Imagine that you’re hiking your favorite trail. What color is the sky above you? How does the dirt feel beneath your boots? What do you smell? What do you hear?
Chances are, even thinking about that scene makes you feel more relaxed. Spending time outdoors has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, boost happiness and spark creativity, among other benefits. Adding nature-based mindfulness exercises to the mix can also have positive effects.
Benefits of Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is defined as a mind and body practice that focuses on how your brain, mind, body, behavior and surroundings interact. There are many types but most involve focusing your attention on something specific, while being still in a quiet place with few distractions. Some studies suggest that meditation can relieve stress, ease anxiety and depression and improve mood in some. Research also suggests that meditation may change brain activity.
As we enter yet another month of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, a new survey by the American Psychological Association warns of a growing mental health crisis. If you feel full of anxiety, pent up energy and chaos, you’re not alone—but you might consider embracing a new daily habit: a walk outdoors for just 20 minutes, with an accompanying meditation.
“It’s easy to become grim, lonely and depressed [when you’re isolated],” says psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach. “Being in nature opens us to a sense of wonder, beauty and the mystery we are part of. We remember the goodness of life, what we cherish, and can relate to challenges with more resilience.”
So, once you’re out that door, whether with kids, pets or other partners in tow, take a deep breath and start to tune in to your surroundings. Even five minutes of meditation could make a difference, according to several studies. Meditation experts Brach and Bob Stahl recommend these tips on how to get started.
How to Start Meditating Outdoors
Meditation helps us to enter into the present moment. This “is very helpful since so much of the time we are living in the future or past,” says Stahl. “Becoming mindful helps us to be here in this present moment … where our footsteps are on the path.”
Think of your outdoor meditation as observing what is happening right now, she says. “The bird singing, the sounds of the winds, feeling the sunlight and its warmth, or the coolness or the air, or listening to the rain and feeling its wetness.”
You will likely get distracted while meditating. The sound of a car engine can turn into thoughts about needing to get your oil changed, which can lead to thoughts about finances, which can spiral on and on. These distractions are normal, and the act of patiently refocusing on the exercise at hand may be key for stimulating those aforementioned brain changes, according to initial research. If you notice that you’re distracted, take a deep breath and refocus.
To start your meditation, find a place outdoors where you’ll be relatively undisturbed for at least five minutes (or, invite your small distractions to join you for five minutes). Consider finding a chair or a bench so you can comfortably sit upright. You can also meditate while standing, walking or lying down. Set a timer for the time you plan to meditate, then try one of the below exercises.
If you’re already walking daily in your neighborhood, or going on weekly hikes, walking meditations are an easy add-on. If you’re at home, Brach recommends selecting a short walking path nearby that’s 1 to 30 feet long, which you’ll trace back and forth. You can also follow a path in a park or in the woods, if that’s part of your routine.
“As you start walking, let your attention include the sensations of standing,” says Brach. “[Then] let your attention include the sensations that arise in moving—primarily in your hands and legs—as well as changing sights, sounds and smells.”
How does it feel when your foot steps forward on the ground? Which part of your foot takes the weight of your body? How does your hand feel as it swings forward and backward? What sensations are present in your legs?
“There is the lifting of the foot, moving it forward and out and then placing it down and feeling the weight shifting … on your hip and leg and the switch to the other leg … lifting, moving, placing, and shifting,” says Stahl.
Brach also recommends tuning into the sights, sounds and smells around you as you walk. Smell, especially, can bring us into the present moment. If you’re moving back and forth on a short path, when you get to the end, mindfully turn around, pause for a few moments and begin again.
Before you walk away, take a moment to consider how you feel. “Notice the quality of presence that has emerged, the sense of spaciousness, wakefulness, [and] receptivity,” Brach recommends. “And see if you might carry that presence to whatever you are doing next.”
Sound mediation involves paying attention to the sounds in the world around you. This exercise can be done anywhere, but it’s especially soothing when you practice outdoors. Listening to natural sounds may help calm you, according to some studies, and nature sounds are often used as stress relievers in popular meditation apps like Calm and Headspace.
To start sound bouncing, take several deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Start counting those breaths. Once you hit 10, shift your attention from your breath to the world around you. Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Once you identify a sound, label it, then search for something else. For example, if you hear birds, you’ll say to yourself: Birds. Then you move on: Car. Wind. Trees. Continue in this manner for several minutes, not attaching to any one sound but simply letting them flow by, one by one. If you run out of sounds, repeat the labeling exercise for ones you’ve already heard. Once the timer dings, finish your practice with two huge, deep breaths.
How to Do a Body Scan
First, Brach says, acknowledge that you’re going to stop for a moment and be present in your own body. Take several deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. With your eyes open, observe the world around you: colors, flickers of light and the form of the trees or animals that are in view. What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you see?
Then close your eyes and focus your attention on your feet. Moving slowly, scan your body by focusing on one part at a time, starting at the bottoms of your feet. Notice how each part of your body feels, but don’t linger: feet, ankles, shins, knees. Breathe slowly as you do this.
“Continue in this way, with your senses awakened. When thoughts arise, notice them like passing clouds, and gently bring your attention back to your senses,” Brach says. Once you’ve reached the top of your head in the body scan, return to taking deep breaths, then open your eyes when your timer goes off.