I wouldn’t describe myself as overly competitive. Yes, I like to strategise when playing board games, but if the cards or dice are against me, I don’t get upset about losing. However, take me back to my annual school and village sports days and it is a very different story. With honour or house points at stake in the 100m sprint and 3-legged races, there was only one acceptable outcome!
While my sprinting days may be over, I fear my speedy genes have crept into my walking. There is certainly none of that funny hip wiggling, speed walking stuff going on. However, I am also not someone who meanders aimlessly. I walk purposefully and quite often against the clock because of a deadline. Things to do, places to be and all that.
A beautiful walk with Kate Care of Breathe in the Forest has however opened my mind, and diary, to the need for some occasional walking at a more leisurely pace. Kate is a qualified Forest Bathing Guide and Natural Mindfulness Facilitator. Our stroll took us along Selborne’s Short and Long Lythes to the Priory Ponds. As we walked Kate explained the well-being benefits of natural mindfulness walks and talked me through her approach.
Getting Some Balance Into Our Lives
She started by explaining the composition of our nervous system, and how it is split into the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest & digest). Unfortunately, our busy, modern lives mean we are all too often working on the sympathetic nervous system. This is linked to stress and detrimental health conditions this can trigger. Natural Mindfulness helps us redress the balance in favour of our parasympathetic nervous system. In contrast, this helps us conserve energy and protect our bodies. It achieves this by helping us slow down and connect more with our natural environment, through sensory engagement. Natural Mindfulness, while perhaps a new term, is not a new-fangled idea. The Buddha chose walking as one of the four postures for practising mindfulness to achieve calm, clarity and contentment.
Finding Your Own Path
As Kate and I stood at the gateway between the churchyard and Short Lythe, she explained it was important I found my own path down the slope to the stream. I had walked this way on many previous occasions, but always as part of a journey from A to B along the well-worn path ahead. Having the freedom to stray was exciting and liberating. I carefully picked my way through the long grass and uneven ground. Arriving at an unexpected ‘drop off’ I had to study the slope to find the best way down. Sideways and slowly seemed the solution. This brought me up close with a beautiful colony of primroses that clearly weren’t used to having people walk their way.
After ambling along the brook towards Kate, we stood in silence for a short while. We took the time to be aware of our breath, feel grounded with the earth beneath our feet, listen to the rippling water and the birds chatting in the trees above. Taking time to be more observant led us both to realise that we were standing beside a mystery tree. Quizzing its bark, buds and leaf litter left us none the wiser. A mystery that mother nature will hopefully help resolve as the leaves unfurl.
As we followed the Oakhanger stream into Long Lythe Kate explained that there is no right or wrong way to walk mindfully. The point is purely to use the physical process of walking in nature to bring our attention entirely to the present. When we observe birds, fungi, flowers, architecture, clouds or seek out sounds and scents we naturally slow down. Children, who are innately curious, do this naturally. It is us adults who need help opening the doors to our senses.
Using the opportunity to probe a little deeper, I asked Kate whether different woodlands confer different benefits. She said she used to prefer spending time among deciduous trees. She loves the complexity of life they sustain and finds their combination of shimmering sunlight and dappled shade beautiful and relaxing. However, she has now come to appreciate the benefits of dark, coniferous woods. They provide a very different, yet complimentary sensory experience. For one, our sense of smell receives a particular boost from pine. Kate also explained that evergreens give off more Phytoncides than most deciduous trees. These are a natural chemical linked to improving the function of our immune system. She also finds it most enchanting to walk through tall pines around sunrise and sunset, because of the way the sunbeams slant through the trees at this time of day. She says it is almost as if they are inviting us over to explore the lit-up patches of the woodland floor more closely. What a beautifully picture this paints.
As we gradually made our way back to the churchyard, feeling altogether more relaxed and aware of our surroundings, Kate mentioned one final thought for a natural mindfulness walk – the idea of reciprocity. Having spent time in nature, benefiting from its healing qualities, she likes to say thank you. There are many ways to do this, but the one that particularly chimed with me was the idea of throwing seeds to the birds. Hopefully, having been thanked, the birds will welcome you in full chorus when you join Kate for a walk.
Interested in foraging? Read about local forager Helen McAra here