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Nature Therapy

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda and as you know, the aim of this podcast is to help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life by bringing you ideas, trends, techniques, and tools from all over the world. Now, this season we’re covering environmental wellness and it’s a topic which is very close to my heart. Today we’re going to talk about nature therapy and we have with us Dr Andheria, who’s dedicated his career to preserving biodiversity. He’s the CEO of Wildlife Conservation Trust, he’s a fellow of Lead and he’s a member of the Nature Tiger Conservation Authority. Welcome to the chat Dr Andheria. Thank you for being here on the call with us today.

Dr Anish Andheria: Pleasure is mine. Thank you.

AB: Now tell me, let’s start right away, what do you think is the connection between promoting the preservation of diverse ecosystems and our well being?

Dr AA: Humans are part of this ecosystem. We call ourselves the most supreme beings. But actually, there is no difference between us and the ant, between us and the elephant, between us and the whale, or between us and the birds that travel across this planet, right? All of us require the same things: water, oxygen, food, and space. Human beings— over the last, I would say 200–250 years, with the industrial revolution, we’ve really moved away from biological fitness and gone to financial fitness. And so everything that we do is governed by our urge to have bigger houses, bigger cars, more money in our bank balance, and all that. And so somewhere, that umbilical cord that exists between us and nature has become a little hazy. It’s still there. So most people don’t know this, and most young people who grew up in an urban environment have never been exposed to nature. However, as I’ve seen over the last 35–40 years that I’ve been involved in nature-related work and activities, you can be from anywhere on this planet; you could be from America, you could be from a small town in India, or you could be from Bombay, which is like a 20 million-person big city, or you could be from a village: we all react in the same way to the first smell of rain. We react the same way when we look at an ocean. We react the same way when we sit next to a stream and listen to the gurgling sounds. So no matter where you are, we are connected because I’ve seen the same expression on the faces of people from different walks of life. They could consider themselves different from each other, but their reactions are pretty much the same. We become like children in front of nature. And so I think the more you get exposed to nature, the more this awareness of this umbilical cord between you and nature gets strengthened, and the more you feel like doing something for nature. So we need to rejuvenate that. And I think the best way is for people to go and embrace and actually go to the forest, go for walks, spend some time in the gardens, and listen to bird calls. And once you do this, you automatically start realising that you are not any different from other beings. And therefore, you will slowly start talking to yourself and say, I must do something for the environment. And once you start doing that, of course, you will have a more purposeful life than you do now. Because in the present state, you are thinking about yourself. You’re thinking about your own immediate family or maybe a larger family that you recognise. But once you connect with nature, you become a true global citizen, and then all these things matter to you.

AB: And tell me, what is nature therapy today? To put it simply…

Dr AA: Nature therapy means different things to different people based on where they are and their exposure. I know of people who get scared of a butterfly because they’ve never seen an insect. I know of a young woman who told me that when I go to my native place, which is a very quiet place, I don’t get sleep because she feels weird being in a place that has no artificial sound. It means different things to different people. So people, when they talk of relaxation, it will always take them to a place that is quieter, up in the mountains, near the ocean, all green, or even a desert. So nature, first of all, is not trees. Nature is not an ocean. Nature is everything that is natural and not dependent on us. Nature is much, much more supreme. We are just one of the millions of species that live on this planet. So that kind of connection, once you do that, it makes you a far more humble human being.

AB: Yes, absolutely. Now tell me, in your experience, has spending time with nature helped with the likes of mental health or even include increasing wellness in any way?

Dr AA: See, my background is that I’ve done my PhD in fluid mechanics. I have never studied zoology. I was largely a chemistry, physics, and mathematics kind of student. I live in Bombay, but I was always interested in nature. I am one of those fortunate human beings who knew very early in life what my calling was. And I started rescuing reptiles, so snakes, when I was in the 8th grade. And then, back then, there were no mobile phones. There were no phones, actually. And so people from the neighbourhood called me if they had an eagle, a kite, or an owl; even if I was rescuing snakes, they never differentiated [them], and they could even call me [to rescue] a scorpion or a jackal… I have rescued leopards. And so I was fortunate that I was in Bombay. I was fortunate that I knew what my calling was. And obviously the family was worried, but they didn’t stop me from doing it because they thought it wasn’t going to work. They tried, maybe, but it didn’t work. So they gave in. And so I used to rescue animals and bring them home, and also, from very early in my life, I was exposed to organisms other than human beings. So I grew up walking in a mango orchard, which was not very far from my house. I grew up playing in the mud. My grandmother used to tell me, “You will never grow up if you don’t get your hands dirty in the mud.” She said “if you don’t climb a tree and pluck a mango from there, you will not grow up. And if the mango is your neighbour’s, then even better.” Can you imagine? I didn’t understand all that then. But slowly, as I grew, I realised what she meant when she said that you don’t grow up if you don’t get your hands dirty. It means that when you don’t get exposed to the elements that have actually made you, you will never know your own bearings. Only when you get exposed do you realise that we are actually part of this extremely connected world that has so many different forms of life. They are all living, and they all get affected by the same things that we do, yet they are surviving and, in fact, thriving. And as human beings, we are always worried about our future. But think about an ant that walks into your house. Think about a butterfly that’s in your garden, probably sipping nectar from a flower that has been laced with pesticides that somebody has sprinkled there. There are so many such things happening around. You become so much more aware. You become a far more observant human being. Your self-esteem goes up; there is no doubt about that. Because you realise that you are not alone.

AB: You were almost telling me that it helps you with mindfulness. It’s almost like when you’re there in nature, you’re in the moment.

Dr AA: Yeah, you’re in the moment. You also are willing to experience things. You are also willing to take the risk. You are also willing to say it’s fine if you don’t know what’s there at the next turn; you don’t have to know everything and…

AB: Have you ever seen people actually use nature therapy? Solely use nature therapy to help with mental health.

Dr AA: I have no doubt about it; if people don’t use it, they must use it. People feel so good talking to me. I know of so many mothers who bring their children to me and say, “We’ve heard your talk. Can you just spend about an hour with my child if it’s possible? Because he or she is very confused right now, and I’m worried about her or him.” I think definitely, if it’s not being used… I’m sure it’s not being used enough in India. Definitely it will not be used so much. I’ll tell you, there is a difference in the psychology of people who live in India. We don’t think of nature as something outside of us. We don’t have a meaning or an Indian synonym for wilderness. Wilderness is not something that you go to. We live in Bombay. I rescued snakes, right? So I used to bring snakes. I used to rescue so many things, and it was right in the city. And people called me to their house. They kind of felt uncomfortable that the animal was there, but they didn’t kill the animal. They called me, saying that it’s here; it’s been there for the last 2 hours. We don’t know what to do. Can you come? And they were willing to wait it out and get out and sit outside the house because there was a snake inside the house. So that kind of thing I’ve never seen anywhere, and that I think is also because of the spiritual connection that people have with nature. If you notice, our gods and goddesses are always sitting on an animal-powered vehicle. We worship the elephant, we worship the monkey god, we worship the snake, and we worship the banyan tree. So it is so much a part of our culture…

AB: But let me ask you another question. Let me ask you about the urban environment. I’m assuming you’re in Bombay, I’m in London, these very busy cities. What is a practical way of incorporating nature therapy into our daily lives?

Dr AA: It depends again, but I would say always go and take a walk in a green space. It could be a garden, a manicured garden, or a public garden. Go and take a walk in the mornings when the birds are chirping. Why in the mornings? Because it’s cooler. There are bees and birds that are also calling. That environment is very different from how it is in the evening and afternoon. Do that. Even if you have a small garden outside your house, spend some time gardening. Just connecting with the soils and the microfauna and flora there— is very soothing. There is a connection. I’ve seen people—not botanists, but people—who keep planting plants in their house: they are slightly different from the others. Take short vacations. If you are very busy, there is no harm in going and spending two days very far away from an urban setting. completely different setting. Not necessarily go to a kind of tiger place or an elephant place. It could be just a hill station, which is a quieter place with gurgling streams and all that. Spend some time on the ocean, wherever you are. If you are along the coast, there is nothing like the ocean. Because again, this is my interpretation: I have seen the temperament of people in cities that are on the coast differ from people who live in an inland area. The openness of the ocean percolates down into the nature of the person. You can come to any city, and there will be people who will help you a lot more than you have. Some cities, such as London have volatile weather, and you can see how much money people can spend. People will be in front of you, but there will not be a smile exchanged. You come to Bombay, and people are so busy that they travel. Yet you will find people always smiling at you, and if you ask one question, they’ll go out of their way to help you.

AB: Absolutely. I want to ask you another thing. So in a place like Scotland, there’s this law of access, law of roaming. So even as an example of Balmoral Castle, I think it has 2000 acres of land or something but everyone is allowed to go through there. If you own land you have to give people access to it. And it’s not there in England, it’s definitely not there in India. It’s not there in a lot of the places of the world. So what happens? Even a lot of the natural reserves get blocked out and you have to pay to go in. So how do people get access to nature therapy in situations like this?

Dr AA: So I would say there are a lot of them. For instance, in India, you have the Protected Area Network, which is national parks, sanctuaries, conservation reserves, and community reserves. Those are public lands; they belong to the masses, right? So if you want to do an expensive thing like go into a tiger place, then it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But 5% of India is a Protected Area Network, which means that these are areas that by definition belong to the public. And there are so many tracks. So if you are in, say, the Western Ghats, The Western Ghats are a long range of mountains, and wherever you are, in any state, you could go on treks or walk up on the mountains. Obviously, the land holdings in India are so small that, to give access, what are you going to give access to? So it’s slightly different. But if you go to any village, it’s like that, where people are actually in what we call ‘Gouthans’, which means the farm areas are different and the houses are in one place. They are all interconnected. You never have fencing there. So it’s only in an urban set-up, because of security reasons and because of a lot of our own mental issues, that such things happen. But I definitely feel that we must, as citizens of wherever we are, encourage our governments and, in fact, force the governments to create public, open public spaces, which are parks that anybody can walk in. But I think the Protected Area Network is also something that belongs to the people, and we get so many ecosystem services from there: temperature regulation, soil pollination, and seed dispersal. So we must get all those things and say that “You and I are surviving because we are getting something free of charge from the environment, from the ocean.” Do we know that the ocean actually generates much more oxygen than all the forests on land do? So when you start reading, when you start spending time there, and when you start talking to people, you automatically start feeling far more wanted on this planet than you really are right now.

AB: Lovely. Now, the other thing I want to ask you is, I’ve seen in the UK sometimes, that with nature therapy and environmental conservation therapy, they are getting into things like rewilding; but people are doing nature therapy, they’re organising nature therapy in the same things, that they [do] work successfully. Have you seen that in different places of the world?

Dr AA: Yeah, I know a lot of people who are involved in the rewilding work in Europe. So see, rewilding is happening because the protected land is just 1%. In India, say, the Protected Area Network covers 5% of the country. India is a very big country—35 lakh people. So 350,000 km², right? Of that, 5% is protected. And then there is the forest cover, which is about 21% of the country, which means one-fifth. So here we still have the rewilding definition, which will change in India because we still have a lot of wildernesses and wild areas, but they may not have the same number of species that will exist inside that 5% of protected area.

AB: Yes, absolutely.

Dr AA: Almost three, four of our forests are areas where a different kind of rewilding can be done, where some degraded forest can be brought back. There is fragmentation, there is forest, there is forest loss, there is forest degradation. So these areas have to come back. And so many organisations in the country are working towards that. Lot of villagers also realise now that you can only do this much with the government. If you want to go beyond that, then you will have to start working in community lands, the lands that belong to the people. And so in the northeast, for instance, which is Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Megalaya, where people on their own are going to the government and are saying that the area that belongs to them, they want that to be declared as a community reserve. So there are so many cases in India where communities are actually telling the government that, “Just us alone will not be able to protect a particular species.” So it could be for a certain species of bird that is not found anywhere else. It is only that area. So the community has gone and said, “We want this area to be protected” because they know that if that gets protected, they have this unique attribute, more people will come there, it will help their livelihoods as well.

AB: Okay. And any sort of guidelines or ethical considerations that you’d recommend to people when they’re doing nature therapy.

Dr AA: So, in my head, nature therapy means that you spend some time in nature and are conscious of the particular moments that you spend there. So, as I said, it could be a walk that you take every day. It could be a jog or just a run through that kind of environment. So I think ethical considerations are that, obviously, all you can bring back from nature are— memories, not anything and everything you like. So people like to pick up a certain thing that they find in a wild area, which should not be done, because everything on Earth that exists has a role to play. Just because you are fond of something and you say, I want this in my house, then there is a problem, because in the place where that thing is found, some organism is still using that thing even after that particular thing dies. I think the only ethical consideration will be to bring back memories, not anything physical. Whatever is found in the wild should be enjoyed in the wild. It could be in a garden, too. It doesn’t matter. Just because you find some flowers there; [don’t] just pluck them and bring them home. So that’s something… That on the ethical side, I think you must completely immerse yourself in, but not bring back anything.

AB: Okay, then I have another question for you. What about wood? We all use wood in our houses.

Dr AA: Yeah, but if it is cut in a legal manner… There are woods that are chopped, and there is no certificate available. So if it is from government-owned coupes, which means there are these stocks that are officially cut down so that we can use them. But anyway, we must use less wood as we move because there will not be much left. And already there is so much depletion of the forest because of the demand for wood, and the demand has gone down. Technology has come to the rescue, and new things have been designed. A lot of us are now using plywood, which is not hardwood. So they could be used, or they could be waste coming out of the saw. The sawdust itself can be packed and created. So a lot of people are consciously making those decisions. I think once you fall in love with nature, nature will tell you what to do.

AB: Absolutely. So now tell me about that. Tell me more ways that you’ve seen people through nature therapy, starting to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.

Dr AA: So I think once you start connecting with nature, for instance, just think about the fact that… So, I’m a diver as well. I go diving in many areas across the world, and I meet people from all over the world. And I know that so many of them were consuming fish when they grew up because their family was. But since they’ve started diving, they’ve started reducing the amount of fish that they eat. Also, they’ve become conscious. And they are looking at the calendars, and there are such websites where they tell you that this time of the year you should refrain from having these fish because they are breeding. For instance, I will never eat salmon in India because they are not found here. They come all the way from Alaska or up in Canada, and it travels so much in the plane… The amount of petrol and fuel that gets used for transporting food [is staggering]. So once you start becoming one with nature, you will start using local things much more. You will go to the artisans and buy local stuff, which means you will say, “Okay, rather than buying silk, which is actually killing silkworms, let me go and buy a particular kind of a weave, which is hand woven, which will help the livelihoods of the communities who are doing this, so they will have a better life. And I will not use any chemicals. And if you look around, when I was growing up, when I was a child, I saw less consciousness about nature than I see now…

AB: Yeah, the younger generation is very switched on about it…

Dr AA: But that’s because their parents have realised it and exposed them to it. Plus, our education systems have also realised. And see, we don’t care for what is there in large numbers when we start destroying things. And once things go from rare to threatened to endangered, that’s when we start doing something about them. And I’ve seen the choices of the entire family change. People have become vegans. So those things, I have been seeing many, many such things.

AB: So now tell me, do you think, given all the things you’re saying, can individuals and communities actually advocate for the inclusion of nature therapy in public policies or in wellness policies?

Dr AA: Definitely, it should be done. I know of some NGOs that are now working in villages, and as I told you, villages are still around the forest area. So they are already exposed to nature. But in their agenda, in their mandate, they are looking at psychological health; they are looking at well-being as an important component that they actually want to understand. And in fact, in our organisation, the Wildlife Conservation Trust, we have social psychologists, three of them now, who actually go out and talk to different constituencies to understand the affinity of certain constituencies, which could be a villager. What does the villager think of forests? What is nature for that villager? What is nature for a forest guard? What is nature for a city goer? What is nature for a conservationist? Everybody will have their own definition, right? So to understand that affinity and how that has an impact on psychological health. If you are jittery, if you feel angry all the time, if you feel mentally stressed. And when we are in an urban setting or wherever we are working, you can make other people’s lives very difficult because we still live in a family. So your stress gets transferred to someone else. So there is a cascading effect. So a lot of organisations are now looking at mental health and nature therapy. They don’t call it ‘nature therapy,’ but they will always take their teams out. So whenever there is a bonding exercise in the corporate world, they will go largely to a place that is green. People have realised, and I think going forward, that when we stop having answers to the problems that we create, we have a habit… So we have created temples and churches, and we go to God because we don’t understand [what’s happening]. So when we don’t understand something, we go and talk to something that is abstract, but we think it is not. Similarly, there is a huge and increasing proportion of people who are now trying to find solace in nature. So this has started now, because people realise that God is a one way traffic. You go there, you talk to them and then, if something happens as per your liking, you put it in this bracket. Otherwise you say, maybe I have not done enough with nature. It’s far more real where you really go and you feel like a child and you will have no inhibitions, you will not be judged. That’s the most important thing. And that’s why people are feeling and therefore they’re going to nature. And unfortunately, because nature is not easily accessible, it’s not so accessible— people really travel a lot.

AB: So, Dr Andheria, tell me, as a leader in the world of conservation— what do you do or what can be done to raise awareness about the importance of nature therapy and its impact on the well being and how can this be used to drive change in society?

Dr AA: I would recommend education at an early age. So nature therapy, or you can call it anything—connection with nature—has to be built when the mind is still not rigid. And so I think it should definitely be part of the curriculum. Classroom sessions that happen outside are a great thing. And in fact, there is a term called nature-deficit disorder. And a lot of children who are never exposed to nature are actually going through that. And there have been experiments done by scientists, and they’ve taken two cohorts and exposed a bunch of children to education outside. So they’ve taken them out of class. The classroom has really opened up, and they’re sitting out in the garden. And then they’ve seen that people who have been exposed to nature have higher self-esteem. They have a better problem-solving capacity. Their behaviour in the class and the amount of attention that they can give to the lecture have also gone up. And this has been done in a scientific, unbiased manner. And just because I think kids have to be exposed to nature doesn’t mean that people our age have missed the bus. So as an organisation, we recommend people go. And I’m also on the governing council of the Bombay Natural History Society. So we have a conservation education centre, and a lot of people, including grownups from all over the city, come on walks during the monsoon. It could be a butterfly walk during the monsoon. It could be a certain species that comes at a certain time of the year. And so this is being done to engage adults. If there are adults who are listening to us, then they should make sure that on their trips— they could go to a city for a vacation, but try and take those vacations to the wilderness. Go to Masai Mara. Go to Yellowstone National Park. Go to Corbett Tiger Reserve. Go to Kamchatka. And if you can’t travel so far, I’m sure there are places around your cities where you should go. And there’s one important thing that I’ve seen and heard from so many families who take such vacations together. They say that there is nothing more heartwarming or connecting within the family than those family vacations where they go as a family into nature. Because when you go to a city, people go and do their own things; they’ll say, “I want to go shopping.” So then some people will love to go shopping, and somebody will go to the casino. So even though it’s a vacation, the family is not together. But when they go into nature, where there is no access to other things and you can’t even have access to your mobile network in some places, it is the best time for fathers and teenagers to spend time together.

AB: Yeah, because in building the connection with nature you build a connection with each other, which is very powerful. So thank you for that. At the end of every session we do a rapid fire to summarise the session. So very quickly, name one nature therapy or nature related practice that you’ve personally found very impactful for your wellbeing, 

Dr AA: I don’t own an umbrella and I live in Bombay where there’s been inches of rain all my life and I love getting wet. So wherever I go, just being in the rain is a great therapy for me. 

AB: Wonderful. One way we can all get closer to nature today.

Dr AA: One way is: for every breath you take, count the number of breaths you take in ten minutes and you will know how dependent you are on nature. All of the oxygen that comes is free of cost. Because somebody in nature is generating it.

AB: One key message or piece of advice that you’d like to leave my listeners with.

Dr AA: I just want them to feel that no matter what age they are, they are still children in front of nature, and they must give in. And nature will open up and respect every life form. Don’t go by size and shape. Size doesn’t matter. You realise that in the jungle, elephants are considered formidable. But if you weigh all the ants and termites found in the jungle, they will outweigh all mammals and all vertebrates that are found in that jungle. So size doesn’t matter. And therefore, automatically, you will become humble when you understand.

AB: Thank you. Thank you so much Dr Anish Andheria, for that wonderful chat and for taking the time to be here with us today.

And to my listeners, I hope you learned something new, and I hope we’ve left you with a happier, healthier outlook to life. And if you enjoyed this, please do press like and please invite your friends and family to subscribe to it. And most of all, I would love to hear from you. So, any questions, any topic, suggestions, any comments, please send me an email on: Thank you for being here today and I’ll see you next week.