Disconnect from devices and reconnect with nature
“The woods have always been my church, my solace,” says Micah Mortali, debuting his Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership this October.
Micah Mortali is exactly where he’s supposed be—sitting perched atop a silky grass hill at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. He recalls why he started working here 13 years ago: “I fell in love with the land,” he says. Growing up in rural Connecticut amid piney woods, towering oaks, rippling creeks, and soft green rolling hills, the Berkshires has the very type of landscape that spurred Mortali’s passion for the outdoors.
He’s now on a mission to inspire others to love the land as much as he does. “If you don’t love the land, you won’t protect it,” he says, “and then you’ll lose it.”
Sadly, fewer and fewer people have a relationship with nature, spending more than 90 percent of their time indoors and an average of 11 hours a day on devices, says Mortali. “If children are living this way and not connecting to their environment, where will the future environmentalists come from?”
The more time you spend on an electronic device, the more disconnected you become from the place where you live, he explains. This is called “place blindness,” and it has increased dramatically in the past ten years, largely because of the Smartphone. In response, Mortali founded the new Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership, set to debut this October.
The 75-hour certification program, split into two levels, takes place outdoors for nine days from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and is designed to train participants to become mindful stewards of their bioregion. The two levels of training are open to anyone 18 years and older who wants to deepen their connection to nature and to be an advocate for the land.
Level 1 includes forest bathing and forest community, group facilitation, council circle practice, and nature meditation. Level 2 (offered summer 2019) goes deeper into naturalist skills, incorporating shelter building, fire making, foraging, and animal knowledge. Both include simple warm ups, breathing techniques, mindful walking, Ayurvedic instruction, gratitude practices, nature therapy and education, and plant and animal identification with Audubon instructors. Upon completion, participants become a certified facilitator of mindful outdoor experience. (Go to kripalu.org for more information.)
With the new program and a book in the works, Mortali wants to impart that the earth is a living system and our well-being is closely tied to the health of the planet. You are the planet. “The air you’re breathing was on the other side of the planet a few days ago; you’re inhaling the oxygen that the trees exhale. The molecules of your body are the same molecules of the planet—oxygen, carbon, water. If there’s pollution on the planet, it’s in you, too.”
Mortali, who has spent nearly 20 years spearheading wilderness retreats, first came up with the idea for the Kripalu program after his first child was born. (He and his wife have three children and live in Pittsfield.) At the time, he had read a book by Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to address this lack of exposure to nature?’ The woods have always been my church, my solace, and I wanted to pass that on.”
Now more than ever, with climate change’s acceleration, there’s an awareness—even a sense of urgency, Mortali says. Our lifestyle isn’t conducive to optimal wellness for individuals, the species, or the planet. In buildings, in small, windowless offices, we’re removed from our natural habitat. Not surprisingly, people are stressed, Mortali says. “We’re beginning to see that we can’t continue at this pace. Human beings didn’t evolve to sit at a desk for eight hours slouching over a computer screen.”
Being outdoors reconnects you with the natural world and the larger cosmos. The benefits are many—improved mood and sleep, accelerated healing, increased ability to focus, and a stronger immune system. Most importantly, how are you living your life day to day? Just like you can feel the presence of nature and the forest when you’re in it, nature and the forest can also feel your presence, says Mortali. “How can you make the earth healthier by your presence instead of the other way around?”
Make the connection:
Breathe When you’re outdoors, put away your phone or don’t bring it with you. Take a deep breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Be mindful of the present moment. Bring awareness to the element of air which gives you life. Take a moment to give thanks for the life flowing into and out of you with each breath.
Meditate Find a place outdoors, a favorite park or tree where you can simply sit and notice whatever is happening around you. Do this through every season. This will help to deepen your bond with the land, plants, and animals.
Walk with awareness Slow your pace so that each footstep is conscious. Be aware of the sounds that surround you: the crunching of the ground beneath your feet, wind brushing the leaves, the birds singing. Send gratitude through your feet down into the ground.
Start a garden Dig in the soil with your fingers. Planting a garden, even a few small pots, can be a great way to connect with the plant kingdom.
Track Notice animal tracks, especially in the winter months when snow is on the ground. Start by learning one animal’s tracks and then expand your knowledge. This helps you to connect with the animal kingdom.
Make a fire Our ancestors typically ended the day by gathering around and gazing at a fire. Light candles, build a campfire, make a fire pit.