What we’re getting wrong about nature and mental health

The May rain is warm, pattering gently on the roof of the nearby greenhouse. As I tip the seedling out of its pot and into my hand, small water droplets land on my skin, and the smell of wet ground fills my nose. Nothing else exists but me, this little marigold, and the freshly dug hole that is about to become its home. The usual cacophony of negative voices that live in my head – panicking, criticising, doubting, ruminating – they are silent, watching the plant as my hands tap it down and smooth out the soil around its stem.

There is so much discussion about the healing power of nature, how houseplants boost your mood, how gardening can help with depression, how nature walks can ease anxiety. I don’t disagree with any of it (obviously…) but I do think we’re missing some important issues in our conversations about nature, plants and mental health. Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought now would be the time to share some of these thoughts.

(Dressing up as Mother Nature to add authority to my point)

So, what is it that we’re getting ‘wrong’ exactly?

When you read articles about the impact that spending time in a forest has on your stress levels, there’s always something else lurking in the same sentence – the concept of productivity. Everything circles back to the idea that we are only worth what we produce, and what our money can buy. It’s not just workplaces that push this idea – so much advice I read, articles extolling the virtues of nature, they all seem to come back to this idea that the primary benefit of nature is that it makes us more productive. This couldn’t be more wrong. We should be looking after our mental health to become happier, calmer, more at ease, more joyful – not because these things make us more useful, but simply because that’s how everyone deserves to feel. Even when it isn’t mentioned explicitly, it’s almost always implied – employers don’t set up gardens for their employees for the sake of being nice – the expectation is that productivity will increase as a result. And if it doesn’t? That groundskeeping budget won’t be coming back next year! Not only is this a sign that our attitude towards mental health and nature is flawed, it’s also a sign that our understanding of nature itself is completely disconnected from reality. We’re ignoring the message that the natural world spells out for us every single time we engage with it – living things have needs, and if they’re failing to thrive, their needs aren’t being met.

Every single living organism experiences life differently. Some plants will grow anywhere, even literal concrete – others need special soil before they’ll even consider growing a millimetre. Some plants need protection from the wind, others will forget how to grow if you don’t expose them to a good breeze. It doesn’t matter what we think about their growing requirements – if we want to enjoy that plant, we have to respect its needs.

Put a plant in the wrong soil and the leaves will turn yellow. Don’t give it enough light and branches will die off. Forget to water it enough and it won’t flower. Neglect to give it the right company and won’t produce fruit. You mess with a plant, and it makes its dissatisfaction clear. That’s not to say that plants can’t be grown in inhospitable conditions, but if we want a plant to do something that it wouldn’t usually be able to, we have to put a LOT of effort into making it happen. The work that goes into forcing early rhubarb, or producing chrysanthemums for bouquets, or keeping desert plants happy in a dark home is enormous, and its necessary – a plant is a product of its environment, you get out what you put in. And this can be extended to larger natural examples too – gardens, forests, meadows and so on. You get the picture.

So what does this have to do with us?

Hopefully the analogy I’m making is clear. When you’re given an unrealistic deadline at work, and stress yourself out to meet it, what is your employer doing to help you to make that happen? When we grow plants, if we want to benefit from whatever it is that they produce, we have to take away every possible stressor so that the plant can do its thing. Why do we think we’re any different? We constantly expect ourselves to be up and about at the same time every day, as productive in the morning as we are in the afternoon, as energetic on Thursday in December as we are on Saturday in July. We’ll skip a meal and then be shocked when we can’t concentrate. What part of our bodies are so different to a plant’s that we can somehow pour from an empty cup, when we have endless examples of plants resolutely not being able to do that?

Capitalism is the reason that we constantly expect ourselves to be consistently over-productive. Our society is obsessed with more, more, more. Massive, endless productivity. The concept of ‘doing less’ is almost heretic. Employers will tell you they care about your mental health, but pay you a wage that means you can never truly feel secure. For those of us who are doing ok, the threat of poverty hangs over our heads as a stick that capitalism beats us with – but imagine if you told a plant “I’m not watering you unless you produce another flower”? And for those who are struggling, under or near the poverty line, capitalism tells them it’s their fault for not working hard enough – “If you’d made nicer flowers I would have given you more water”.

We need to take this into account when we talk about nature and mental health, because nothing will ever truly change if we don’t address the way society is currently set up. Being burned out and stressed, constantly being bombarded with advertising for things that will ‘make us happy’, being told over and over again that it’s individual, not corporate or governmental responsibility that will make a difference in the world. This is what needs to change for us to finally have a chance at realising our potential for love, happiness and satisfaction. Humans are resilient little plants, doing our best to grow in the wasteland of an unsustainably consumerist system, which tells us that because we’re just about managing to grow in their hellscape, we’re responsible for perpetuating it, and we’re responsible for how well we do in it. If one of us says “Actually, this wasteland is making things really hard for my roots to grow” the capitalist farmer will tell us “Well the plant next to you is fine, stop being pathetic.” Of course, we all know that the plant next to you is probably struggling just as much.

Humans are not here to be farmed for their productivity. We cannot repackage nature into a neat little ‘apply to the affected area’ salve for employers to use to make us work better. That is not what our existence is about. Let’s embrace more than just our ability to nurture, protect and grow plants, and apply that phenomenal human skill to ourselves too.

Self Care Ideas That Don’t Cost Any Money

In today’s world, self care is essential. It can be as simple as remembering to drink water, or as elaborate as a seven step skincare routine followed by 40 minutes of yoga. The type of self care you need depends on the level of wellbeing you are currently at. You shouldn’t feel pressured to engage in mindfulness meditation when you can’t even get out of bed! And you certainly should never feel obligated to spend money on making yourself feel better, despite how many magazines and websites say otherwise. Even the most well meaning self care ‘listicle’ is only really there to sell stuff. When brands are saying that you *need* the latest luxury bath salts or £40 face mask, it’s really just regular old marketing, re-spun, so that instead of saying ‘you’ll look better!’ they’re saying ‘you’ll feel better!’ Capitalism has taken the concept of self care and resold it to us as a commodity.

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You can absolutely look after yourself without buying anything new. I’ve complied a list of free ideas for people who can’t splash out, or are suspicious of the idea that self care should cost money. Obviously these are some of my personal favourite ways to look after myself, but I thought they might also be helpful as inspiration to get you thinking about creative ways you can rest and recharge on your own terms:

Turn your headphones off when you’re walking home in the rain – Listening to the rain is one of the most effective ways to soothe my brain and always has been, ever since I was little. I love walking home listening to the water hitting my umbrella. Perhaps it’s the same for you, or perhaps you love the sun and could try crossing the road whenever you can to walk on the sunny side. Or if you love the wind you could go to an open space on a blustery day and let it whip up into your hair and blow the cobwebs away.

Water and tend to your plants, then sit with them for a while – I have an enormous family of plants in my flat and I always feel more positive and recharged after I’ve spent a little time checking in on them; watering, dusting their leaves, repotting etc. I talk to them too. Houseplants are inexpensive, and do not take a huge amount of time to care for. If you don’t already have one, bringing some greenery into the home has been demonstrated time and time again to have lots of positive effects!

Read to your partner and have them read to you – James and I absolutely love doing this together, and usually read a few pages at a time before swapping. It’s lovely to do this while snuggled up under warm blankets and pillows, with bedside lamps just bright enough to read by. Everything you remember about how nice it was being read to as a child will come flooding back and you and your partner will be left feeling warm and fuzzy.

File the dead skin off your feet – Gross, fun and sooooo satisfying. Set aside 20 minutes for this, get right up in there with a pumice or file, then have a shower to wash it all off, and finish the job by rubbing in some body lotion, if you have any!

Cook yourself food and allow yourself to enjoy it – Anyone who has ever suffered from stress, exhaustion, physical or mental illness or financial difficulties will have been through a time where cooking food and letting it nurture them was impossible. I’ve been to that place. There are hundreds of reasons why someone may not have eaten properly for a while. If that’s you, when the time does come to give yourself a hot meal, try this method to make it as restorative as possible: Choose a meal that you know how to cook, and get the ingredients out before you start. While you cook, focus on the way the food feels in your hands, how it smells, how much you’re looking forward to eating it. Wash things up and clean as you go so you don’t have a pile of pots to tackle after you’ve eaten. When it’s ready, pour a large glass of water and bring your food to somewhere you find comfortable. Put some music on; don’t watch your shows while you’re eating today. Eat it slowly, let yourself enjoy the warm feeling that food can bring you. Drink your glass of water as you eat.

Make taking a shower into a cleansing ritual – For some, the simple act of getting in the shower is a taxing enough act of self care, and they should be proud to have managed to do that for themselves. But for other people, the way in which you shower can have a powerfully energising, restorative effect. It’s very basic, but the act of focusing the mind on something simple is so good for us. This is how I like to use my shower time to rest and refocus my mind: Get in the shower, squeeze out a generous amount of body wash, and massage it into every inch of your skin, from your toes to your neck. Pay attention to soaping up every part of your body, bit by bit. If you have a body brush or scrub, do the same with that and exfoliate your whole body. Just focus on the sensations, the smell of your shower gel, the heat of the water, the softness of the bubbles. If you want to, wash your face and hair too with the same degree of care, and finish by giving yourself a thorough rinse, letting the water wash everything away, leaving you shiny and new.

Get everything ready for bed, then run a bath and read in it for ages – I particularly love to do this when I’m reading a book I’m really enjoying. Get the washing up done, get your bag ready for work tomorrow, teeth brushed, alarm set, phone on charge, bed made. Then run a hot bath, put some bubbles in, soak and read away, until you’re ready to dry off and slip into bed.

Listen to an entire album that you love from start to finish – I suggest putting your headphones on for this, and lying on your bed. While you listen, try to focus just on the music, the emotions it stirs in you and any happy memories it may bring. Calmly but firmly steer your mind away from negative thoughts or worries that will try to creep in during this quiet time. This isn’t an opportunity for you to mull things over, make plans or ruminate – this time is for you and your brain to hang out together with something you both enjoy. If I do struggle to stop my mind racing, I say this to myself: “No. I’m not thinking about that right now. I don’t need to and I don’t want to. I am going to enjoy Zaba by Glass Animals until it is finished, because that is what I set this time aside to do.” Then, I will focus on the lyrics or pick out different instruments and follow them through the songs until my mind quietens down again.

Ecotherapy – Being out in nature is clinically proven to help improve mood and reduce stress. Jump at any chance to simply be out of doors, even better if you can take your shoes off and put your feet on the ground! In Japan this is known as ‘forest bathing’ and is regarded as essential, particularly for those living in densely populated urban areas.

Move around – Exercise is a personal thing and I don’t like to talk about it because it has the potential to make people feel bad when they haven’t done anything wrong. But still it seemed weird to leave this off the list, as it really does make a lot of people feel a bit better. If you’re able to, and you want to, I would definitely suggest trying exercise when you’re feeling down. It can be as simple as going for a walk or run, or you could try one of the millions of workout and yoga session on youtube. All completely free!

Some of these methods may seem trivial or pointless, and some of them might seem silly to you, but remember that I’ve tried to create a list that will inspire everyone, no matter what life situation they might be in. Whether you’re a student, a new parent, physically or mentally ill, in financial trouble or stressed at work, you are allowed to spend time on yourself. It’s not just nice to do, it’s necessary for your wellbeing which means you should never feel bad for taking the time to do it. Spending money doesn’t validate your self care, and doesn’t necessarily make it more effective either. The most important thing is that you approach your self care with the intention of taking some time to look after yourself, because you, just by virtue of existing on this planet as a human being, deserve it.

Yoga and cultural appropriation

It’s almost impossible to cope in our narcissistic, capitalist, violent and fragmented society without something to help. For an ever-increasing number of people, that thing is yoga. And that’s great. Yoga is a wonderful thing to do – it helps with anxiety, stress, poor posture, flexibility, joint health and muscle tone, which in turn can help support your immune, digestive and even endocrine systems, as well as improve your patience, sleep and mood. But yoga also has a long, dark history of cultural appropriation and class exclusion. No one is saying that westerners should stop doing yoga (although they certainly could) because of this, especially if it already forms a part of our self-care routine. However, it is extremely important that we are educated about it, and that we take steps to ensure that our yoga is inclusive and respectful.

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If you practice yoga, you have almost certainly engaged in cultural appropriation of some kind. This video is the ideal starting point for learning about cultural appropriation in yoga, as well as this article on Everyday Feminism. It’s pretty much a certainty that all western yoga students have done something disrespectful, ignorant or arrogant at some point. It’s frustrating to hear, of course, whether because you feel guilty or because it’s inconvenient for you to acknowledge it, but either way, lets move on to some practical ways for you to be a better yoga practitioner!

Call it what it is. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do when you realise just how deep the issues of colonialism, religious oppression and cultural appropriation go. If I’m not spiritual, but yoga is, should I just say to people that I’m going to a ‘meditative stretching’ class? Of course I shouldn’t. The stretches are yogic stretches and if I call it ‘lying on my back in the dark’ instead of savasana, I’m erasing the fact that it was invented in India thousands of years ago. Learn about the ever-developing history of yoga, and keep in mind that yoga is founded on religious teachings. There is nothing wrong with learning lessons from different religions. But there is a lot wrong with benefitting from something and not knowing about, or giving credit to, the culture that created it. And if you are only engaging in the physical aspects, perhaps you could consider clarifying that when talking to your teachers, to give them the choice about if, and how to engage with you.

Step away from the skinny white rich people. Western yoga is notorious for classism, racism and fat-shaming, and really doesn’t do well when it comes to inclusivity and acceptance. The fact that the most popular yoga instructors on instagram and youtube are white, skinny and able-bodied is sickeningly reflective of our society, and it needs to change, because that is not what yoga is about. Please stop following that tidal wave of brand-endorsed whiteness, or at least cut down. Instead, why not follow some of my faves: @biggalyoga@yogaplegic@nolatrees,  @daughteroftheuniverse, @mynameisjessamyn, @curvygirlmeetsyoga@justferd. It’s so important to show diverse bodies participating in yoga, because everyone deserves to benefit from it, and how will people know that yoga is for them if no one like them does it?

Join, or support, a more physically and financially inclusive yoga group. The relationship between yoga and money is complex, and an unfortunate by product of capitalism. But there are some things you can do. Practise yoga somewhere that makes an effort to be actively inclusive. People on low incomes, children with learning difficulties and pregnant women are almost certainly in need of the healing properties of yoga more than you, so support a group that supports them (unless you belong to one of those groups, in which case, here are some places you can go!) My suggestions are all based in London because I’m only one woman, but do your own research and I’m sure you’ll find one where you live too! Most cities will have a pay-what-you-can Yoga group (so if you can’t afford Yoga you can donate a little, if you can afford yoga you can donate more). Donate to Special Yoga which is just about the most amazing idea I’ve ever seen. The West London Buddhist Centre does low cost and community classes. There’s pay-what-you-can yoga at the DIY Space for London, and St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green does the same thing. Triyoga offers discounts to seniors, jobseekers and students, so if you are one you could sign up with the discount, and if you aren’t, sign up anyway so they can continue offering the discount to those that need it! And the Iyengar Yoga Institute is an incredible charity that offers free classes to pregnant women and kids, as well as being extraordinarily knowledgeable about the practise.

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Don’t perpetuate the show-off culture so prevalent in westernised yoga. Yoga is not a trend, it’s not cool and it’s not a sport. It is a culturally significant, physically challenging, deeply spiritual practice that should be approached responsibly and sombrely. Make sure that your attitude towards yoga is in line with the intentions of yoga. You aren’t better than someone else because you have expensive yoga pants, or because you pulled off a headstand on your first try. Be nice to everyone in your class, take steps to ensure you don’t make anyone feel embarrassed or self-conscious. In the UK for example, black women practicing yoga can often feel like outsiders. That’s not fair, or in line with the intentions of yoga. Obviously you shouldn’t be going up to women in your class saying ‘hey, you’re welcome here!’ but you could at least be nice to them and ensure that no one is being actively excluded.

Buy ethical or inexpensive yoga clothes/mats. You don’t actually need special yoga stuff (again, that’s not really in line with yogic intentions). But if you don’t have anything that can comfortably accommodate a warrior pose sequence, or the Lululemon yoga pants that you got when you didn’t know any better have sprouted an unfixable hole (hi, that would be me), then you need to get something from somewhere. It’s extremely difficult to find ethically made (or any, actually) yoga pants for less than £45, and most are £60-£70. This isn’t right, and if you’re financially unable to buy adapted yoga pants you shouldn’t feel like you can’t take part – all you need is a stretchy pair of leggings that you feel comfortable in, and a top that doesn’t ride up or fall down. You don’t need a £62 bra, £18 thong, £52 yoga mat or a £138 cardigan (yes, I just went on the Lululemon website to find all those…feel free to browse for a great lesson in white privilege…they sell a ‘namastay put’ thong. Seriously?) As for mats, well you don’t actually need one, but again the most ethical are the most expensive. If you can afford to spend £50 on a jute mat, get one, but if not, please don’t feel guilty about buying a £6.50 plastic one.

Yoga is not perfect, and neither is anyone who has been, or is, is involved in it. That’s kind of the point. No one is perfect and we’re always learning. You are benefitting from yoga, so you must take it seriously, treat it with respect and approach it with humility. Avoid explicitly capitalist behaviour like buying expensive clothes, or paying loads for classes in studios that only benefit themselves. There is a fantastic website called Decolonizing Yoga that you should definitely visit if you want to continue learning to be a better western yoga practitioner.