Why Hugging a Tree is Good for Your Health
Surviving Being Shipwrecked
New Wind in My Sails
So off I went. First to Thailand, where my good friend and owner of Tree Roots Retreat Aaron graciously offered me a place to stay during my healing journey. This was the first stage of embodying my inner Hippie. For the first time in the longest time, I found myself consistently embedded in the natural world. Tree Roots Retreat is in Rayong, a couple of hours drive from Bangkok, nestled in a small fishing village. The retreats borders are surrounded by wild jungles, and it’s within walking distance to the beach. The whole experience of being there is so far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. As each week went by, I walked everywhere barefoot, taking in the natural world through all my senses, and was feeling better for it.
Sailing into a New Port
In the beginning of 2020 I was back on the road again teaching martial arts. The bills had to be paid after all. I then found myself on the Isle of Man during some down time visiting my partner. Out of nowhere Covid hit, and I was stranded on the island, unable to travel and get back to Thailand. The Isle of Man is yet another beautiful part of the world, surrounded by natural wonders. High cliffs, beautiful glens, rolling green sheep filled hills and shingle beaches. Again, and in part because of my partners love of nature, and that I didn’t have much else to do, we found ourselves mostly outdoors. It was summer too, which made going out even more accessible. We went to every corner of the island, visiting Celtic and Viking ruins, walking in the country side, snorkeling in the sea, and absorbing every aspect of the beautiful glens. As each day passed, I felt my anxiety, something I had been overtaken by for the longest time slowly melt away. Mentally I continued to feel better too.
As the consummate researcher that I am, I began to delve into what science had to say about the natural world and its connection to improving the health of the human animal. I have always known intuitively that being in nature is good for you, and as most of us report, I have always felt better for my time outdoors. In fact, it was the only time I ever felt happy as a kid, spending school holidays at my Aunt’s small holding in the African bush. I was surprised to find that over the past while science had caught up to those intuitions. Rather than it simply being ‘old wives tales’ now research was convincingly showing how incredibly important it was for each of us to reconnect with our ancient roots, the natural world. As I noted in a previous article on this blog, Grounding the Embodied Warrior experience, if we measured all of the recorded history of planet Earth on a timeline of a year, what we consider the modern world accounts for 1-second. For the rest of our time as human animals on this planet we lived and were deeply connected to the natural world.
Back To Hugging Trees
Let’s return to those tree huggers. It turns out that we have a symbiotic relationship with trees, much like we do with the rest of the natural world. For example when you are walking among trees in a forest you are literally bathing and breathing in terpenes which they release. Terpenes which are the largest group of phytochemicals is bioactive plant matter found in forest air. Researchers have now found that terpenes strengthen important aspects of the human immune system. For example a day spent in the woods results in 40 percent increase in natural killer cells responsible for rendering viruses in the body harmless in a person’s blood.
It turns out that the limbic system in our brain also decodes and responds to terpenes, and in turn releases neurotransmitters and hormones that benefit our health. Terpenes also promote the formation of endogenous substances that protect the heart. In addition a walk in a forest leads to a significant increase in a substance called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA has shown to be therapeutically effective against the severe form of depression called major depressive disorder. Time in nature has also shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of our autonomic nervous system designed to help us find internal balance, calming us down, and key to surviving unhealthy stress.
Here’s another interesting fact: tree bark is actually one of the richest sources of terpenes. So maybe those ‘Tree Huggers’ are not so nuts after all.
We Are The World
What fascinates me about all of this is that tree terpenes, as are many other plant substances not new to our bodies. In other words our bodies know what to do with them. It is clear then that we have as human animals not evolved separate to this planet, but along with it in such a way that we are able to interact with the network of life. As such we are co-evolved. It’s no surprise then that my time in nature had such a profound positive effect on my entire body and my overall health. I had in a real sense come home. I had rewilded myself, while allowing my instinct code to unlock once more. These experiences, along with my movement practice, breath work, inner state training, psychological work, and mindfulness practice forms an integral part of the Human Animal Retreat I have created.
Looking for Fulfillment in the Wrong Place
Its become clear to me that often our hopes for fulfillment and flourishing is left as prayers on the alter of modernity. We now have people speaking about merging our selves with machines and artificial intelligence. The age of the cyborg is no longer a fantasy. I am of the belief that no amount of more technology in any of its guises and uses will ever answer our constant desire to be happy. Its clear from those around us that more affluence, comfort, technology, advances in medicine and the psychological sciences outside of making life somewhat easier, hasn’t become the gods of happiness we once thought they would. People seem more unhappier than ever and there is a meaning crisis all around us.
Maybe we have been looking for the answers to our happiness in all the wrong places. Maybe its right in front of us, right there all along and our ancestors were privy to this knowledge. While its not possible for most of us in the modern world to live like our ancestors once did, we can purposively reengage with the world as they once did, and in doing so open the door unlocking our instinct code. We need to rewild ourselves in the ways of our ancestors.
To this end I am taking on a new research and academic journey where I will be studying how we can bring the natural world back into our modern lives in such a way that we can all find the fulfillment we so desperately seek. And yes this includes hugging an occasional tree.
Interested in joining me?
Find out more about my The Human Animal Retreat in Thailand.