Reducing Stress With Outdoor Yoga
Both nature and yoga are proven to reduce stress and encourage connection. What better than to combine the two?
By Helen Avery
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off you like falling leaves.” – John Muir
How fortunate we are that we have just what we need to relieve the increasing stress that we all face: nature. Studies show that even the most minimal connection—such as a view of a tree—can have the tremendous impact of calming the mind and relaxing the body. In fact, people who live in built-up, urban areas are shown to cope with life better when trees or grass are planted outside their apartment buildings.
Being in nature is good for our health and spending more time outdoors is something everyone could benefit from. Research shows that children with ADHD see their symptoms reduce after playing or reading in green outdoor settings. Additional research found that muscle tension, pain, increased heart rate, and higher blood pressure—all symptoms of stress—fade or decrease with exposure to nature.
While we may cite studies as proof of the soothing quality that connecting to nature invokes, deep inside we need no evidence. When asked how one chooses to relieve stress, more than 75 percent of people say they head to a natural setting. This love of and draw towards nature is in our bones. How interesting it is that at some point we stopped trusting what we knew inside or from our own experience, and instead determined that we needed researchers to convince us.
Connecting to the Present Moment
What we don’t know, however, is why this connection between our wellbeing and the natural world exists, and on this point the scientific community may never have a definitive answer. Some researchers, like Roger Ulrich, suggest it is because nature supported our evolution, and so we respond favorably to it. Others hypothesize that earlier in our evolution we were required to pay very close attention to nature in order to survive. They suggest that this focus is hardwired into our genes—so that in nature we become very present and aware of our surroundings, subsequently letting go of the stressful thoughts of our daily lives. Alternative theories are that nature relieves stress because the cleaner air allows more oxygen to reach our brain, or that the increase in negative ions reduces depression.
While it is in our nature to examine and to analyze, the deep and nurturing relationship we have with the outdoors is often intangible or beyond words. Much like the feeling we have after a meditation, or during a yoga practice, we can’t quite put our finger on it, but we feel more relaxed. We feel “like ourselves” again—as if “ourselves” wandered off for a bit, but then came home.
There are many ways to experience nature, and find this special connection to ourselves and to the present. A yoga practice and the great outdoors fit perfectly together, as yoga is able to complement or enhance the stress-relieving aspects that nature brings us. For one, yoga is a practice of presence—so while we are already genetically-wired to be present in nature, a practice of yoga outdoors can amplify this state of mind. In addition, the deep breathing that a yoga practice entails, if combined with nature, means more clean air entering our lungs, and, in turn, we’ll lower our heart rate and blood pressure.
Connecting to Inner Peace
There is also this intangible, complementary relationship between yoga and nature that seems to exist. Both make us feel connected to the universe, the whole, and this “coming home” to ourselves feeling that we cannot quite verbalize, and certainly cannot expect science to explain. This connection brings deep, deep peace.
As Black Elk, a Sioux medicine and holy man, said: “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers…”
People within cultures that have remained connected to the land, much like the Sioux, and individuals like John Muir who dedicated their life to a love of nature, will speak of the deep spiritual connection or awakening that comes from being so absorbed in nature. Sharing that, at times, they have been an aural witness to a celestial sound that has come to them in the wilderness. It is the same feeling that yoga generates. Indeed, Joseph Bharat Cornell, a meditation teacher and nature educator, draws the parallel with this celestial sound of nature, and the primordial sound of “Aum” in his book Listening to Nature.
The difference is that in yoga we intentionally connect to this vibration of creation that rings through all of us, while in nature we need only to remain open and to receive it. Practicing yoga in nature, therefore, is like “doubling down” on experiencing our divine place in the universe. We feel harmonious.
Connecting to Our Tribe
It’s not just our connection to the “oneness” that we cultivate when we practice yoga in nature—it’s also our connection to one another. While we can often enter a yoga class feeling isolated, by the end of our practice, we tend to emerge feeling softened, and connected to our classmates. This social connection has been proven to reduce stress. We need to bond. We need our tribe.
Nature similarly supports human connection by fostering greater community. Researchers in Japan found that exposure to nature increases the feeling of sociability. Not only that, but data from inner-city residences in Chicago demonstrated that just having trees in the neighborhood made residents feel more connected to one another. Studies by the University of Illinois showed that residents of a public housing development felt they “knew their neighbors better, socialized with them more often, and had stronger feelings of community … than did residents of more barren, but otherwise identical, buildings.”
Like yoga, Mother Nature helps us come together in peace. So if you find yourself feeling stressed, take a friend by the hand and head into nature for a yoga practice.
Stress-relief workshops are one of many experiences that await you at a Wanderlust Festival. Find out more.
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.
Check out her facebook page: Facebook: Life As Love
Article reprinted with permission from Helen Avery. Original produced for Wanderlust.