In the latest part of his look at Retune’s SCALES system for mental wellbeing, Tom Ryder focuses on the world around us. Discovering nature and staying grounded boosts mental health…
This article originally appeared in The Bishop’s Stortford Independent in July 2020
We continue our look at Retune’s mental wellbeing SCALES system (Sleep, Creative, Active, Listen, Earth, Social) by focusing on ‘Earth’. Earth is one of the more abstract concepts in SCALES, but an increasing body of research supports it.
It concerns our relationship with the world around us. We are inextricably linked to nature – indeed we are part of it – and spending time in the outside world, rediscovering our roots, is a powerful wellbeing tool. The Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku (‘forest bathing’), the Nordic term friluftsliv (‘free air life’) and the notion that we all possess a water-loving ‘blue mind’ are just a few of the ideas that have come to the fore in the media lately.
Earth is also about connecting with ourselves, and staying grounded. ‘Feeling centred’, to use the traditional terminology, or ‘feeling in tune’ to use the Retune terminology! This can be achieved through breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, pilates or yoga.
Personally, I’m aware of the power of nature and how looking after our external environment positively affects wellbeing. Spending time by water, by the beach, in a forest or even watering the garden or house plants can have a therapeutic effect. However, the other side of Earth, the mindfulness and meditation side, I tend to find more challenging. Our world features an awful lot of noise, and it can be difficult to tune out and slow down racing thoughts.
Fortunately, help is at hand. Vanessa Hatton Riveiro runs vinyasa flow yoga sessions in Bishop’s Stortford, as well as overseas retreats. And Natasha Goldstein-Opasiak, a former Bishop’s Stortford High School sixth form student, is a soft tissue therapist, and founder of holistic therapy organisation Align. I was keen to hear their tips on connecting with self and letting go of that all-too-persistent internal chatter.
For Vanessa, whose Body ’N Soul yoga studio is located in the centre of town, lockdown has provided time for slowing down, checking in and re-evaluating things from the inside out. Each day, she wakes up and does a 15-minute stretch and breath work routine: “It has become a ritual that I don’t go without, as well as keeping up my regular yoga and meditation routines,” she says. “I’ve taken the plunge to teach online yoga classes and it has been amazing. One thing that I’ve really learned through this pandemic is how incredibly starved for time we all are! It’s definitely given me some food for thought and invited me to get clear on my habits, ones that I may find easier to stick to on the other side of lockdown.
“These don't need to be massive. It could be as simple as starting each day with your favourite drink before looking at your phone, or ending your yoga practice and taking a moment to jot down a thought, word or sentence about how you're feeling, or your intention. You can sit in a short meditation before heading back into your day.
“Perhaps you've started walking daily and will keep that up. Whatever the small thing is that has made you happier, try and make it habitual.”
Vanessa specialises in vinyasa flow yoga, which is a graceful and energising practice that links breath with movement. She also teaches restorative yoga; a calmer side of the practice. “Poses are soothing and well-supported,” she explains. “They release physical tension, connecting you to a natural breath so that you leave feeling relaxed and grounded.”
Witnessing the changes in so many clients gives her wellbeing a real boost, and she stays physically active through her own yoga practice. Teaching keeps her fit, healthy, strong, supple and relaxed. “I recognise that, mentally, the yoga practice has had a significant impact on so many of those I work with. Seeing them able to do a pose they never thought possible, or seeing them sat in stillness and enjoying it – or if they decide to go off to start a dream project – all of this really shows me how powerful the practice is.”
Her understanding of Retune’s Earth string is to fully engage with the environment around us: “Take your shoes off and feel the grass beneath your feet. Look up at the stars or become aware of the moon’s phase, reminding yourself of the constant cycle of life. Learning to appreciate the small things such as a blossoming flower, the changes of the seasons, your breath, your body, provides strength. Yoga, meditation or breathing exercises enable us to connect back to ourselves and ground us.”
Despite Vanessa’s skill and enthusiasm, some of us can find it a bit tricky to ‘get into’ yoga – it can seem daunting and inaccessible for many. She offers some tips: “There are so many free resources online, however I know that you can get lost trying to find a video you like or class suitable to your needs. Perhaps download a free app to listen to a meditation before bed. If you can, find a quiet space and five minutes to unwind with your legs up the wall before bed or write out one thing that you were grateful for that day. Writing an intention or affirmation down can be a powerful thing.”
And the best way to find out what it’s like? Go along to a class: “I’m sure your yoga teacher will make you feel welcome, even if it feels completely out of you comfort zone at first. Yoga really isn’t about touching your toes; it’s what you learn on the way down!”
She adds that the breath is a powerful ally, and is something that we can all use as and when difficult situations arise. “You can repeat to yourself: nothing to do, nothing to manage.”
Natasha Goldstein-Opasiak struggled at the start of lockdown; as someone who has struggled with anxiety for many years, a global pandemic was not what the doctor ordered. “However, as it continued, I listened to what my body and soul needed and haven’t felt guilty if I spent a day simply watching Netflix and nesting,” she comments.
At Align, her aim is to enhance health and wellbeing. “Our treatments are for everyone, from those who want to prevent injuries and maintain a healthy mind-body relationship, to those with chronic pain or injuries. Through a hands-on approach, our aim is to help increase range of motion and flexibility, alleviate chronic pain and injuries as well as decrease inflammation and muscle pain post-event.”
Sports massage and deep tissue massage have proven benefits: physiological, physical and psychological. Align seeks to provide its clients with all the necessary tools to reach a ‘higher ground’ of living potential. Through set exercises and mindfulness-based stress reduction, Natasha helps clients achieve a calmer, happier, more fulfilling life.
“The power of touch is unquestionable,” she continues. “From a therapist’s perspective, watching someone enter clinic and then leave at the end of a session is like watching them shed their old skin. They leave the clinic feeling lighter.”
She too believes in the importance of Retune’s Earth string: “We need to spend time nurturing our relationship with nature by being outside and connecting with our roots. At the beginning of lockdown when we were only given permission to have one hour of exercise, I think people were sure to take one-hour lunch breaks, and used the time to walk outside. This was dreamy. It made me realise how vital my relationship with nature is.
“As Retune states, breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation and yoga are also essential ways to help us achieve a sense of grounding with Earth. Due to lockdown, there are lots of donation-based classes available online at the moment. Headspace is a great app for beginners to meditation.”
Her top tip is to listen closely to your body and mind. “If you wake up feeling anxious or low, it’s OK to cancel social meetings. Friends will understand, because they are your friends!
“Speak openly about how you are feeling that day or week or month. Oh, and avoid social media at weekends – take a break from it. Trust me, it will do you the world of good.”
Find Vanessa online @vanessahr.yoga and Natasha @align_massage. Follow @retunewellbeing to learn more about our project, and the SCALES system.