Ayurvedic Wisdom: 5 Reasons to Spend More Time in Nature

July 2, 2016    BY Elizabeth Sullivan

Early last spring, Richard Louv spoke at the Lensic in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to promote his new book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich Your Family’s Health & Happiness. I attended his talk with my good friend Katie Arnold, who writes “Raising Rippers,” an Outside magazine column about raising active, outdoor kids. We were there to hear Louv’s message, which supports our own similar parenting commitments. 

You may know Louv as the journalist who introduced the phrase “nature deficit disorder” in his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods. In his latest book, he speaks of an even larger phenomenon—the loss of our intimate connection to nature. Louv states, “It’s not just kids who have lost their connection to nature; with more of us dwelling in cities, adults have too. We have left our relationship with nature and not many are talking about this.”

Nature allows us to remember we are more than “this body” and “this mind,” and that we are whole and connected.

According to ayurveda, our health relies on our harmony and balance with the elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether or space), which make up our constitutions of vata, pitta, and kapha. This means that a disconnect from nature is risky and something to examine. Nature, by its very essence, heals us. “The more in tune we are with nature and the elements, the more we can invoke our self-healing,” says Sarah Guglielmi, an ayurvedic health counselor and faculty member at the Himalayan Institute, a yoga retreat center in Northeast Pennsylvania. Nature soothes and heals the nervous system and invites us to connect with something larger than ourselves. It allows us to remember we are more than “this body” and “this mind,” and that we are whole and connected. A walk through the woods, or by a river or ocean, scrubs us clean of worry, stress, and anxiety—which tend to break us down rather than build us up. 

I attended a women’s retreat last summer at Yoga North in Jasper Lake, Minnesota, where ayurvedic counselor Indu Arora advised: “If you are out of balance with yourself, go to your kitchen to find the answer. If you cannot find it in your kitchen, then you go to the doctor.” She explained that food is medicine, and nature grows our food into the five elements that make up our bodies, and which our bodies easily recognize. 

When we eat seasonally available whole foods that stimulate the six tastes perceived by our tongue’s taste buds, our bodies can more easily recognize and translate the food into energy for our dharma—our life’s work, in alignment with our essential nature. 

Louv’s back-to-nature movement is really a call to remember and reconnect to our essence. Louv doesn’t demonize technology such as tablets, cell phones, or video games, acknowledging that at present, most of us are more connected to our smartphones than to nature. Instead, he asks each of us to recall our “special place” outdoors as a child. Mine was on the banks of the Mississippi River. After dinner, I would run its trails with my parents following behind me. Others in Louv’s audience spoke of a time fishing, in cabins, or just in their own backyard. He asks us to bring to mind that place, and then to remember the feelings those experiences evoked. 

Louv asked the audience to overcome their fear of being outside, and to consider taking the following five steps toward reconnecting with nature for a happier life (also covered in his new book).

1. Get outside on a daily basis.
The new nature movement is asking for “No Child Left Inside.” However, Louv asks us to recognize that nature deficit disorder affects adults as well as kids. He is emphatic that “Every child, every adult, every human has a right to nature and the benefits of nature.” And, I might add, nature has a right to us and our benefits for her. When we live in harmony with the earth, both the earth and its species thrive. When we see our relationship with nature as a symbiotic relationship, caring for the earth transforms our health and our happiness. The air we breathe is cleaner and the earth’s minerals and waters more nourishing.

When we live in harmony with the earth, both the earth and its species thrive.

Be courageous and go outside! Getting outside daily can be as simple as walking to school instead of driving. Or sitting on your front steps and looking up at the sky, or down at the earth, and noticing the movement of the wind, bugs, birds, and grass. Or watching the sun rise and set, attuning yourself naturally to the daily rhythms of the sun and the moon.

2. Recognize the mental and physical support of nature.
To this end, Louv set up a website called Children’s Nature Network. From an ayurvedic perspective, reconnecting with nature is crucial for developing a relationship with the elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. We must first notice the elements outside of ourselves in order to sense and feel them inside, both physically and mentally. Ayurveda teaches us about the doshas, our individual constitutions or body types: vata, pitta, and kapha. The doshas themselves are made up of the elements. Air and ether combine to form a vata constitution, fire and water to form pitta, and earth and water to form kapha. As Guglielmi says, “[When we] learn about our own nature and what we are drawn to…this awareness will show us our balance and [the things that we are] drawn to that can also lead to our imbalance.” 

She cites an example of a pitta’s driven nature, which is sharp and quick and enjoys intensity. However, if the intensity is too much, it can lead to imbalance (as with the yoga teacher who teaches ten classes a day without rejuvenation and becomes burned out). If pittas learn how to stay in the “sweet spot of pitta,” they will learn when to take breaks, set boundaries, and cool their drive. They will become aware of what overstimulates the sharp qualities of a pitta’s mind, and learn to utilize the gifts of pitta with greater mastery without overdoing their natural inclination toward burnout. A tricky balance indeed!

3. A hybrid mind stimulates learning and creativity.
Louv also explains that when we use a screen, we typically use only two senses: sight and touch. But when we are in nature, we are immersed in all five of our senses (and some now believe that more than 30 senses are activated when we are in nature). When our senses are adequately stimulated and supported, we can filter out what isn’t needed, including undigested past experiences that prevent us from living fully in the present moment. It helps us to create the right amount of energy to keep life stable, steady, and easy. 

Ayurvedic practitioner and psychotherapist Kathryn Templeton agrees: "When we take in positive or [even] neutral stimulation of the senses, such as a walk in nature, meditation, or a laugh with a friend, it supports the rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system. This allows us to experience safety, ease, and comfort in our thoughts, and our lives feel less stressful. It is just as easy to take in and digest dissonance as it is to take in impressions of joy. It is more satisfying to live with a calm and nourished nervous system than a depleted and tense nervous system.” Our connection to nature nourishes and replenishes. 

4. Risk-taking and the outdoors.
“Kids need small risks in order to handle the bigger risks of life,” explains Louv. When we play outside, these small risks happen at age-appropriate levels. Climbing a tree may look different for a two-year-old than an eleven-year-old, but both kinds of climbing support risk and growth on many levels. Walking around the block with a parent prepares a child for walking to school without a parent. When we find ourselves in balance with nature, we take appropriate risks. We respect nature, and we know our body in relationship to nature. We know how high to climb, what descents we can safely make on slopes or trails, and how far to run or hike before we need a break. We can connect our physical body with our inner wisdom, and that inner knowing with our outer connection to nature. And we are less prone toward imbalances, which can lead to injury or trauma. Ultimately the deeper parts of us want to stay in balance,” says Guglielmi. We can stave off inertia and break poor habits by spending time outside and immersing ourselves in the risks and challenges that nature provides.

What is one way you can commit to a more nature-rich society where you live?

5. Envision and implement a nature-rich society.  
What does a vision of a nature-rich society look like—both for the present and well into the future? Whether you live in a city or the country, Louv asks that we “Imagine and implement how to make more green spaces available to all, noting that time in nature increases our ability to learn and live in the world. Consider the far future of ourselves and nature and work toward that far future for the generations to come after us.” This may be rooftop gardens, or community gardens, or even places where the common green space is accessible to all (like a state or local park). The opportunities are endless. Consider what it could look like in your community. What is one way you can commit to a more nature-rich society where you live?

As we consciously and courageously reconnect with nature, may the far roots and wisdom of ayurveda guide us toward an authentic response to Louv’s passionate plea. May we live in balance and harmony with nature—that we may grow well and reach our fullest potential. 

Elizabeth Sullivan
500 RYT Yoga North International SomaYoga Institute, Ayurveda Yoga Specialist, C(DONA), SomaYoga Therapy Teacher, and SourcePoint Therapy Practitioner, MA, MFA

Elizabeth has written for Outside Magazine, Saint Paul Almanac, Minnesota Yoga + Life, Yoga International, and other publications. Her study, teaching, and practice of Yoga, Ayurveda, and SourcePoint Therapy informs her writing, as well as, raising her four boys 11 and under with her husband and their puppy in Saint Paul, MN. Raising... Read more>>