The official definition of a ‘Tree Hugger’ is that of an environmental campaigner and the practice of embracing a tree in an attempt to prevent it from being felled. But more generally it is often used as a derogatory slang term to ridicule anyone who seeks fulfilment outside of the modern, civilised world. You know, those Hippies!


Well, I will confess I am an unashamed Hippie in the making. But before I get to why we have the whole ‘Tree Hugging’ idea completely wrong, I want to briefly tell you how I got to hugging trees myself. It all begins with surviving one of the worst storms of my life.

"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
― William Shakespeare

Surviving Being Shipwrecked

You see, at the end of 2018 after suffering years of depression, along with the fall out and struggles I had been having with cervical degenerative disc disease (the Cervicogenic headaches are the worst) I was at my wits end. After being honest with myself that I wasn’t winning the battle against my depression — in fact just finally acknowledging that I was depressed to begin with — I began my healing journey. First this took the shape of the typical approach to getting better, seeking out the right medical professionals and therapists.


By mid 2019 and thanks to the right medication I was able to function somewhat better. Even though things were better it was a little to late in respect to my marriage. Even though we now knew why I had been struggling for the past several years, the damage was done, and my now ex-wife asked for a divorce. I was devastated. A two decade relationship, with two amazing boys had come to an end. However, I wasn’t going to let this bump in the road derail my journey back to health, so I made the most difficult decision of my life: I had to leave my boys in South Africa and go in search for a way back to myself. I also realised that if I wanted to keep the lifestyle my boys had become accustomed too, I needed to head out to greener pastures. You see, my boys have had a life so different to my own childhood. My kids live in a great neighbourhood in Johannesburg, and go to private schools. I on the other hand barely survived government housing, near poverty, bullying, gangs on the street, and an abusive alcoholic Mother. I vowed when I had my boys I would do what ever I could to ensure they never had to endure the trauma I had as a child.

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    New Wind in My Sails

    So off I went. First to Thailand, where my good friend and owner of Tree Roots Retreat Aaron graciously offered me a place to stay during my healing journey. This was the first stage of embodying my inner Hippie. For the first time in the longest time, I found myself consistently embedded in the natural world. Tree Roots Retreat is in Rayong, a couple of hours drive from Bangkok, nestled in a small fishing village. The retreats borders are surrounded by wild jungles, and it’s within walking distance to the beach. The whole experience of being there is so far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. As each week went by, I walked everywhere barefoot, taking in the natural world through all my senses, and was feeling better for it.

    Sailing into a New Port

    In the beginning of 2020 I was back on the road again teaching martial arts. The bills had to be paid after all. I then found myself on the Isle of Man during some down time visiting my partner. Out of nowhere Covid hit, and I was stranded on the island, unable to travel and get back to Thailand. The Isle of Man is yet another beautiful part of the world, surrounded by natural wonders. High cliffs, beautiful glens, rolling green sheep filled hills and shingle beaches. Again, and in part because of my partners love of nature, and that I didn’t have much else to do, we found ourselves mostly outdoors. It was summer too, which made going out even more accessible. We went to every corner of the island, visiting Celtic and Viking ruins, walking in the country side, snorkelling in the sea, and absorbing every aspect of the beautiful glens. As each day passed, I felt my anxiety, something I had been overtaken by for the longest time slowly melt away. Mentally I continued to feel better too.


    As the consummate researcher that I am, I began to delve into what science had to say about the natural world and its connection to improving the health of the human animal. I have always known intuitively that being in nature is good for you, and as most of us report, I have always felt better for my time outdoors. In fact, it was the only time I ever felt happy as a kid, spending school holidays at my Aunt’s small holding in the African bush. I was surprised to find that over the past while science had caught up to those intuitions. Rather than it simply being ‘old wives tales’ now research was convincingly showing how incredibly important it was for each of us to reconnect with our ancient roots, the natural world. As I noted in a previous article on this blog, Grounding the Embodied Warrior experience, if we measured all of the recorded history of planet Earth on a timeline of a year, what we consider the modern world accounts for 1-second. For the rest of our time as human animals on this planet we lived and were deeply connected to the natural world.

    Back to those Tree Huggers

    Let’s return to those tree huggers. It turns out that we have a symbiotic relationship with trees, much like we do with the rest of the natural world. For example when you are walking among trees in a forest you are literally bathing and breathing in terpenes which they release. Terpenes which are the largest group of phytochemicals is bioactive plant matter found in forest air. Researchers have now found that terpenes strengthen important aspects of the human immune system. For example a day spent in the woods results in 40 percent increase in natural killer cells responsible for rendering viruses in the body harmless in a person’s blood.


    It turns out that the limbic system in our brain also decodes and responds to terpenes, and in turn releases neurotransmitters and hormones that benefit our health. Terpenes also promote the formation of endogenous substances that protect the heart. In addition a walk in a forest leads to a significant increase in a substance called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA has shown to be therapeutically effective against the severe form of depression called major depressive disorder. Time in nature has also shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of our autonomic nervous system designed to help us find internal balance, calming us down, and key to surviving unhealthy stress.


    Here’s another interesting fact: tree bark is actually one of the richest sources of terpenes. So maybe those ‘Tree Huggers’ are not so nuts after all.


We Are the World

    What fascinates me about all of this is that tree terpenes, as are many other plant substances not new to our bodies. In other words our bodies know what to do with them. It is clear then that we have as human animals not evolved separate to this planet, but along with it in such a way that we are able to interact with the network of life. As such we are coevolved. It’s no surprise then that my time in nature had such a profound positive effect on my entire body and my overall health. I had in a real sense come home. I had rewilded myself, while allowing my instinct code to unlock once more. These experiences, along with my movement practice, breath work, inner state training, psychological work, and mindfulness practice forms an integral part of the Embodied Warrior Training program I have created. 


    We Are Looking for Fulfilment in

    the Wrong Place

Its become clear to me that often our hopes for fulfilment and flourishing is left as prayers on the alter of modernity. We now have people speaking about merging our selves with machines and artificial intelligence. The age of the cyborg is no longer a fantasy. I am of the belief that no amount of more technology in any of its guises and uses will ever answer our constant desire to be happy. Its clear from those around us that more affluence, comfort, technology, advances in medicine and the psychological sciences outside of making life somewhat easier, hasn’t become the gods of happiness we once thought they would. People seem more unhappier than ever and there is a meaning crisis all around us.


    Maybe we have been looking for the answers to our happiness in all the wrong places. Maybe its right in front of us, right there all along and our ancestors were privy to this knowledge. While its not possible for most of us in the modern world to live like our ancestors once did, we can purposively reengage with the world as they once did, and in doing so open the door unlocking our instinct code. We need to rewild ourselves in the ways of our ancestors.


    To this end I am taking on a new research and academic journey where I will be studying how we can bring the natural world back into our modern lives in such a way that we can all find the fulfilment we so desperately seek. And yes this includes hugging an occasional tree.

    Interested in joining me?


    Find out more about my {Instinct Code} Retreat  in Thailand.


    • My work explores the intersection between instinct, embodiment and optimal human flourishing. I believe the ability to break free from feeling anxious, fragmented and the struggle to find meaning so many of us are experiencing in modern life — is only possible through reconnecting with the embodied wisdom of our ancestors, underpinned by the latest scientific research in optimal human flourishing. At the heart of what I teach is that through positively embracing our instincts we can unlock our natural flow in life. The outcome: showing up in life on your own terms, with poise, focus, and clarity.

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