Two hours a week. That’s all it takes. A recent study of 20,000 British people suggests that spending two hours each week in nature is the threshold for optimum health and psychological wellbeing. According to the study, these same benefits were not reported by people who spent less than 120 minutes outdoors.
The benefits of being in nature have been well documented over the years. Studies have found that spending time in nature promotes sleep, increases vitamin D levels, improves eye health and promotes mental health, among other benefits. Originally proposed as a stress-release practice in Japan in 1982, “forest bathing”—strolling in nature and soaking in the panoply of sensory stimuli—is beginning to gain traction as a stress-reduction practice here in the U.S.
Hiking is a bit different from forest bathing, in that when we hike, we generally have a destination in mind. The pace is often quicker, and we’re elevating our heart and breathing rates. But both practices give us a much-needed break from our computer-driven lives.
One of hiking’s major benefits is that it catapults us into an unfamiliar situation. It’s easy to fall into habits in our daily lives. When we’re attached to routines, any upset in our routine can create an inordinate amount of stress. The truth is, our lives will never be entirely predictable. Being in nature, not knowing what’s around the next bend, can teach us to respond to unpredictability with grace.
Another benefit is that hiking promotes balance. Most of the time, we walk on even ground—indoor flooring, sidewalks, streets. In contrast, earth is uneven, causing our feet, ankles, knees, thighs and hips to have to negotiate unfamiliar positions—kind of like asana practice. Having to walk on uneven ground can sharpen our proprioception.
Yoga Poses for Hiking
Our yoga practice can enhance a hiking experience. If you plan on stepping up your hiking practice this summer, you might want to weave these yoga poses for hiking into your regular asana practice:
- Vrksasana (Tree Pose): Practicing balance poses teaches your body the skill of balancing, a skill that’s important no matter what we’re doing. But because hiking can challenge our balance, practicing balancing poses is especially important. In your practice, add some balance challenges while you practice Tree Pose, such as turning your head side to side, moving your arms around and closing your eyes.
- Utkatasana (Fierce Pose): Knees can take a hit when you hike. Steep uphill climbs and negotiating boulders often require that we flex our knees and hips way past 90 degrees. While this is not inherently bad for our knees and hips, doing it a lot in a short amount of time can stress our hips and knees. Walking downhill can also stress our knees, especially if we have a habit of tucking our tailbone, which causes the quadriceps muscles to have to work harder. When they get fatigued, all the impact of going downhill is transferred to the knees. Utkatasana can help strengthen the quadriceps and other muscles that stabilize the hips and knees. Make sure you point your tailbone back when you practice Fierce Pose.
- Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) to Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose): Transitioning from Trikonasana to Ardha Chandrasana teaches our body how to balance not only in static poses, but in transitions. Walking is all about moving, transferring weight from one foot to the other. Practicing transitions from one standing pose to another can cultivate stability in transitions.
Of course, many yoga poses can help prepare you in some way for hiking. But adding these poses, along with other standing poses, can reinforce skills that are specific to hiking. The more confident and stable your balance is, the more enjoyable your excursions into nature will be. So, go take a hike!