Reflection Paper on 10-day Practice
What did you do?
I chose walking in nature as my 10-day (and beyond) practice. Criteria for my practice included outdoor environments that were isolated from human activity such as city streets, traffic noise, and popular trails.
Why did you choose this practice?
Walking (hiking and trail running) in nature has always been my place of reconnection both to my sense of feeling embodied (finding a reconnection within myself) and with the Earth. I spent over 20 years hiking and guiding groups of people of all ages on expeditions that lasted one week to three months through multiple landscapes from mountains, deserts, canyons, rivers, and oceans. Walking on the Earth is embedded into the marrow of my bones and it keeps me upright when the weight of the world feels crippling.
Santa Fe provides an exquisite high desert ecosystem that offers both high forested mountain peaks and beautiful cliff-lined sandy arroyos where one can always find a place of solitude during any season (Brewster & Kottlowski, 1968). Discovering a place to walk along a sandy arroyo during the cold winter months or escaping to the high alpine mountains (12, 200’) in the heat of the summer is part of the allure of living in Santa Fe.
What did you notice physiologically, emotionally, mentally?
The physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual components of walking in nature was reinforced by the natural beauty that surrounded my daily walks and the physical exercise that allowed my body to vary its stride and exertion dependent on the terrain where I was walking. There were ebbs and flows between the physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual, which often times culminated into a dynamic integration of sensations that were experienced as a long deep breath and exhale.
My body craves movement. The effects of sitting for long periods of time create a physiology for dis-ease. I liken the experience of no outdoor movement to a wild free-flowing river that is forced into stagnation by a concrete steel dam. Movement provides an integration of muscular exercise and neurological stimulus that induces creativity and problem solving as well as mindful restoration. The restorative effects of nature are well studied (Olafsdottir et al., 2018), and I could feel the physiological effects of relaxation each time I ventured outside.
My emotional predisposition preceded each of my nature walks and determined how quickly I would respond to the calming effects of walking in nature. In the evenings after a 13-hour shift in the emergency department (ED), I was considerably more wound-up and stressed-out than on the days when I was not working. However, nature walks provided a greater emotional release of tension from a busy day in the ED as compared to days that were less stressful. Other emotional sensations I experienced on my nature walks often included incredible joy by being outside. The smells, the sights, and the cold air against my skin created an emotional response that elicited love for myself and for the Earth. The experience also allowed for greater compassion to seep into the negative ruminations that sometimes reside under the surface.
The toughest part of any practice is overcoming the mental inhibitions that detail every reason why I should do something else, eat, continue with schoolwork, scroll through Facebook, text a friend, etc. Once I was able to put my busy mind aside, lace up my boots, wrap myself in a warm jacket and walk out the door, the mental objections fell by the wayside.
The spiritual reverence that I have for the Earth is profound. There has never been a time that I spent time in nature that I regretted. Every time I walk outside my soul is nourished.
Describe your Experience including any Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual Benefits or Changes
Walking in the arroyo behind my house, the temperatures are in the mid-teens, the crystallized snow crunches under and around my boots, I wiggle my toes to keep them warm. I can see my breath and I shiver from my core as the cold streaks down the front of my neck and through the gap between the sleeves of my down jacket and winter gloves. I pull my scarf tighter to my throat and tuck my hands into my fleeced-lined pant pockets. It is quiet except for an occasional Common raven (Corvus corax) flying overhead and the fleeting White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) darting in amongst the pinyon and juniper trees.
I allow my attention to slip back and forth to the rhythmic crunching of the ice crystals underfoot, my breathing begins to relax as the initial shock of cold air subsides. I notice my posture slowly unfurl as the heat from my body spreads to my periphery. My focus begins to expand and my awareness grows outward into the pine forest and the snowcapped mountains to the east. I continue my walk in silence, occasionally stopping to breath in the scent of pinyon wood burning in a nearby home.
It is late and I am tired. I am drained from 13-hours of non-stop movement in the ED. I want to eat dinner, shower and curl into bed, mentally I have to pry myself into walking out the back door to walk.
Emotionally I am spent, physically I am exhausted, spiritually I am unavailable, and mentally I behave internally like a two-year defiantly refusing to put on her hat and gloves. I grab my headlamp and head to the arroyo. The pinyon and junipers darkly line the sandy banks of the arroyo. The moon is in her last quarter phase and she sits below the eastern horizon allowing for the winter constellations of Orion, Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor to blaze overhead. I walk to the end of my turn-around spot before I can feel the weight of the day slowly begin to fall away. My breathing slows and deepens, by the time I return home I feel quiet.
I am tired and inwardly frustrated, I am tired of taking care of others and I unconsciously want to take it out on myself, self-deprecation looms like a relentless bully. I force myself to put on my boots and heavy winter jacket. I find my headlamp and make my way outside. My walk is short, I try to focus on my breathing but the cold air stings the lining of my nares. I turnaround, relieved to be returning home.
My first full day off since returning from the residential conference. My body is aching to move, to expand, to breathe deeply and awaken the sinews and fibers of sleeping lethargic muscles. It has been more than a week since I mindfully and mindlessly ran along a dirt trail in the hills of Monterey. Today, I chose a path that meanders along the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains. I had no objective or goal, I let my body tell me where it wanted to go at each trail junction. The trail led me upwards before plateauing to the top of a wide-open expanse of pinyon, juniper, and ponderosa. I could feel my lungs expand and my thighs burst awake, my blood pulsed outward through my hands and feet warming my fingers and toes. My core collected more strength as my eyes widened and my senses came alive. There was no other place that I wanted to be but in that present moment. I was flooded with feelings of love and gratitude. I could feel the energy of the earth through the soles of my running shoes. I needed to let my body move uninhibited. When I returned to the trailhead I felt physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually light and carefree. I feel blessed.
After sitting for hours at my desk, my body could no longer remain stationary, my attention began to wander and I was unable to focus on my reading assignment. I left my computer and headed into the arroyo, it was late in the day and the sun was setting behind me to the west. The afternoon’s alpenglow of blue, orange, red, and dark pine green was on fire. It took me some time to get out of my head and find a rhythm in my stride and breath. My feet sank into the cool beige arroyo sand where deer, coyote, rabbit, and occasional bobcat prints scattered around me. I could feel the ruminations of dissertation angst stir under the surface and each time the angst tried to creep into my mind I would quietly and confidently change my focus by looking upward toward the mountains. The altering of my focus transitioned the self-focus of disquieted ruminations to an expansive awareness that made my body tingle as it released the stressful energy.
Inspired after reading, The Empowering Variability of Affordance of Nature: Why do Exercisers Feel Better after Performing the Same Exercise in Natural Environments than Indoor Environments? (Aranjo, Brymer, Briko, Withagen, & Davids, 2019), I decided to walk in an area of nature that I had not previously experienced. My first awareness was a visual embrace of the new environment both perceptibly and somatically. I felt an initial sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response that dominated my parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that provided a healthy alert-awareness to the new outdoor, wooded environment. I chose to walk away from the trail into the dense winter forest with lush undergrowth covered in snow. My body directed me to follow a ridgeline to the top of a hill as my point of direction. As my senses relaxed into the new environment, I could feel my body transition from a dominate SNS to a more peaceful and relaxed PNS.
The snow covering the sandy arroyo is slowly melting. I am tired today from insufficient sleep. My walk transitioned into sitting on an old log that was deposited during last summer’s historic flash flood. I sat and let my mind unravel and loosen. It felt good to sit and be still.
I returned home from another long and busy shift in the ED. My sleep patterns have been dysregulated for unknown reasons so the fatigue is pressing and walking feels like more of a burden than a blessing.
I chose an early morning walk in the open, unfenced, dog park. My body feels tired, my legs feel heavy and I don’t respond as quickly to the undulations in the sandy dirt trail. I focus on my breath and let myself wander through the pinyon and juniper trees. The numerous dogs running and playing makes me smile and reminds me of the importance of living in joy. I returned home feeling less burdened from yesterday’s long day of work.
I chose a forested trail in the foothills of Santa Fe for my last day of our intentional movement practice. I chose to end my practice here because I wanted to immerse myself into the pinyon-juniper-ponderosa forest away from other hikers. There is a special ponderosa pine tree that stands over 70’ tall and its trunk diameter is wider than my arms can reach. I refer to the pine as, she, because I tell her I love her each time I wrap my arms around her and bury my face into her dark red-brown bark. I sink my nose between her thick flakey, fragrant bark and I am overwhelmed by the sweet smell of vanilla and butterscotch. I can feel an energetic flow of unconditional love, grounding, clarity, and support radiate through my arms, chest, and belly each time I embrace her.
Aranjo, D., Brymer, E., Briko, H., Withagen, W., & Davids, K. (2019). The empowering variability of affordances of nature: Why do exercisers feel better after performing the same exercise in natural environments than in indoor environments? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 1-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.12.020
Brewster, B., & Kottlowski, F. (1968). Scenic Trips to the Geologic Past - Santa Fe. Mines and Mineral Resources New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology . Retrieved from https://geoinfo.nmt.edu/publications/guides/scenictrips/downloads/1/Scenic%20Trip%2001.pdf
Louv, R. (2006). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Olafsdottir, G., Cloke, P., Schutz, A., van Dyck, Z., Eysteinsson, T., Thorlefisdotter, B., & Vogela, C. (2018, February 28). Health Benefits of Walking in Nature: A Randomized Controlled Study Under Conditions of Real-Life Stress. Environment and Behavior, 1-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0013916518800798