Why do somatic work out in nature?
The longing to be in natural spaces when we're in emotional pain may be the natural intelligence within us guiding us into a process of deep resolution.
I became passionate about somatic therapy and trauma resolution after a pretty interesting experience at the end of one of my first somatic sessions as a client. After years of practicing a Buddhist body-scanning meditation called Vipassana, the purpose of which never made complete sense to my conscious mind, I finally got it.
In that moment, I realized it wasn’t about controlling myself, but allowing the natural intelligence of my nervous system to guide me back to an experience of ease in the present moment. Somatic work and trauma resolution are ultimately about trusting this natural intelligence that is the core of our being, the same intelligence that grows trees and moves clouds across the sky, to guide our healing process. When we receive the proper support in childhood, our nervous systems will return to a state of homeostasis after a stressful event as naturally as a plant leans towards sunlight. If we don’t get that proper support as children, however, we resist that process, shutting it down and often seeking some other way to feel better. And, hence, round and round we go with our trauma patterns for most of our lives - patterns of behavior, thought patterns, emotional cycles all intimately connected, playing out on repeat.
If we get familiar with this inner dynamic, we start to see a familiar relationship, one that mirrors our modern society’s relationship with the biosphere. We are at war with this natural intelligence on an individual level in the same way we are at war with nature and indigenous people on a much bigger scale. (This isn’t a coincidence, but that’s for another post).
I’ve noticed that, for a lot of us, learning to trust this natural intelligence in a controlled office environment, or even at home over Zoom, can be challenging. Additionally, we tend to seek natural spaces when we’re feeling overwhelmed, even if it’s just a tree in our backyard. This is another example of this natural intelligence guiding us to a setting that would support us in regulating or even beginning to process the unresolved emotions and trauma that’s been activated.
So it makes sense that taking sessions out into nature would feel supportive of this process overall, and also provide some opportunities for even deeper connection with ourselves and the communities to which we belong.
But who doesn’t like a good list of benefits to convince our conscious minds this is valuable? Here are 6 benefits of taking somatic and trauma resolution work outdoors.
Nature feels good. Okay, alright, this isn’t always true (lions, tigers, bears, etc), but we usually feel better emotionally when we get out into natural areas. There’s a growing body of research that confirms our experience, such that doctors are now prescribing nature connection. Throughout this work we tend to notice body sensations, urges, etc., and it can be helpful to begin by noticing what feels good, then identifying subtleties and building capacity to be curious about pleasant sensations rather than assuming we need to dive right into the big painful stuff (which will often show up naturally as we feel stable and grounded anyway). We tend to think “Healing is hard and painful! I need to be in deep pain for this to be legit, right?” Not necessarily.
We tend to be more effortlessly present to our environment. There’s a fancy term for this in somatic/trauma resolution work called “orienting." When we go into natural spaces, we're drawn into our senses, observing and experiencing this place without straining. This tends to lead to awareness of when we’re engaging with thoughts, mental images, body sensations, impulses, or movement as our attention moves back and forth between this inner landscape and the environment. Being able to have at least one toe in the present moment is essential to noticing and working with these trauma patterns without being overwhelmed by them. By noticing the bigger space around us, we have more inner space to notice and be curious about the psychosomatic phenomena that arise in us while remaining grounded and oriented.
We then have more capacity to be with discomfort when it shows up. When we’re able to sense the bigger space referenced in the past point, when there’s more than just pain or discomfort in our attention, even if the pleasant feeling or space is in the background, we have more capacity to stay with and be curious about the sometimes intense sensations, images, thoughts, and urges that come up in a session. With a greater sense of stability, we can start to allow that natural intelligence to move us even if it’s socially unacceptable or doesn’t make sense to our logical mind.
We feel unconditionally loved and held by the beings around us. Most of us unconsciously sense this whenever we go out to the forest or a secluded beach, but because of the social conditioning that says the only worthwhile form of consciousness is human consciousness, we tend to dismiss it. But anthropological research shows that animism, or the perception that all things have a spirit/consciousness, was universal among our human ancestors for all of prehistory (think roughly 200k years) and exists among many groups still today. Animism is not a belief system but a perceptual experience that is our birthright as humans. When we sink into our corporeal, present-moment sensory experience, we feel the presence of trees, mountains, land, rivers, ocean, among others. We sense the nonjudgmental, unconditional positive regard that Carl Rogers - the father of person-centered therapy - said was essential to positive outcomes in therapy. It becomes a form of secure attachment for us - akin to an attuned, responsive mother - as we venture into the psychosomatic unknown within. This is the support we need to be honest about what is truly arising within us from moment to moment and to express who we truly are, no matter how ugly or shameful we believe it may be.
We can then learn to explore, trust, and play with this natural intelligence. (You might be noticing the way all these points begin to blend together.) When we feel like we can be who we are without judgment within community and observe the healing that results, we finally get access to another human birthright: play. Healing really doesn’t have to be hell. And when we’re learning that we can give expression to repressed patterns and parts of ourselves without being overwhelmed, that it even feels good to do so, and that we don’t have to hold ourselves together so tightly, we can feel the subtle joy of being alive. We can take this whole process a lot less seriously. We can let go of striving a bit because we’re not trying so hard to get out of the present moment because this moment is genuinely delicious.
We develop a sense of responsibility to the human and more-than-human communities we now feel embedded within. When we feel a sense of belonging and love for and from those around us, it’s natural to want to be of service. We may feel both a call to action and a call to listen, a humility and an empowerment that together inspire us to consider our gifts in the context of this community that has held us as we came home to ourselves. Many indigenous cultures around the world believe the role of humanity is to be stewards of the land, and my sense is that we are remembering this calling when we feel a sense of responsibility and reciprocity to the land that has just held us.
This process isn’t linear nor the benefits limited to this list; many of these experiences happen simultaneously, and the unique personal processes often go beyond description. And, of course, there’s a very distinct place for somatic work in a controlled environment that complements the work done outdoors I've described here (perfect for winter). But as we come to see the way our society can itself be traumatizing and re-traumatizing, it’s not surprising that we find the wider community of life beyond humanity to feel like such a welcome balm in these uncertain times. May we trust the natural intelligence that knows when we need to lean on that community, knowing that when we do, we remember both a connection that’s always existed and our inherent belonging and responsibility to it.