Human rewilding—have you heard of it? Chances are you probably haven't just yet, but human rewilding is on its way to be the 2019 way to digital detox. So, what's it all about? "Rewilding is a term used in the field of nature conservancy that refers to the practice of allowing land to return to its natural state in order to restore, repair and rebalance ecosystems previously under threat," explains Lisa B. Nelson, MD, Director of Medical Education at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. "Rewilding in human terms is a reminder to return to our natural state, prioritizing the needs and real-life resources we’ve evolved to rely on over the past 250,000 years. It's a way for us to restore and repair ourselves too." She goes on to cite studies out of Japan, South Korea and Germany, which have shown that simply being in a natural environment can lower heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety, and increase feelings of well-being.
As humans, we have proven to be highly adaptable, able to survive in this digital age. But, our always-on approach to modern life does have its pitfalls, "Our day-to-day lives have become so habitual and distraction-based that often years go by without us stopping to take real time for ourselves," notes Kenton Whitman, Co-Founder of ReWild University. "The result is that we can become outwardly very productive, but inwardly we may be suffering from various civilization-based issues, such as anxiety, chronic stress, or depression, along with the physical manifestations of that emotional distress."
Human rewilding is about reconnecting with nature—whether that's for 20 minutes during your lunch break, for a weekend or longer. And the benefits of taking time out from the modern world is pretty convincing: "Research has shown how spending time in nature enhances our immune system, reduces cortisol levels, lowers blood pressure, and increases subjective reports of being in a good mood and feeling relaxed (along with many more benefits)," says Whitman.
At ReWild University, Whitman and the team help students connect with their "wild side," and it is about so much more than just switching off your smartphone. "Rewilding also acknowledges that we are nature," he says. "You are just as natural as a tree or a waterfall or a cloud, and the more we get in touch with ourselves, the more we connect with that 'inner nature' that is available to us, even if we don't have time for that 20 minutes in the park."
By reconnecting with your wild side, Kenton tells Byrdie that you'll start with making smarter, healthier choices, "We often begin a person's rewilding journey with mindfulness practices so that they become more aware of how they are feeling, both mentally and physically, on a moment-to-moment basis," he explains. "With that as a foundation, the next time you exercise, you will feel how nice it is in your body, and that will naturally encourage you to exercise again, no discipline necessary. When you next eat a healthy meal, you'll feel how good that is for your body and mind, and will be encouraged to eat a healthier meal next time as well. It's an organic way to steer your life in a healthier direction.
In that vein, he goes on to say that rewilding is based on awareness, rather than willpower. "That awareness of how your body feels when you eat a cupcake vs. a broccoli salad means that over time you naturally make different choices," he says. "While willpower fails more often than not, awareness (though slower to take effect) brings more lasting and durable change."
Sounds good, right? Here are 5 human rewilding exercises you can try for yourself.
1) Just Listen
Peter Michael Bauer, author of Rewild or Die, recommends that you get away from humans and human-made things—the more diverse place the better. "Surround yourself with creatures whose lives have nothing to do with the human-made world, whose wills are their own," he says. "Don't engage, but sit quietly and listen." He calls this the 'Sit Spot' exercise. In one way, it's a form of meditation that improves mental health and lowers stress by quieting your mind and listening to the natural world. In another way, doing this actually teaches you to be a good listener. It deepens your relationship to a place, and to the more-than-human world.
Live in a city? "Even sitting quietly and looking out the window of an urban apartment, if that is all you have access to, can make a difference," he says.
2) Create a Bowl of Challenges
This one adds an element of fun. "Find a cup or bowl, and fill it with pieces of paper that each have a challenge on them. You can keep it light, and make the challenges things like having lunch at that local raw food restaurant, heading outside for a walk or taking a 5-minute meditation break," says Whitman. "Or you can make them a little more intense, like learning about shinirin-yoku (also known as forest bathing) and giving it a go." In either case, he says that it's important that you design the challenges so they are realistic and beneficial. Then, commit 100 percent to whatever challenge you pull out from the bowl. "If you're working in a busy office, this is most effective if you make all of your challenges something you can do on your lunch break, and draw your challenge once per day, right at the beginning of lunch," he suggest. "Make them fun so that they continue to enrich your life and keep things novel."
3) Take a Class
Why not try a class that gets you exploring the great outdoors? "A foraging class will broaden your social circles," says Whitman. "Plus, it means your walk in the park will now include wild nibbles that add to your nutrition and make you feel like you have a secret rapport with nature when other people say, 'Don't eat that! You'll poison yourself and die!'"
If you're feeling daring, you could try a class like parkour, which helps you get in touch with leaping and jumping—moves you probably haven't since you were a child on the jungle gum. And don't discredit the activity you can do when you're when you're at your desk. "If we start to get just a little bit creative about movement, and make it fun, we can give our body a good 'playout' even when we're at work," says Whitman. "For instance, I stand when I type, and often do it on one leg."
4) Unplug to Sleep
Unplugging from our gadgets, especially at night (experts suggest putting them in a different room, or at least getting off of your phone at least one hour before bed), can make a real difference to our sleep patterns. Nelson suggests giving your digital detox a rewilding upgrade by aligning with your circadian rhythms. "You can do this by sleeping when it's dark, waking at sunrise and having access to natural light sources throughout the day," she says.
5) Start a Fire
"If you can find a legal place to start a fire, you may experience a moment of ancestral connection with nature as you sit and watch the flames," says Whitman. "Fire is exciting for almost everyone and makes you feel like a kid again."
Want to know more about Rewilding? Head to Rewild University and find out about their online course, workshops and experiences.
Next up, these are all the health benefits of spending time outdoors.