Mother Nature's therapeutic touch at Kalu Yala

Kalu Yala welcomes visitors and interns with a scenic, yet challenging hike up and down the valley. (Photos by Cassie Majewski/Medill)

By Cassie Majewski

Lush jungle valleys, tranquil rivers, and vibrant flowers stimulate your senses and soothe your spirit here. Hoping to maximize the benefits of time spent in nature, a group of interns in Panama are investigating the possibility of a new model for a holistic mental health approach.

The interns live at the eco-town and research institute of Kalu Yala, an isolated community located about 50 miles outside of Panama City and accessible only by a dirt road for the last two miles out of the small town of San Miguel.

For 10 weeks at a time, groups of anywhere from 50-100 interns from all over the globe travel to Panama to work in one of 13 internship programs that include agriculture, farm-to-table culinary, design thinking, public health and wellness, recreation, and business.

“We’re outside all the time, so environmentally and spiritually you’re ... touching nature,” said Samantha Picar, 25, who traveled from Australia for Kalu Yala’s most recent semester. During her time, Picar investigated the healing effects of a place such as Kalu Yala, working as a public health and wellness intern.

Nature has a significant impact on the six dimensions of wellness, she said. The dimensions encompass social, occupational, spiritual, physical, intellectual, and emotional — a model developed by Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Health and Wellness Institute. “All those dimensions exist here,” Picar said. “We have to make people feel like they can access them all.”

Picar sees Kalu Yala as a blueprint for holistic wellness facilities in Australia, mainly to deal with PTSD. “Economically there’s a real push to solve that problem because its costing them so much money,” Picar noted. “Seeing something so holistic like this…people should have the option to live like this at some point.”

Harper Simpson, 21, came here as an intern in the sustainable agriculture program in the fall of 2016. During her 10 weeks at Kalu Yala, Simpson became, and continues to be, intrigued by the psychological benefits of nature. This interest helped inspire her final project for Kalu Yala — a pathway through the agriculture farm with 14 different edible plants available to sample along the way — cranberry and lemon hibiscus, among others.


Harper Simpson, a Kalu Yala alumna of the sustainable agriculture program, returned for a visit this year. 

The goal of this project was to further connect interns with nature and their food source. Simpson described nature’s capacity to empower individuals through engagement with land. “It's really amazing that we can be empowering people to find a life they're really proud of, by feeling empowered by the work that they're doing to improve the environment,” Simpson said. “It’s a dual relationship between the environment and people. Helping the environment helps us.”

In a study at Stanford University on the effects of “nature walks” researchers found that individuals who took a 50-minute walk in a natural environment experienced more emotional benefits than those who took the same walk in a more urban environment. Benefits included decreased anxiety and decreased rumination, which is a distinct symptom of depression.

A 2016 National Institute of Environmental Health Services study investigating the effect of “greenness” on women’s mortality rates concluded that increased exposure to green vegetation correlates with decreased mortality rates among women. While this trend could transcend from many various factors, the study reported, “The largest proportion of medication was doctor-diagnosed depression or antidepressant use.” In other words, the mental health change that arose from increased exposure to greenness was found to be the most influential factor on mortality rates in participants. Many similar studies have confirmed the positive effects of nature on human cognition and mood.

Kalu Yala offers the perfect living laboratory for immersing in nature. Outside the relentlessly damp rainy season, Kalu Yala is a tropical paradise. Staff and interns sleep in hammocks hanging from ranchos or tents on platforms. So far, there exists only one single structure that is enclosed by four walls. Living in Kalu Yala means living outside. Kalu Yalaans have easy and extensive access to a natural environment, where just going to meals or for a swim in the river amounts to a “nature walk.”


Colorful and edible plants line every walk through the farm at Kalu Yala.

One way that interns frequently utilize their environment to bolster mental health is with mindfulness sessions and guided meditation. While the interns are fortunate enough to be able to meditate with nature as a soundtrack and studio, the leader of this session, Giovanna Mendieta, advised using audio resources to achieve a similar effect at home.

Listen to a meditation session guided by Giovanna Mendieta, a wellness staff member at Kalu Yala:

But the tropical jungle conditions of Kalu Yala cannot easily be replicated. Is it possible to maintain a sense of mindfulness in a more urban environment? Jenna Perlstein, 21, has spent many years of her life working towards just that. Perlstein recently graduated from Northwestern University as a Theatre and Gender & Sexuality Studies double major, and became a certified yoga teacher while still an undergraduate. She began practicing yoga at 16, and has successfully held a daily practice since she became a teacher.

“The first thing is carving out time, and the second thing is making that time feel authentic. Sometimes I get one and not the other,” Perlstein said. As a college student in a relatively urbanized town there are different challenges to achieve mindfulness.

One of Perlstein’s main struggles as she developed her practice was facing publicity. “I think it’s scary, especially with Instagram and wellness being so trendy and cool,” Perlstein said. “But there are no rules at all ... there’s no way to do a home yoga practice correctly. Start small and make minutes count. Three minutes to sit and do a body scan or set an intention for your day? That could change your life,” Perlstein added.

In contrast to Northwestern’s surrounding college town of Evanston near Chicago, Perlstein grew up in a woodsy town outside of New York, which, she says, created a connection between her spiritual practice and nature. “It can be difficult here,” Perlstein said. “I seek out the nature wherever I go, but it definitely feels stronger when there’s more of it around you — you can feel it.”

What happens to a place—even one as remote as Kalu Yala—with growth? Founder of Kalu Yala, Jimmy Stice, has strong intention to eventually develop the site into a completely sustainable town for full-time residents. As Stice and the community push toward permanence, Kalu Yala quickly expands in infrastructure and population.

Perlstein offers an optimistic mindset for any environment. Her experience is both different and similar to that of the Kalu Yala interns, in that her mindfulness is connected to nature, but often has to work to access it. “(Yoga) is a part of my life and I’ve done it in triples, in doubles, in closets ... I just make it work. You don’t need a whole bunch of stuff, for me, to have spiritual practice.”

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