Breathe in and out. Engage your senses: See the trail in front of you, hear the dirt crunch under your shoes, feel the warmth from the sun on your skin. Be present.
Instinctively, we know being outside is good for us. In the past decade, science has driven home the benefits of nature on our physical and mental health, with everything from blood pressure to stress hormones to creativity reported to be positively affected. Our region’s plethora of outdoor spaces is undoubtedly a reason why this ranks among the healthiest, happiest places to live. And, since the pandemic—when we all maximized outside time and everyone was looking for new ways to interact safely—preserves, parks and other nature centers have developed targeted opportunities to help us get the most out of time spent outside.
In Sanibel, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is putting health programming front and center. In February, the park hosted a Wellness Week with sunrise yoga sessions, seminars about how nature heals and guided meditative walks. The 6,400-acre refuge also unveiled its new Mindfulness Trail, a 1/3-mile path along a marsh in the Bailey Tract. The trail features signs with directions like “In this moment, search for … three things you can see … two things you can hear … one thing you can feel.” QR codes connect you to four-minute podcasts for a guided listening experience.
In season, Ayurveda yoga instructor Kim Sowinski, who participated in Ding Darling’s Wellness Week, hosts yoga hikes in Estero’s Koreshan State Park. The walks span two hours through the majestic bamboo forests of Koreshan; hikers come with mats and pause along the way to engage in basic poses. At each stop, Sowinski has participants engage with what’s around them. “People crave the outdoors, even if they don’t realize it,” she says.
Other nature centers have also made mindfulness a regular part of their schedules. Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium and Happehatchee Center offer yoga, meditation and drum circle sessions. And, at Big Cypress National Preserve, outreach and education coordinator Lisa Andrews has scheduled meditation walks, kayak trips, bike rides and yoga on the boardwalk. She aims to book special events timed around health holidays, like Collier County’s Wellness Weekend in January. For the past two years, during World Wellness Weekend in September, Big Cypress has hosted ranger-led swamp walks. You can also look into the Everglades swamp tours out of famed photographer Clyde Butcher’s gallery within the park.
Swamp walks and other verdant hikes play into the Japanese practice of forest bathing, the art of wandering in leafy spaces, with no particular destination in mind, taking the time to immerse your senses in the surrounding landscape. CREW Rookery Swamp Trail touts its cypress-filled paths as excellent locations for forest bathing. They also offer activities targeted at groups with special needs. Through Nature’s Peace at CREW, staff and volunteers lead Alzheimer’s patients or visually impaired people and their caregivers through the trail, stimulating the senses by identifying elements of nature: the feel of a leaf or the smell of a fresh flower.
Family-friendly wellness activities are also in high demand. There’s a Sensory-Friendly Saturday during season at the Naples Botanical Garden, where children with autism and their parents spend late afternoons doing hands-on activities designed in conjunction with the Center For Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. And Mariela Gómez of My Little Light Yoga teaches classes at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, including sessions for parents and kids under 5. The preserve’s patio proves to be a “perfect spot for nursing; it’s shaded and has fans and there’s not much foot traffic,” she says.
If parents with young kids can find peace in nature, there’s hope for us all.