Posted by: James Wapotich | February 3, 2012

Trail Quest: Pathways to Healing

There are a number of classes available through Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education Program or Adult Ed that make use of the trails and open spaces in around and Santa Barbara. In fact when you think about it we are literally surrounded by an abundance of natural places that we can visit locally.

And yet how often do we avail ourselves of that abundance? Consider for a moment how much time you actually spend each day or each week outdoors, and how much of that is just moving from one indoor location to another? And when we are outside how much of that time is spent in nature?

Studies have shown that simply going for a walk outdoors can reduce stress and that spending time in nature can help “reset” us internally and even energize us. In many ways this is the essence of the Nature, Hiking and Self-Healing class offered through Adult Ed.

Elwood Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Students from the class hike along the bluffs at Elwood

The class was created by Paula Sandefur in 1993, who designed the class as a reflection of two of her main interests, being outdoors and self-healing. Her book, Nature, Hiking and Self-Healing includes a series of meditative exercises that one can do and a description of 65 local hikes that are drawn from her experience leading the class; the book is available at local bookstores such as Chaucer’s and Paradise Found.

When Paula Sandefur moved to Hawaii in 2004 she invited Gaelyn Chambers, who had been a regular participant in the class almost since the beginning, to start teaching the class. Ms. Chambers has been teaching the class ever since.

The class takes place on our local trails and the week I visited the beginner’s class we hiked at the Elwood open space stopping at both the beach and the Coronado Butterfly Preserve. The hike had a relaxed pace and the people in the class were friendly and engaging and many had taken the class for a number of years. In talking with the other students I often heard similar reasons for taking the class. It’s an opportunity to get outdoors and get some exercise, a way to learn about new places and trails locally, and a chance to connect with friends and meet new people.

Elwood Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Student participating in the group discussion

As Ms. Chambers shared, “…students look forward to the class because they’re with their peers, and they love being out in nature and it’s something that some of them wouldn’t do on their own.” Ms. Chambers does a good job of providing a format so that people can gather and participate in the class, while at the same time offering space so that people can have their own experience.

The class follows a straight forward format of meeting at the trailhead, walking 5-10 minutes and then stopping to do a short series of warm up exercises and then continuing the walk for another hour. At the midway point there is a short group discussion around a specific topic. Topics are suggested by the class at the beginning of the semester and can include for example: gratitude, forgiveness, dealing with change and listening. The discussion is then followed by a short meditation designed to help one focus on their breath and then focuses on something in the natural environment like the sound of running water or waves, or on the scene in front on oneself.

Hiking often has a way of bringing our awareness to where we are right now in our lives, how we are feeling physically, what has our focus and how we interpret new experiences. As Ms. Chambers pointed out, “People open up when they’re walking. Your emotions are moving when you’re walking.”

Elwood Santa Barbara Hike Trail

There can be something powerful about immersing oneself in nature and engaging in meditation or reflection even for a few moments. It can be said that all of life is woven together, all actions are ultimately interconnected and yet in our modern world it is easy to see our self as separate and isolated. Much of the healing that can come from the natural world is feeling a sense of belonging and seeing that the fabric our lives is part of a larger tapestry. It is in that context that the challenges we face are often not only seen in their true proportion but also don’t seem so unsurmountable.

When I visited the class I was looking for the healing element, thinking that it would somehow be the focus and what I learned was the foundation of health is well being. And that well being is actually our natural state and can be realized through something as simple as walking outdoors with a group of friends.

Or as Ms. Chambers put it, “Students feel like they’re doing something good for themselves. That they’re contributing to their welfare by being out there walking. And it’s much easier to walk when you have someone else walking with you.”

Monarch Butterfly Elwood Coronado Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Monarchs at the Coronado Preserve

The next session of Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education Program runs April through June and there are typically three Nature, Hiking and Self-Healing classes offered. Two beginner’s classes, one on Tuesdays and the other on Fridays, plus an intermediate class that meets on Thursdays which offers more vigorous hiking. Classes are 2.5 hours long and held in the mornings. For more information visit

If you’re interested in seeing the Monarch Butterflies at the Coronado Preserve the best times to visit are between November and February, on days when it’s sunny and warm as the butterflies are most active.

This article appeared in Section A of the February 3, 2012 Santa Barbara News-Press.

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