Spending time outside has scientifically proven benefits to your physical and mental well-being. The Frontline talks to an Indigenous forest therapy guide who shares some of the magic she witnesses in nature, as well as her hopes for increasing access to green spaces for underserved communities.
Sometimes, there’s no better medicine than a breath of fresh air. Studies have shown the health benefits of the outdoors—from reducing stress and depression to reducing muscle tension and blood pressure. It’s good for the body and the soul. And we could all use more of it—especially people of color who might not always feel so welcome in our green spaces.
Welcome to The Frontline, which you can always read while you drink your coffee outside. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In celebration of the outdoors, I chatted with Elena Ríos, a forest therapy guide certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which advocates for spending time outdoors to improve your health and wellness. She is a Nahua Indigenous woman who’s previously worked as a wildland firefighter in California.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work and the field of ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy is connected to Indigenous knowledge and practices all over the world. It’s connected to our ancestral ancient practices and also rooted in the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
When you allow yourself to be guided on a walk in nature, it assists you in slowing down, relaxing, and finding your own way of being in relationship with nature, the land, and all its inhabitants. It helps you to connect with your own medicine. Sometimes, by turning off your phone and disconnecting from technology for a while, we can focus on our relationship with the Earth, which helps us take pause and listen to our ancestral wisdom that comes from our inner voice. Everything that you need is already inside of you. It’s just a matter of having the tools to connect with it.
One thing I like to say sometimes is, “You are the medicine you’ve been waiting for.” A lot of times, what happens in our modern life is that when we’re sitting in a car driving to work, or we’re in traffic, or we’re stressed out about paying our bills—especially during the pandemic, we are having a daily low-level release of stress hormones. Little by little, that takes a real toll on our overall health and well-being. Over time, this cumulative stress can affect our central nervous system.
When you’re on a nature therapy guided walk, you engage with your rest-digest-restore mode. That is the mode we want to be in so that our body connects us with its own restorative practices. There are different ways of doing that. Within my native ancestral tradition, one of the ways we connect with that state of relaxation is through dance ritual ceremonies or the sweat lodge. Nature therapy is another holistic way to connect with that level of relaxation that our body needs to engage its own restorative processes.
How did this year in particular change our relationship to nature and the outdoors—and a need to build this relationship?
Within the safety guidelines for the pandemic, we were asked to not gather in enclosed spaces to avoid getting the virus. For a lot of communities, that was a real challenge because we have several generations living in the same house.
One of the only things people could do was go out into nature. One of the pieces linked to cultural and community health and resilience is in our connection to ancestral knowledge, which can be accessed through our relationship with nature. Sometimes, I think that the answer to our current climate change predicament is through a weaving together of these understandings and beliefs about the importance of human relationship to nature. Humans naturally celebrate the things that they love, so if people fall in love or more in love or back in love with the earth, then they recognize their inter-being, and then they will want to take care more of that thing that they love. That can fold over into acknowledging the common thread of humanity that unites us all globally.
Let’s say you’re in a big city. Some people are able to access open spaces easier than others. Another thing someone could do is find a sit spot close to their home that’s easily accessible and comfortable where you can either look at a tree or a bush or a patch of grass. The benefits of a sit spot are that, well, number one, you’re intentionally giving yourself the gift of relaxing and just sitting there. Over time, you’re going to see more and more what has always been in front of you. It could be tuning in to the closest sound to you in nature or tuning into the farthest one. It could be noticing the smallest creature within a one foot square of grass. Whether your sit spot is in a backyard or a front porch or in a wild grove of trees, nature is going to be there. You don’t have to go far.
“There’s fatigue of living in a dominant culture in which you consistently have to resist, especially if you’re in the city all the time. Time spent in nature has health benefits that help build resilience under these kinds of stressful living conditions.”
What I’m hearing is that this year was a good time for folks to challenge themselves to find that piece of nature that might exist close to them, even if it isn’t some giant national park.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
If you have a community garden, you can cultivate relationships with the plants. Sometimes, smells of plants can trigger ancestral memories. Taste can activate memory. Within my ancestral tradition, the wise one said that all the truths on Earth are in flowers, poetry, and song. So all of our ancestral traditions and ceremonies revolve around the rhythms and cycles of nature. Even though we didn’t call it—and don’t call it nature therapy—in this way, it is like an added holistic component that leads us back to the importance of living in relationship and renewing our relationship each year to the rhythms of the annual ceremonies with the Mother Earth and our environment and our cultural Indigenous traditions.
I know that you’re not a licensed psychologist or counselor. Can you tell me a little bit about the limitations of forest therapy? I don’t want it to suggest to individuals who may be suffering from severe mental distress, especially this year, that going outside will suddenly fix everything.
My walks are called guided nature immersion medicine walks because I give instructions in the form of an invitation on how to connect with nature; I’m only guiding. Really, nature is the therapist. I’m just holding space in a certain way that assists you in dropping into a deeper level of relaxation so that you can access your own inner medicine. It’s really a partnership with nature, and I’m only the guide.
It is a way of bearing witness to others and providing a space for that to happen in a safe way.
Eco-therapy isn’t meant to be an alternative to traditional therapy, right?
It’s not meant to be a replacement for going to a therapist. It’s an integrative, holistic practice for other practices that you already may have in your life for your wellness in your mind, body, and spirit.
We mentioned this a little bit earlier, but not everyone has access to these places. As a result of environmental racism, the people who lack access are often communities of color, Black, Indigenous, Latinx communities, and Asian-American communities. Why might these communities need more access these days as we see the COVID-19 pandemic hit them hardest?
It’s more important than ever for people to focus on a way to not become overwhelmed. Earlier, I had said that one of the pieces linked to cultural and community health and resilience is our connection to ancestral knowledge. And one of the stepping stones to that is through our relationship with nature. There’s fatigue of living in a dominant culture in which you consistently have to resist, especially if you’re in the city all the time. Time spent in nature has health benefits that help build resilience under these kinds of stressful living conditions.
And I imagine with so much loss that communities have suffered this year—whether that’s financial loss or the literal loss of life that so many Black and brown communities have faced—that nature has the power to heal.
Yes. And it helps our body trigger its own healing processes.
How do you hope to see the current reality of who has and who doesn’t have access to nature change?
We need more opportunities for people not to just talk about it, but to have these experiences and recognize the importance of our inter-being. In some ways, this work relates to the wellness of our whole planet. It relates to climate change. It relates to the pandemic. If we can get people to connect more to nature and recognize their relationship in nature, then they’re going to realize how much they are going to want to help create opportunities for more people to have that connection.
It’s an integral piece of our personal health, our community health, and global community health.