Growing up in a metropolis like New York City, nature plays a small role in the landscape.
Green spaces freckle the five boroughs, and Central Park is the crowning jewel.
While Central Park provides a needed respite from the busy streets, the cry of ambulance sirens and horns of annoyed motorists never fully fade. As a child, when I thought about “nature,” an image of a wild, untamed, mildly dangerous and likely uninhabitable expanse of land would materialize in my mind.
In my early 20s I was completely unimpressed by the stories of hiking the great outdoors that others boasted. Their tales of an arduous journey through lush vegetation only generated my concern for their mental health. As an urban American, I simply could not grasp hiking. Why drive somewhere to go on a nature hike when you can take a walk in the city?
The short answer is wellness, a state within which one feels healthy and balanced in mind, body & spirit. Historically, Americans have been more concerned with fitness, the physical appearance of the body generated from a particular exercise and nutrition regimen. However, in the last 10 years wellness has come to the forefront of our national cultural consciousness.
As the public’s attention has shifted toward wellness, the number of wellness retreats and nature excursions available have increased. Giant cities like New York have embraced this new trend, offering sea kayaking in the Hudson for the nature enthusiasts who want to explore the city’s quieter side. In 2003, NYC re-opened Governors Island as a public park with summer access for biking, boating and hiking.
Hiking encompasses the three key essentials of wellness: intention, action and environment.
Intention applies to our will, our desire—what we are hoping to get out of our action. The action must be mindful movement (i.e. walking, hiking, yoga, rowing, gardening). One’s environment greatly contributes to their energetic and neurological state.
The chaotic and clamorous city environment fails to promote the health of one’s mind, body and spirit. A recent study by Gregory Bratman of Stanford University proves that urbanites who spend 90 minutes walking in natural areas are less likely to ruminate and therefore have a decreased risk of depression, as compared to those who walk along a busy city road for the same duration. (1) Thus the effect of changing your environment from an urban setting to a natural one has measurable benefits for your brain.
The health benefits from hiking are numerous. Studies have shown that nature hikes can lower the risk of heart disease, boost bone density, and improve blood pressure. Research also shows that hiking can combat stress and anxiety. Dr. Miller Ph. D. of the American Hiking Society says, “Nature is in our DNA and we sometimes forget that.” (2)
In 2012, after years of nay saying my friends for their weekend nature excursions, I finally took the plunge and went hiking. My partner and I, both New York transplants, wanted our first hike to be on a notable trail so we chose Springer Mountain, at the head of the Appalachian trail.
During the hour drive north from Atlanta, the scenery magically transformed from residential city to pastoral panorama. After a three-mile winding road peppered with switchbacks and the perilously parked trucks of hidden squirrel hunters, we finally arrived. The parking lot looked like it had to be taken from the land, carved out of the dense forest with machinery.
As the air filled my lungs, I immediately felt that it was crisper.
Unsure what to expect and endeavoring to seize the moment, I set the simple intention of reconnecting with the divine and myself. Almost immediately, my body was flooded with endorphins. A sense of bliss set in. As we forged up the mountain, my partner and I marveled at the serenity of our environment, we brushed fingertips on trees, photographed strange mushrooms and imagined the Native Americans who tamed this land thousands of years ago.
Each exhale helped me shed stale energy; each inhale energized my spirit.
As I moved through the forest, an energy greater than my own embraced me. On that mountain, in the grand natural cathedral of the Creator, I found my Church in the Wild. Now my partner and I hike at least once a month—it’s essential for our wellness.
Nature hikes are medicine for the mind, body and spirit. All you need to receive their healing is a positive intention, the desire to act, and the will to change your environment for a short period of time. Hikes offer you a place to unburden your mind, strengthen your body and energize your spirit.
Dare to get out there, you may even find your very own church in the wild.
(1) As reported by The Washington Post, “New Research suggests nature walks are good for your brain.” by Chris Mooney 6/29/15
Author: Awilda Rivera
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Sarah Zucca/Flickr