Notes From the Jungle – The Power of the Physical Environment

It is amazing how the physical environment can influence mood, perspective and attitude. My private practice is located inside a physician’s office where I share space with several internists and pediatricians. When I first occupied the space four years ago, I tried my best to compensate for the clinical surroundings and lack of natural sunlight by softening things up a bit with a fresh coat of paint, colorful artwork, new carpet and a large, comfortable sofa with plenty of throw pillows. Despite my beautification efforts the absence of windows, artificial lighting and stale air leave me longing for the warmth of the sun and the feel of the earth beneath my feet.

I have always been sensitive to my physical surroundings, shrinking away from the bright lights, blaring telephones, frigid air conditioning and tiny cubicles that are so common in corporate America. I believe strongly in the beneficial effects of natural light, fresh air and personal space on physical and emotional health and well being. Have you ever stepped out of a busy office for a bite to eat or a short break, and noticed an immediate change in your mood? If such radical change can occur in a mere instant, imagine the effect of your physical environment on your physical and emotional health when multiplied by a minimum of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. For this reason many folks are drawn to flexible careers that offer a work at home option, where personal control over one’s physical environment is readily available.

This person-environment interplay also works in the reverse order. Have you ever noticed how your emotional state is reflected in your physical surroundings? My fiancé can always tell when I am feeling overwhelmed by looking at the condition of my desk and the interior of my automobile. Chances are, if there is chaos and commotion in my physical space I am feeling depressed, tired or overwhelmed emotionally. Reflecting back on my single days, my favorite weekends spent alone were ones where I sacrificed a social agenda in favor of housekeeping- activities devoted to restoring order and balance in my physical environment. These activities also included self care- sleep, exercise and self reflection. Environments filled with chaos, clutter and confusion often reflect a similar internal state of affairs within the folks who create them. Likewise, an atmosphere of soothing tranquility, orderliness and calm is best maintained by a person who feels the same.

Those of you who have been following my column are aware that I spent the month of August traveling through Costa Rica on a writing mission. By now you probably also concluded that hedonistic pursuits of beauty, tranquility and relaxation also factored into the mix. I traveled both coasts of the country, beginning with the Caribbean and ending with the Pacific, with a night spent in the capital city of San Jose to break up the journey. My first 4 nights on the Pacific coast were spent in the beautiful Harmony Hotel in Playa Guiones. Guiones is a small surfing village located on the outskirts of a town called Nosara in a province called Gunacaste, on the north Pacific coast. Following my stay at Harmony, I moved down the street to the more casual and laid back Harbor Reef.

So what does my solitary journey through Costa Rica have to do with the physical environment and its influence on mood, attitude and perspective? Everything! As I venture into the world of travel writing I take note of how the travel industry capitalizes on the interplay between person and environment by appealing directly to the senses. I invite you to visualize these two vastly different hotels located within 5 minutes walking distance from each other but far enough apart stylistically to be on opposite ends of the planet.

Harmony Hotel lulled me towards stillness while Harbor Reef launched me into a state of heightened energy and exploration. At Harmony Hotel I spent 4 luxurious days safely ensconced within the protective folds of a full service, high end resort. I practiced yoga each morning, mere steps away from my room at the hotel’s Healing Center. I walked the manicured paths to the hotel’s restaurant, juice bar, pool and beach. My daily needs were more than sufficiently satisfied within the confines of the hotel grounds, leaving me with little need or desire to leave the premises.

When I moved down the street to the Harbor Reef I immediately caught the vibe of a casual, laid back surfer-dude hangout. Harbor Reef and Harmony Hotel fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of ambiance and clientele. Walking the grounds of Harbor Reef shortly following my arrival, I notice how the difference between the two hotels was palpable. What each hotel lacks is also its greatest asset. A full service resort vacation at a place like Harmony Hotel is hard to beat in terms of relaxation and convenience, however dining with local ticos and staff at Harbor Reef and practicing yoga at the enchanting Nosara Yoga Institute is pretty fantastic also.

In the huge open air lobby of the Harmony Hotel, there is an immediate sense of stillness and tranquility. A slight Balinese flavor is apparent in the design of the lobby interior. I felt so safe comfortable here that my mind actually contemplated inquiring about employment opportunities at the hotel. Perhaps they need a psychologist on staff to help people cope with the alarming deficit of stress and aggravation, I pondered. Plush sofas and chairs, dark wooden tables, bamboo furniture and accessories, large ceiling fans and soothing earth tones blend naturally with the surrounding jungle. There is soft, shadowy lighting and a long retro style bamboo/wooden bar where guests can choose from an extensive list of scrumptious concoctions at happy hour.

At Harmony Hotel every whim is catered to; leaving guests with minimal need (or desire) to venture outside of this private paradise. In fact, while staying at Harmony Hotel it is easy to forget you are in Playa Guiones; the surrounding village tends to fade from consciousness. During my time at Harmony I felt as if I belonged to the tight inner circle of an exclusive private society. When I moved down the street to the nearby Harbor Reef, I felt oddly conspicuous when I returned to the Harmony for cocktails one evening. The folks I met at Harbor Reef who did the reverse commute (i.e. several days at Harbor Reef followed by several days at Harmony) seemed to disappear from the radar after checking into Harmony Hotel, never to be seen or heard from again.

Unlike Harmony Hotel, Harbor Reef is far from a full service luxury resort. However it does not claim to be, as the place travels to the beat of an entirely different drum. Harbor Reef has heart and soul; the place is incredibly casual and the staff members are always happy to mingle with the tourists and share helpful information about the local lifestyle and nightly hotspots. Unlike Harbor Reef, the staff at Harmony Hotel, although professional and polite, maintained an aura of distance and inaccessibility.

Harmony Hotel launched me into a state of total stillness, something I very much needed at the time. It was not until I transferred over to Harbor Reef and emerged from my Harmony cocoon that I ventured out into the surrounding town of Playa Guiones. Each and every morning I hiked 15 minutes through the jungle to the Nosara Yoga Institute where I practiced yoga in a tree-top studio overlooking the jungle, with the sound of howler monkeys calling out in the distance. The hike itself is a mystical, almost eerie experience. I felt as if I were the only person on earth, the silence was all encompassing, and words alone cannot possibly capture the beauty of the tiny slivers of sunlight I saw dancing amidst the dark shadows of the jungle. I felt as if I stepped inside the pages of a child’s fairytale and stumbled upon an enchanted forest. Sorry Charleston, but this surely beat practicing yoga at a strip mall studio. Had I not ventured outside the protective cocoon of the Harmony Hotel, I would have missed this incredible experience. These days when I practice yoga, I close my eyes and imagine myself back at that tree top studio in Guiones, surrounded by the beauty of the jungle.

How does your physical environment work for you? Is it time to stir things up a bit with some form of change, however subtle? Change to your physical environment can be as simple as re-arranging your bedroom furniture or moving your desk from wall to one another, adding some plants or softening the lighting in your home office. Change can involve travel to another culture to expand your horizons and shift your perspective, or a more radical shift like a career transition or relocation to a new city. Regardless of whether the environmental change is subtle or life altering, the purpose is to maximize your physical and emotional health and well being by finding a match that works for you. Remember, there is no better time than the present to create positive change in your life.

Michael Ortiz

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