Journeys: Living with Nature
Following a cardiac bypass ten years ago, DR. AKIL TAHER overcome physical challenges by running marathons, climbing mountains, and jumping out of airplanes. Lately, after becoming interested in the subtle interactions between nature and well-being, he spent eight days at the Anahata Healing Art Center (AHAC), an ashram in southern India.
There was plenty to reflect upon as my old, rickety taxi bounced along the dirt road through pastoral farmlands towards Ravandur, a small sleepy village about two hours from Mysore in Karnataka, India.
I had started in Mumbai in the early hours of the morning, taking a flight to Bangalore. From Bangalore, it was six hours by bus to reach Mysore. Upon arrival my driver had a hard time finding the ashram. The friendly locals pointed down a narrow street, guiding me to the entrance of the Anahata Healing Art Center (AHAC).
Over the last few years, I have become more aware of the positive effects of nature on well-being: evolutionary biophilia. From my extensive research online, AHAC seemed to be the best place to start my exploration of how nature can influence our health.
Guests at Anahata.
Kiran, the owner, and I had quite a few chats, and what impressed me the most was he told me to come with no expectations but be a part of the community. He met me at the entrance, which had only a table and two benches, nothing to attract anyone’s attention. For a moment I froze. Had I really come to the right place? I removed my shoes and entered a very ordinary room. We talked for a while and he explained to me what Anahata provides both for the guest and community. Then he led me to my room and simply said, “There is no rush. Have a good sleep, get up in the morning and see what is going on around the grounds, then you decide if this is something you would like to support.” This sense of freedom and flow set the tone of my experience here.
Across the world, communities are coming together to find a more balanced way of life. The stresses of modern-day living are taking their toll and people are searching for deeper connections with each other and the natural world. Many are feeling a pull to go back to the roots and lead a simple day-to-day routine, getting in touch with the mindful approach to being.
Recent literature, such as Chris Kresser’s Unconventional Medicine, suggest an alternative way to deal with the root causes of chronic conditions by reaching out to holistic practitioners from the local community who can help balance a patient’s lifestyle. We are part of nature, not in opposition.
|The initial lack of structure and definite time schedules and goals was a shock to me coming from the U.S., where we make planning a priority. But I realized that once you let go of your expectations, things just happen.|
Since the beginning of our existence, humans have been interacting continuously with nature. Like every other living being on our planet, we evolved under the care of Mother Nature. We are animals that started by existing in the same way that every other being did in a natural ecosystem. It has only been in the last several thousand years that human beings have developed techniques that have secluded us from our natural surroundings. But humans still have positive reactions to nature and natural environments.
One of the most famous studies in this field, by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, demonstrated that people who were hospitalized recovered more quickly with a view of trees than with a view of a brick wall. Much of the world is going down the path of complete separation from nature, bringing about chronic anxiety and imbalance. Therefore, it seems natural to counteract the trend and go back to the ancestral roots in order to try and restore balance in our lives.
We live in a world where we prioritize quick fixes; we use liposuction and cold laser to reduce our weight, and Flex Belt to tighten our abdominal muscles. The traditional family dinner is being increasingly replaced by take-out meals or eating “on the run.”
(Left) Life at Anahata was spontaneous, and never dull.
Life at Anahata was different each day, and we were encouraged to be spontaneous. The initial lack of structure and definite time schedules and goals was a shock to me coming from the U.S., where we make planning a priority. But I realized that once you let go of your expectations, things just happen. I opted to try colon cleansing for the first few days (clear juices the first day, followed by fruits the next day and purging the third day). Pongal, a southern dish, was served at dinner.
Typically the day started with yoga at the center or at the local temple, a short walk from our center. The morning orange sun rose majestically, reminding us that it was time to take our yoga positions. It was mesmerizing. It rejuvenated our entire bodies.
After that, there was a stroll through the streets, where we came across local gentlemen. We would join them for chats over coffee that was served in very small cups. These conversations were always a treat. Topics ranged from business, health, politics, our hometowns, and cricket (which, incidentally, is considered a religion in India).
(Left) The food, cooked in the traditional manner, was sourced from the ashram’s land or local farmers.
We returned to the center to offer help in the kitchen or do some mindful weeding in the garden or just relax in the communal area. Then came the traditionally cooked breakfast, sourced from the grounds or local farmers. Eating natural food reduces mental stimulation, providing clarity of thinking.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronome, said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Our diet consisted of masala roti (made of rice and flour), chick peas, parsley, onion, tomato, and cumin with coconut or coriander chutney. Organic fruits, vegetables, grains, and herbs were grown on the grounds of Anahata and cooked from scratch to make healthy vegetarian meals. The huge organic cauliflower and cabbage in the Anahata organic garden were begging to be eaten.
The afternoon was a chance to spend time with local workers, build, garden, plant trees, carry water from a nearby water pool, read, or simply be with natural surroundings. There was a children’s school nearby, bustling with the sound of children playing and school bells ringing. This was soothing to the ears, rather than a disturbance. The feeling of community and warmth happens organically as a way of life here. I saw firsthand the traditional building of an outdoor sun area for the elderly. It was heartwarming to see how men and women worked together effectively at the task at hand, without the use of modern tools, while still making time to smile and chat in the hot midday sun. The materials used were also natural—palm leaves and wood—except for the plastic tarpaulins to make it waterproof. I saw a functioning swimming pool made of rocks and stones.
Ongoing projects included the construction of new rooms made with natural materials, such as mud, water, and wood. It is important to be as sustainable as possible in order to work alongside nature and have respect for the environment around us. These rooms were for older people in the community who cannot look after themselves. Volunteers from the community took turns bringing them food and helping them move around. I met a lady who had been bedridden for two years until she was brought there, where she now walks for a few minutes a day.
My peers at the center were Kiran, Maureen, Will, Lance, Keiko, and Laura. Will and I did a few 5K runs around the fields. What a different experience! One evening we decided to walk to a nearby village, and a tractor stopped and gave us a ride. It was customary for the locals to stop on their scooters and ask if walkers/tourists needed a ride.
“Just before bedtime, we got together in the communal area and talked about our experiences from the day and what we could take back home.”
We visited several homes, and the people not only opened their houses, but their hearts, too. I was asked a lot of medical questions and I was glad to help. We had some simple, but delicious meals. Just before bedtime, we got together in the communal area and talked about our experiences from the day and what we could take back home. We hit the bed, accustomed to the sounds of dogs barking, and let sleep overtake us—we were tired but in a good way. The morning alarm was the temple music reminding us that a new day had begun and getting us excited for our impending yoga practice.
How does one apply the experience to our daily lives? All in all, being exposed to a natural environment makes you function better. It is highly advisable to try to walk through a natural environment on a regular basis, because exercise is important to the health of your brain and body. It’s efficient to combine being in nature with jogging or walking, as opposed to walking or running on a treadmill at home or the gym.
If you live in a city, it may take some effort to find a natural environment where you can get out and find a quiet spot to read a book, take a walk, ride a bike, jog on a trail, or do some gardening. By setting regular times to expose yourself to nature, you can make this a routine. Use the routine to relax your mind and see things from a different perspective. The change of scenery helps you relax and meditate. Regardless of the state of life you are in, you can improve your mental well-being by connecting with nature.
The invaluable lessons I have learned from the small community in India will stay with me for life.
Dr. Akil Taher is a physician in Gadsden, Alabama.
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