Nature is the theme for mental health awareness week in 2021 ( 10 – 16 May). Yoga offers the perfect way to explore our connection with nature as a way to boost our mental health and wellbeing.
Nature and mental health
Nature was one of the key ways which helped people cope with stress during the first lockdown in 2020. Research carried out by the mental health foundation showed that 90% of those experiencing stress during the pandemic were using a coping strategy, most often these included going for a walk, spending time in green spaces and connecting with others.
It is not just ‘being’ in nature that supports our mental wellbeing but also how we open up to it and experience it that can support us to develop our creativity, empathy and sense of wonder. Even small contacts with nature can reduce our sense of isolation and increase our sense of wonder. During mental health awareness week, the Mental Health foundation is advocating connecting with nature in new ways. In addition to this, the foundation is campaigning to convince decision makers that access to nature is a social justice and mental health issue.
Connecting to nature through yoga
We are a part of nature and yoga helps us to understand and connect with this fundamental truth. Nature is not something that is outside of us. In yogic and ayurvedic philosophy, it is believed that all of creation is made up of the five elements (pancha maha bhutas). Focussing on these physically, mentally and spiritually can bring us a deeper understanding of our role in nature and bring us to a greater equilibrium.
Five Elements in yoga and nature
Have you ever considered how nature manifests itself within your body? A study of the ‘bhutas’ or elements in your body is a great way to connect with nature and also gain a greater insight into your make-up as it shifts from day to day. Your formal yoga practice offers you the perfect opportunity to tune in to the five elements within your body, but you can extend this exploration whilst also spending time in nature. The five elements in yogic philosophy are: earth (prithvi); water (jala); air (vayu); fire (agni); ether or space (akasha). When outdoors, try walking barefoot on the earth, notice the air as it touches your skin and you breathe it in; stand by a river or body of water and notice the heat of the sun as it warms your face.
The earth element is associated with our body – our bones, our structure and our ability to feel grounded. Focusing on the earth element – the element our physical bodies are made up of can support us to feel less ‘heady’. The stabilising feeling of the earth can support us to cultivate a sense of endurance.
70% of our bodies are made up of water. This element is linked to the circulatory and fluid systems within our body. Within our yoga practice we may also bring attention to fluid movements and transitions. Water is a powerful force both within our bodies and within nature. The great rivers and oceans connect us to each other and help us to communicate fluidly. Focussing on this element can be extra supportive at times when our lives feel stagnant. How can we increase a sense of greater flexibility and fluidity. How can we harness the force of water within us to increase our sense of flow?
Fire is a transformative force and is a vital energy in both yoga and ayurveda. It is found in our internal warmth and the heat our body produces and can refer to important body functions such as our digestive ‘fire’. It is also a transformative force.
Air is most obviously represented through our breath but it is also linked to our movements. This element carries prana or lifeforce around our body. We can most effectively feel this energy in our bodies through our breath work.
Ether / Space
Ether or space is linked to consciousness and is the most subtle of the five elements. It is best understood within our bodies as the energy of our thoughts, words and beliefs and ‘akasha’ or space is what these things need to move through before they can manifest concretely. It is the stillness that we find underneath our myriad thoughts in meditation.