break.  So turn off the computer, leave your devices behind and take your lunch to the park.  Leave work problems at work; they will still be there when you get back.  Sit and observe what is going on around you, breath the fresh air, listen to the birds.  Return to your desk feeling refreshed and ready to tackle that To Do List.

2.  Start a Sit Spot practice. Outside.

A Sit Spot is a spot in nature to simply connect, relax and observe.  The ideal sit spot is in a natural area where two ecosystems meet, such as the edge where a meadow meets a forest.   Choose a place you can visit frequently without too much effort, even if it is less than ideal.  Your backyard can make a great sit spot.

Sit still and quietly, so that birds and animals nearby get past the initial alarm they feel when a human shows up.  The longer and more often you visit, the more you’ll experience.   The local animals will get to know you and become more accepting of your presence.

Clear your mind.  Do nothing.  Just notice.

3.  Make a natural brew. And drink it outside.

Growing your own food is a great way to develop your connection with nature.  Start by growing a few herbs in pots to make refreshing teas.

Treat yourself to a natural herbal brew once a day.  Enjoy the pleasure of interacting with the plant using all your senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and bodily awareness, then go ahead and harvest a few leaves.

Find a place in your backyard to sit and enjoy your tea.  At first, explore the tea without tasting by using your other senses.  Then take a sip of the tea and explore its flavour and texture.  Drink a full cup and notice its effect on you over the remainder of the day.

4.  Do your exercise. Outside. 

 Apart from saving a lot of money on gym fees, exercising outside exposes you to the sounds of the leaves rustling in the trees, the feeling of fresh crisp air on your skin and the sense of spaciousness.

Rewild your body through real and practical natural movements like running, walking, leaping, dancing, throwing, balancing, crawling, climbing and hunting.  Moving the way our ancestors did promotes strong bone growth, natural conditioning and mental fitness.
Incorporate a way to get to work without using the car.

5.  Walk with your shoes off. Outside.

Once a day, take off your shoes and observe what it feels like to be connected to the earth. Bring the focus of your attention to the souls of your feet.  Step slowly and intentionally noticing the effect of contact on your body.

The earth is endowed with electrons which are absorbed through your feet.  There is evidence showing this grounding practice is good for your physical health like improving your sleep and reducing pain and inflammation.  Our great ancestors never wore shoes and they were a pretty healthy mob.

You might also like to read:   5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors.

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature

What would it be like if we responded to perceived ‘negative’ feelings in the same way we responded to ‘perceived’ positive feelings?  You know the feelings I’m talking about; the ones that make our body feel uncomfortable.  Anger, sadness, grief, guilt, pain, hurt, shame, jealousy and the like.   Growing up we learn to push these feelings away, ignore them, get over them, put a lid on them or deny them.  In fact, society expects us to.  And if we can’t, then we are told to go to a counsellor to learn how to, because there must be something wrong with us.

What if instead we were to normalise these feelings, rather than to see them as abnormal or bad?  After all, it’s only the behaviour that accompanies these feelings that may cause a problem, not the feeling itself.   Somewhere along the line society has labelled emotions ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The so named ‘negative’ ones we want to avoid.  The ‘positive’ ones we crave more of.  We should to be happy all the time, right?

What if we were instead to ride through the wave of perceived ‘negative’ emotion, like a piece of driftwood that rides the ocean currents, knowing eventually the rough and tumble will be over and it will wash up on the shore, ready to dry out and fulfil its potential in the sun?

Nature has much to teach us about living with our emotions, just as nature is a stimulus for experiencing emotion.  Nature shares with us her awesome presence and we experience feelings of awe and wonder staring at a sky filled with millions of stars.  We dwell in delight and joy at the sound of birdsong or a fleeting visit from a timid animal in the forest.  We are wrapped up in happiness and excitement as we discover unexplored, beautiful places that take our breath away.   Our bodies respond to these sensory experiences in pleasurable ways.  We are totally present in the here and now, relishing in the feeling of the moment.

The skill of being mindful in nature can be applied to all our emotions, not just the ones that give us sensations of comfort.  Nature provides some clues about this.  A fire sweeping through the bush is horrifying and scary.  Trees do not enjoy having their leaves stripped bare or bark scarred.  But they stand there, remaining steadfast.  They ride it out.  They slow down their breathing and conserve their energy.  Trees have learnt how to protect themselves from past experience by growing thick bark.  Eventually, the smoke clears, the rains come, and seeds burst forth in regrowth.

What if we were to sit with our emotion in the moment and bring the same kind of awareness to our experience, as we do with ‘positive’ emotions?  To sit and dwell in the pit of crappiness, to bring awareness to the tightness in our stomach, to be accepting of our vulnerability, to notice the change in sensations as the feeling eventually passes.

What if we were to treat our emotions like a friend to get to know rather than an enemy to run away from.  With curiosity, get to know its habits, its likes, its dislikes.  If you can recognise the signs of its arrival, you can be prepared, and find a place to sit and ride it out (preferably in nature which has immediate calming and relaxation effects).

Indigenous peoples do not push their grief away or hide it or try to move through it quickly.  They spend many days or weeks, sometimes months expressing their sorrow after the passing of loved ones.  They feel it shifting through their bodies as they dance and sing to the natural rhythms of the earth.

Experiencing and sitting with the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be human.

For those that have experienced trauma, the experience of sitting with emotions can be much more difficult.  Our response, driven by the brain’s need to protect us, might shut our body down completely so we don’t have to feel at all, or help us get ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat.  This is where nature’s healing powers can really do its work.  When uncomfortable or painful feelings come to the fore, nature provides the distraction needed to calm our over-reactive limbic system.  Taking some time to sit in green space with the sun on your face, the breeze drifting over your skin or the grass beneath your feet, is the first step to retraining your brain through a mindfulness practice.  Building up the muscles in your brain to bring awareness to your felt sense, slowly makes space for the more uncomfortable feelings to be explored in small steps over time.  Sometimes a support person or counsellor is needed to guide this process.

Every feeling we have is normal.  They are part of this journey called life.  They come and go.  Even those that are a result of traumatic experience can be healed, through a practice of mindfulness in nature.

Be gentle on yourself.  Sit with your emotions.  All of them.  Breathe through them.  Notice their passing.

Nature is brave enough to do it.  Humans are nature, so we can too.

Nature Connection for Beginners – 30 Day Challenge

Image: Kelly Ferris

There is a mountain of evidence telling us that 30 minutes a day in nature has enormous benefits for our health and wellbeing.  But who has time to find an extra half hour every day to spend outside, right?

Well, if you are SERIOUS about making a POSITIVE DIFFERENCE to your life without it becoming an onorous task, especially if you know nothing about the therapeutic benefits of a ‘green prescription’, then this 30 day challenge is FOR YOU.  There are no real rules just very simple invitations for you to take up if you so wish, and if an invitation doesn’t fit for you, there are plenty of other practices you can do instead.  Failure is not an option because you choose to participate at a level that suits you.

Here’s how it works.  Each day during April, we will issue an invitation to help you (re)connect with the natural world, ignite your senses and induce mindfulness.  It will be simple, achievable and above all relaxing.  All you need to get started is just 5 minutes a day and accessibility to a green space such as your backyard garden or local park.  We will slowly work up to the optimal 30 minutes a day by Day 30, maximising the benefits for your body, mind and spirit.

They say it takes three weeks to develop a new habit.  You’ll be surprised how easy it is to incorporate nature connection into your busy day.  We guarantee it won’t be another thing to do on your task list.  You will want to do it!

And if you’re still not convinced, here are 10 reasons why this challenge is worth taking on.

  1. Improve your short term memory
  2. Restore your mental energy
  3. Relieve stress
  4. Reduce inflammation
  5. Improve vision
  6. Improve your concentration
  7. Think clearer and more creatively
  8. Boost immune system
  9. Improve mental health, reduce anxiety and depression
  10. Live longer

Using the words of one of my recent nature therapy walk participants, “I would say it is something that needs to be experienced, rather than spoken about.”  I will be writing more about the scientific benefits in future blogs, but I can’t wait to hear about your experience and what you notice.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up now for the “Nature Connection for Beginners – 30 Day Challenge”.  To receive your daily invitation beginning April 1, join our Facebook Event or follow me on Instagram.

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards

…metaphorically speaking: Looking back, moving forward and just being present!

A new year is a good opportunity to reflect on the time that has come to pass, as well as set intentions for the future.  But there is something to be said about just appreciating the present moment too.

I find myself in a new garden of Eden, set in the Nambucca Valley on the upper mid north coast of New South Wales.   The sound of laughing kookaburras echo and the scent of a flowering lemon myrtle wafts over the gentle trickle of Nambucca Creek, winding its way through my backyard.  Sweaty tropical wet season days have been replaced with warm, summer days and gentle cooling breezes.  I feel my body slowly relaxing into this fresh environment, as culture shock gently subsides and the known but unfamiliar becomes engrained in daily life.
Yes, I have physically relocated.   And things are moving for ….metaphorically speaking.

To reflect on the years that have come to pass, I’m reminded of the immense privilege of working in the Northern Territory, the relationships I’ve built that will stand the test of time, a mind-full re-connection to the earth and respect for the oldest culture in the world.   My suitcase is full of rich stories, heart-filled memories, learnings and gratitude.  2017 was the year of completion and a sense of accomplishment; seeing out the initial trial of the Healing Our Children project on the Tiwi Islands, Palmerston and Katherine; launching my ‘Talk the Walk’ podcast; and of course, self-publishing my first children’s therapeutic picture book was a thrilling highlight.

As for new intentions (as I don’t do resolutions) well, there is some exciting opportunities on the horizon.  In March I will graduate with a Certificate in Nature and Forest Therapy.  I am not sure how the practice of forest bathing will look in the Nambucca Valley yet, but I am buoyed by the hope of working alongside First Nations people in exploring possibilities for nature-connected eco-tourism.  Nature therapy will also offer an alternative path to health and wellbeing, recovery from painful loss and hope for those who struggle in daily life to find meaning in this stressful world.

As I write, our family is seeking to find a permanent place to set up home in the hills, nestled amongst protected state forest and freshwater springs.  We long to grow our own food, foster regenerative land-care practices, learn to live more simply, and deepen our own spiritual connection with this place.  We yearn to share our vision with others, in the short term offering a two-way, shared learning space for co-creating and workshopping, and in the longer term a healing sanctuary and affordable retreat accommodation in a bush location.  I have no idea what this actually looks like; we trust that our vision for the regeneration of self and planet will grow organically, working with rather than against nature’s patterns and rhythms.

And so it is with a renewed sense of hope for humanity and the planet, that I embark on 2018.  While that might seem like a lot of change in the wind, for my subscribers to the blog and podcast most things will stay the same.  You will still be able to access my learnings on the journey in Indigenous social work practice as well as weekly podcast episodes of others’ experiences in social work with First Nation Australians.  As we move forward, you may find I do more blogging about the integration of ecopsychology, ecotherapies and Indigenous ways of knowing and healing ourselves and the planet.

My hope for this space in 2018 is to ramp up the conversation, amplify the connections between us, and share the great work that is happening around Australia.  If you’re engaging in Indigenous social work practice (or even just attempting to ‘walk the talk’), you have a story that others need to hear.   Please join in.  Send me an email and introduce yourself, comment on the Facebook Page,  follow us on Instagram, volunteer to be a guest blogger or nominate someone for a podcast interview.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up and moving, my podcast recording equipment is now sitting in a storage warehouse in Brisbane.  A small oversight on my part which I hope won’t affect broadcasting too much in the coming months.  I have three episodes waiting in the wings and will bring these to you each Wednesday starting next week.

In signing off, I’d like to acknowledge the hurt and sadness that exists on this day around Australia amongst our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.  While many see January 26 as a day to celebrate, the rest of us mourn.  I support #changethedate to recognise this painful history and to choose a more suitable date to celebrate what it means to be Australian.

May you be calm and keep on walking.

Lucy

‘Nature’s cure for all our ills’

Have you ever wondered what nature could offer you and your clients… especially those that are affected by chronic stress, mental health issues, physical pain, despair and heartache?

I have just completed an initial week’s training intensive to become a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.  I can attest to both the physical and mental health benefits that being in nature offers.   I had a heightened awareness that back and groin pain which has been niggling me for 12 months suddenly disappeared.   I noticed that stress that I had been carrying in my jaw and neck from my fast-paced, outcomes driven, work life floated away with the clouds that passed overhead.   I was connecting and communicating with beings from the more-than-human world in an intimate way, that I had never felt before.  I also discovered a tall tree overlooking a valley held a message of hope for my heart despairing at the state of our planet.  It was freeing for my mind, body and soul.  But don’t just take my word for it.

There is a lot of emerging evidence about the health effects of being in the forest.  Scientific research on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that simply being in the wilderness can increase immune function, reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase focus and concentration, improve rates of recovery from surgery and illness, increase energy and improve sleep.

How is that so?  Well, the same compound that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and pests is the same essential oil that improves our immune system.  They are called phytoncides and they produce cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body.

Guides-in-training and members of the public experience the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ on a Forest Therapy walk in the Redwoods of the Yarra Ranges (Sept 2017).   Photo: Jana Norman.

We always knew that being in nature felt good, didn’t we?   Now there is real evidence to prove that living a fast, active, technology dominant lifestyle is counterproductive and could potentially promote chronic physical and mental illness.  People on regular forest therapy walks are also reporting feeling happier, developing deeper more meaningful relationships, feeling more connected with the land and its species, having more energy and developing a more attuned intuition.

It seems as though the Western world, is just catching up to what Indigenous peoples have always known.  During my time on the Tiwi Islands, as both a drug and alcohol counsellor and children’s counsellor, Elders and other strong women repeatedly spoke about ‘going out bush’ as the best remedy for ‘wrong thinking’ and wayward behaviour.  Within my capacity and resources, I drew on the knowledge of these wiser ones to host healing camps out bush with families who were going through hard times and to reconnect children who were going off the rails with a traditional healing ceremony on country (or if that was not possible at least use the metaphors of the natural world in our therapeutic conversations).

What can ‘walking on country’ practised for thousands of years by Aboriginal people do for our health and wellbeing?

In Forest Therapy, the medicine we need is waiting to be discovered in nature and it is up to the client to do the hard work of discovering what the forest is telling them.  The Guide simply opens the door for people by offering them mindful invitations, being open to listening to the messages of support, encouragement, healing or survival that are communicated by all living things.  This concept sounds very familiar too, observed in the way Aboriginal women demonstrate their spiritual connection to the land.  I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the barking owl to be advised that (insert name) must have passed away.  I’ve been out hunting when a branch has fallen from a tree, a sign from the ancestors that there is a possum there to be caught for dinner.  I’ve watched women scouting the bush for ‘just the right vine’ which will yield a big, long, fat yam two feet underground, left wondering how do they know, when all vines look the same?  And I’ve heard numerous stories of miracle cures for persistent ailments using bush medicine, where modern medicine has failed.  The knowledge for living a good and healthy life is right there on country, if we are in tune.

Unfortunately, the government policies of today are forcing Aboriginal people off their country and into the towns to be closer to services, and along with this, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food options and other social issues like overcrowding and domestic violence.  We are seeing the health effects of this lifestyle for Aboriginal people and it’s not good.

As a social worker, this has got me thinking seriously about nature as a form of intervention for people who come to us for help.  The forest provides healing in gentle and profound ways, that we as humans cannot.  It requires a step away from evidence-based talk therapies from Western culture towards intuitive traditional healing practices and spiritual connections to nature that have been used for thousands of years.

If we don’t believe the anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people about the positive health effects of being connected to country, then we can at least take notice of the emerging evidence from shinrin yoku practices in Japan.
Nature has something for everyone.  Even those of us whose heart is aching for the destruction of nature itself.

‘The Oldest Therapy in the World’ with Leonie Hunter

While I am gearing up to undertake the first Forest Therapy* course offered on Australian soil down in the Yarra Ranges this week, it seems the interest in ecotherapeutic approaches to health and wellbeing is growing rapidly.  While the Western world is just catching up with the scientific evidence to prove nature can heal us from the social ills of overconsumption and environmental degradation, Indigenous cultures across the world have always known of the healing power of nature.   For many years I’ve heard Elders from the Tiwi Islands prescribe ‘going out bush’ as the best treatment for mental health problems and young people who are going off the rails, rather than traditional talk therapies.  Leonie Hunter of the Tiwi islands is my guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week.   With knowledge and wisdom passed down to her from family and a passion for understanding mental health in the 21st century, Leonie unpacks what ‘nature as healer’ means to the oldest culture in the world.

In this week’s episode, we explore:

  • the history of how Tiwi people have been using nature in healing ways
  • what parts of nature are used in traditional healing methods
  • the power of listening to the external and internal
  • healing physical ailments and the emotional self with bush medicine
  • what excites Leonie most about using bush therapy
  • how Leonie came to learn cultural healing knowledge and skills in nature
  • Leonie’s encounter with respected Kakadu elder Bill Neidjie
  • Key messages from nature for our lives today
  • Leonie picking bush peanuts

    The effects of not looking after the environment and the impact of stress on Aboriginal people’s health

  • the benefits of nature for children and Leonie’s dream of developing healing camps for youth
  • Leonie’s personal experience of the healing power of nature
  • Nature as a helper in the grieving process
  • Adopting traditional healing methods in the health system
  • Tips for non-Indigenous social workers who want to help Aboriginal clients access traditional healing in their recovery

This interview was conducted in nature.  We don’t apologise for that, but the sound quality is affected by the wind in some areas (sorry!)

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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Things to follow up after the episode

*Forest Therapy is a term coined by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy

Bill Neidjie – Author of ‘Story about Feeling’, ‘Gagudju Man’ and ‘Old Man’s Story’