Experiment with Vitamin N

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Brian Mann

Perhaps it was too much screen time or too much sugar. The boys, ages 4 and 8, were antsy, grumpy and looking for trouble. When I suggested we all go to the beach, usually a favorite destination, they both said it sounded boring. I countered with: “We’re not just going to the beach, we’re doing an experiment.” This ploy got them into the car. On the way I asked them to describe how their bodies felt. One said sad, the other mad. I told them we were going to see if the negative ions at the beach might change these feelings. The boys were game. After frolicking with the dog, sliding down sand berms and wading in the water, it was no surprise when the boys reported feeling happy a short time later. The next day, they requested another trip to the beach to get some more negative ions.

Whether it’s exercise, fresh air, negative ions, or disconnecting from the grid, being in nature helps you slow down, calm down, and get grounded. It’s good for kids, adults, and dogs! Author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the negative consequences of too much virtual and too little real time. His recent book, Vitamin N, sites studies showing how spending time in the woods, on the seashore, or on a mountain trail helps ADHD, depression & anxiety, obesity & myopia, and the immune system. As the boys discovered, it also improves the mood.

Unfortunately, accessing the therapeutic benefits of Vitamin N doesn’t come naturally when you’re immersed in the convenience, comfort, and distraction of life in the 21st century. You don’t walk barefoot for fear of stepping on something. You don’t get your hands in dirt because…well, it’s dirty. You certainly don’t sleep on the hard ground. In addition, when you’re accustomed to a high tech, rapid-response, over-stimulated life, rocks, rivers and trees may not seem so appealing. It’s hard to commune with Nature when nature seems so far away.

Summer is the perfect time to get away from the complications of the tech world and get outdoors. In a spirit of playfulness, it might be fun to turn off your iPhone for a bit to discover the substantial effect of Vitamin N on your body & mind. Just get out of town and into a setting with more nature than concrete. Do your own experiment and evaluate how you feel at the onset. Is your body tired, heavy, agitated, or numb? Is your mind flooded with busy-ness? Is there any negativity, judgment, or impatience? Try one or two of the exercises below and, after ten minutes, check in again. Then, compare how you felt and how you feel now.

Your personal nature research assignments:

Go barefoot. Take off your shoes. Feel the texture of the earth under your feet. Let the weight of your body rest evenly through your whole foot. Feel the pull of gravity and imagine an equal and opposite push supporting you from the ground. This is called ground reaction force (GRF). Tune in to this relationship and feel how it invites you to stand tall. Then, picture an inherent circuitry that allows an interchange of electrons, earth to body, body to earth. These ideas are so far fetched. They’re rooted in biomechanical physics. After a few minutes of barefoot awareness do you feel connected and relaxed?

Walk at your own pace. The woods or beach are good places to walk unencumbered. As you observe your moving body, notice which parts move freely and which parts feel sluggish or stuck. Let the mechanics of walking loosen things up and invigorate your whole body. Unlock your neck and shoulders so your body sways and arms swing, side to side. Imagine that all worries and problems are letting go and getting in the flow. When your movement is freed up, you can be in the moment without a care at all! It’s easy to imagine the alignment of body, mind and spirit. After a bit of walking at your own pace, do you feel lighter, freer, and in sync?

Commune with Nature. Sit with your back leaning against a tree. Feel the intimacy of your breath pressing against the bark. Slow down, tune in, and imagine the life experience of this tree. If you could communicate, what would you say to your tree and what might it say to you in return? As Emerson shared in his essay Nature: “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.” Perhaps sitting with your tree will make you smile or cry or discover something new. After a short time communing with nature, do you feel your spirit renewed?

Spending unstructured, focused time near trees, rocks, water and wildlife is a good way to get a healthy dose of Vitamin N. When you take the time to do it, you’ll definitely feel the difference. And, once you do, you’ll want to go back again and again. Just ask my grandsons.