Intuitively, some of us feel that a walk in nature does us the world of good. Some attribute the sensation of well-being that a long hike in the fields or forests procures, to the fact that the sheer height of the trees, the rugged permanence of the cliff, the immensity of the plains stimulate our sense of awe and that in contrast with such magnitude, our troubles can, at least momentarily, dwindle into insignificance.
Likewise, by training oneself to hike in a mindful manner, focusing on the wonderful variety of sound stimuli from the rustle of wheat sheaves to the chirping of crickets and birds, or allowing oneself to observe in a deliberate way, the multitude of greens, the textures and detail of the vegetation, then the outcome of this time spent disconnected from life’s distractions, is certainly restful. However, I have always felt that there is more to it. Intuitively, I just know that the benefits run deeper...
Ten years ago, while expanding my reading material, I became curious of Neotic Science. I had long since learned to acknowledge how precious and reliable an asset is one’s intuition.
However, I fully respect that some perceive as necessity, proving and quantifying the initially, apparently, unmeasurable. Some will even dedicate a life-time’s work in the pursuit of convincing skeptics, while achieving academic recognition of their work’s scientific value. I was impressed to ascertain that, in Switzerland, certain scientists are dedicated to researching and accumulating scientific evidence on how intuition does protect us.
So, what if our intuition is accurate?
What if walking in nature and forests really does impact our mental and physical health in a quantifiable way?
Several factors over which I have no control have meant that my life can be particularly stressful at times, but I wholeheartedly agree with what Jon Kabat-Zinn said - “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
I have had two amazing surfing partners - my dogs. For over ten years, I have been walking my dogs around the Czech countryside and when need be, we allow our intuition to guide us along unknown paths into the depths of nature.
At certain times, we are led into forests of predominantly oak and pine, and always, after spending two or three hours walking together, I emerge feeling profoundly relaxed, centered and at peace.
Thus it surprised me not, when I heard of Shinrin–yoku; the Japanese activity of forest bathing. Should the concept be unknown to you, let me elucidate the fact that the practice does not entail nudity in the woods. Participants simply spend time, mindfully, in forests of pine, oak and cedar.
I was curious to learn that extensive research has shown that chemicals called phytoncides, are present in these tree species, and can apparently lower stress levels in humans. Phytoncides are volatile compounds which according to research carried out at Osaka University, Chiba University and the Nipon Medical School, provide relaxing effects.
Brain monitoring equipment has apparently shown that exposure to nature, and more specifically, to certain tree species suppresses activity in the region of the brain that is associated with rumination and known to undergo stimulation during bouts of depression. South Korean studies have also suggested that exposure to nature and the alpha-pinene secreted from certain species stimulates NK activity and results in an increase in number, of these protective cells.
Finally, my personal documentation on the subject led me to reports and research pioneered by the Dean and professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Science of Washington University.
His work strongly suggests that there is an accumulation of evidence to support the theory that exposure to “nature does indeed benefit mental and physical health in very specific ways” and that the effects are prolonged, still being measurable several days after a walk.
The wonderful effects that immersing myself in nature, with my dogs, has had on me, inspired me to share walks which we continue to discover intuitively, with others, via my website.
About the guest writer
Karen O’Rourke has a joint honours M.A. from University of Glasgow. After lecturing in English at University de Haute Alsace, she has been living in Prague for ten years where she teaches and organizes hikes in the Czech countryside for dog owners and walkers.
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