Like most people I know, I have been following the Government and Health Service advice and getting outside for a daily walk; a welcome breath of fresh air, especially if, like me, you are working from home now during the Covid-19 situation. I find, even pottering around my small garden, or having a cuppa checking how the herbs are getting on, is a welcome distraction from the stresses in the world, and helps me feel calmer. In May I was due to start teaching some outdoor ‘yoga on the lawn’ classes for the National Trust, and these have been put on hold of course for now, hopefully to be rescheduled later in the year. In the meantime, I hope you make the most of your ‘daily exercise’ and enjoy the outdoors wherever you are.
The healing benefits of nature are well-documented, and the grounding effects of connecting with the natural world are a mainstay of many treatments for mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. The Japanese have taken this benefit a step further by prescribing ‘forest bathing’ sessions (shinrin-yoku), for patients with stress-related illnesses. They have found that time spent in nature, and around trees in particular, helps improve both our mental and physical wellbeing and resilience to stress.¹
Nature and wellbeing:
I recently completed a Dru postgraduate course on yoga for mental wellbeing, and learned about the magic of the Vagus nerve² in regulating our parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to stay relaxed and calm. One of the most effective methods for grounding is to go outside and spend time in nature. The rhythmic process of walking in particular, helps to regulate and soothe the vagus nerve, and allows our nervous system to come back into a state of calm. For those interested in Ayurveda, the grounding effect of being in nature, also helps to reduce the ‘air-head’ state of the Vata dosha, so if you know one of your dominant doshas is Vata, then spending time in nature will be of great benefit (more on doshas in October’s blog!).
Find your place:
My husband and I are keen walkers, and are lucky enough to live near many local footpaths and accessible countryside. Even when working form home, I make a habit of taking a 30 minute walk around the streets where we live, taking time to chat (from a safe distance) to people I meet, and enjoy seeing what is growing in my neighbours’ gardens, listening to the birds and enjoying the feel of the sun (or rain) on my face. Here in the UK, we are also lucky that government guidance now allows us to drive to a safe place for exercise, as long as the time driving is less than the time spent exercising.
Be here now:
Wherever you choose to walk, be mindful of the present moment. As you feel the earth beneath your feet, feel the pull of gravity. Interact with all your senses – touch the bark of a tree or the leaves of a plant, small the flower blossoms, see the beauty in nature all around you and the harmony of the fractal patterns (such as the patterns in clouds, branches of a tree or the veins on a leaf), hear the melody of bird-song or the gentle rustle of the breeze in the trees.
Take your yoga outside:
Why not try your yoga outside? (bare feet optional!). My favourites are the tree pose, the Dru Earth Sequence, and the Salute to the Four Directions. Stop in a place you feel drawn to and strike your favourite yoga pose, or a short Energy Block Release sequence. compare how you feel compared to doing the same movements or sequences indoors.
This 10 minute Earth Sequence variation is suitable for all levels:
Here is a 7 minute version of the Salute to the Four Directions from Dru Teacher Lucy Bannister’s YouTube channel LucYoga
Yoga for Walking
If I am doing a longer walk, say over an hour, I always prepare by doing some warm-up stretches, as you would for any type of physical exercise, to prevent injury or strain. Afterwards, cooling down stretches are also important, to allow the muscles to regain their usual length and shape, and reduce the risk of cramp and stiffness. I have put together a programme of warm-up movements and cool-down stretches I use for walking.
Warm-up movements (moving flow to activate muscles and reduce risk of injury)
- Eagle breath flow. Step forward, swing arms out to the sides like eagle wings and stretch forwards in a diagonal, bending front knee as you breathe out. Keep heels on the floor. Breathe in, pulling arms into fists down to waist as you straighten front leg. Repeat 10 times each leg. Good for warming calf muscles, lats, iliopsoas, shoulders and hips.
- Twisting waiter. Start with feet hip width. Allow the arms to be soft, swinging them gently around your hips/waist. Begin to move the feet out to the side, bending the knees before you twist, gradually making the arm movements bigger and widening the feet, into a dynamic twist. Gradually raise the arms up to shoulder height. Add the ‘bowing waiter’ movement as you swing the arms to one side, lift the toes of the foot on that side and bend the upper body forward to stretch the Achilles tendon and hamstrings. Repeat for about 2 minutes. The dynamic twist is a super whole-body warm-up and warms the whole spine.
- Calf stretch a) gastrocnemius. Step one leg back, bend front knee, with core engaged, heels down. Keep torso upright and keep front knee over the ankle. Hold stretch for at least 25 seconds. Repeat other leg. Option of stretching arms overhead with fingers clasped for stronger stretch and extra warmth for spine.
Calf stretch b) soleus. Start with feet hip width. Step one leg forward – closer than gastrocnemius stretch. Bend both knees to stretch deeper into the calf muscle. Hold for at least 25 seconds and repeat on other leg.
Cool-down movements/static stretches to elongate muscles after your walk
- Standing side stretch. Releases tension in spine and shoulders. Clasp hands in front, engage core then move hands in front the up over your head. Stretch up on the inbreath and stretch to side as you breathe out. Repeat each side 3 times.
- Quads stretch. Hold one foot behind you, keeping knees level. Steady yourself near a wall or tree if balance issues. Hold for at least 20 seconds each leg.
- Wide leg forward bend. I like this if short on time, as it is an all-rounder stretch for the hamstrings, upper back and shoulders. Clasp hands behind your back and stretch hands back and down as you breathe into your chest. Take legs wide and bend forwards, keeping the hands clasped, straighten the legs for a hams stretch, keep knees bent if lower back pain, relax the head and neck. After a few beaths, release clasped hands down to the floor, bend knees and uncurl. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
- Glutes stretch. This is a favourite Dru Dance movement of mine. Stand with feet hip width. Cross right foot over left, keeping toes on ground. Take the arms up and overhead, then with core engaged, slowly bend forwards, taking the arms behind and up in ‘fearless flight’ position. Stay here for a few breaths, enjoying the stretch in your butt, then rotate the palms forward as you uncurl, continuing the arm movement until arms are straight above your head. On an outbreath, take your arms down in front to your sides, as you step the right foot back to start position. Repeat on both sides several times.
- Hip circles/figure 8. Another great movement to ease tension in the lower spine and hip girdle. With hands on hips, circle the hips slowly in each direction a few times. The slower you do this, the better the effect!
- Sumo stretch. Like a Sumo warrior, without the clothing! A super stretch for the upper back, neck and shoulders. Take feet to shoulder width or wider, bend knees and place hands above the knees, on the lower thigh, fingers pointing inwards. Dip your right shoulder forward to the midline as you turn head to look over your left shoulder. Return head to centre on in breath, as you breathe out dip left shoulder forward and turn head to look right. Repeat 5 times each side.
- Heaven and Earth twist. Releases tension in the upper spine , neck and shoulder girdle, and stretches the hamstrings. Stand with feet hip width. Slowly bend forward with core engaged, bending knees if needed until hands reach the ground. Take feet wide. Place right hand on ground in front of you, unfurl the left hand to the sky like a wing, turning the head to look at your left palm. Then lower the left hand and repeat with the right. Alternate, with the breath – breathe in as you open and extend the arm, breathe out as you lower the arm down to the ground. 5 times each side, nice and slow deep breaths.
- Rotated triangle. Quite a strong stretch, so do it in stages, and stay with the stage you are comfortable with. This stretch will ease the lower back, hamstrings, calves and shoulder girdle. Stage One: Start with feet wide, turn right foot out 90 degrees and bend right knee, arms raised to shoulder height as in Warrior 1. Swivel the arms and upper body to the right, both feet pointing to the right, taking your left hand to your right thigh, and your right hand to your right hip as you twist to the right. Stage Two: Stretch the right hand up to the sky and turn to look at the right hand, keeping the left hand on the thigh or placing the left hand on ground next to the right leg. Stage Three: Straighten the right leg. Breathe at least 3 full breaths here. To come out of the stretch, bend the right knee and bend forwards over the right knee, hands toward the ground, engage core and lift arms in front as you bring the torso upright into Warrior 2 position, swivel feet forwards and lower arms. Repeat on left side.
Enjoy your walking! Kath xx
References. 1. Shinrin-Yoku. The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing. How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. Dr Qing Li. 2. Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help For Anxiety, Depression, Trauma and Autism. Stanley Rosenberg.