Nina Smiley, director of Mindfulness Programming at Mohonk Mountain House, has long worked to help people access the benefits of nature and mindfulness. After graduating from Vassar College and earning a doctoral degree in psychology from Princeton University, Smiley taught psychology at the University of Maryland and directed public relations at the American Psychological Association. She has studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center; Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society; and others. Passionate about sharing insights on meditation and wellness, Smiley is the co-author of The Three-Minute Meditator and Mindfulness in Nature. She is also on the advisory board of the Breath-Body-Mind Foundation. Here, she shares how nature and breathing deeply helps stay centered in day-to-day life.
What are your favorite things to do to maintain your personal wellbeing?
Being in nature is one of my favorite activities! I love being outdoors, breathing gently and fully, and centering within. When I’m outdoors on a trail aware of being fully present in the natural world, I feel a sense of calmness and spaciousness. A wonderful quote from Lao Tzu often comes to mind, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
What is your favorite healthy food, and do you have a favorite way of preparing it?
I love roasting vegetables because I feel connected to the bounty of the earth as I choose and prepare my selections—and there are so many options. Carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes, beets, winter squash, onions…I choose vegetables for their flavors and colors, cut them up, mix in some olive oil, salt to taste, and pop them in a 425-degree oven for 20 minutes. Then stir and continue to roast until they’re browned. It’s easy, delicious, delightful, and healthy.
What person in wellness do you most admire and why?
Susie Ellis is a guiding light in the current world of wellness. Founder of the Global Wellness Institute, she’s a remarkable person and a visionary whose clear thinking about needs and issues has created a community to bring people together to support wellness around the world. I’m proud to be part of these efforts.
What is the best piece of wellness advice you have ever received and from whom?
I’ve been working and playing with mindfulness meditation for many years and a key insight from my teachers has been that each moment is a choice. Mindfulness is being present in the moment in a gentle nonjudgmental way, and this invites me to understand that I can choose wellbeing of body, mind, and spirit one moment at a time, independent of any choice that has gone before. That insight deeply supports self-compassion and opportunity for growth.
What is your idea of balanced healthy happiness?
For me, balanced healthy happiness includes body, mind, and spirit, and it’s a dynamic ongoing process and constantly evolving. It’s the opportunity in each moment to clear the mind, calm the body, and return to my center with a sense of spaciousness that invites clarity, deepens perspective, and enhances my ability to make choices for wellbeing.
Do you have a secret health or wellness tip you would like to share?
It’s an obvious secret, and I can never say it enough. The tip is “Remember to breathe!” Taking a full gentle breath in, and letting a full gentle breath out, can help reduce stress and is available to us in each moment.
What is your go-to for de-stressing?
I go outdoors to be in nature, and I call upon the senses one at a time. I begin by closing my eyes and experiencing the sense of touch as I notice the sensation of fresh air on the skin. I become aware of the sense of smell, and I take in the sounds that surround me. When I open my eyes, I invite myself to see with new eyes, without a filter of thought. I notice the colors, shapes, and textures, of the natural world, and it’s almost as if the channel has changed and colors are brighter, shapes are more distinct, textures are more visible. This process of deepening awareness takes me outside of stress as I connect with the natural world in a deeper way. I feel a sense of spaciousness that nurtures me and provides a more balanced perspective.
What aspect of your wellbeing do you struggle with the most, or would most like to improve?
I tend to be a night owl and often stay up really late, leading to sleep deprivation. I’m learning to begin relaxing earlier for bedtime and stop trying to fit one more thing in at the end of the day. Mindfulness is helping me realize that when I hear myself say, “Well, I’ll just…” it’s a cue to take a breath and stop trying to be productive.
What wellness-related books or authors do you recommend, and why?
Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Sylvia Boorstein are some of my favorite authors of books on mindfulness meditation. Relating mindfulness to real life is a strength of these writers and also an inspiration.
How do you celebrate small victories?
I celebrate small victories by being aware of them. Often when there’s a small victory, even if it’s wonderful, we can be so busy that we let it fly by. Mindfulness invites me to take a moment to breathe, name it for myself, and feel happy. Small moments of happiness increase my ability to understand that I don’t have to wait for big successes to feel good about myself. These are moments of self-care!
What brings you joy?
Very simply, it brings me joy to connect with people. I think there’s a craving for connection and community that’s grown exponentially in today’s world. The intentional social distancing from Covid and the unintended distancing of having so many conversations online have led to a sense of isolation. There’s something profoundly important about making eye contact, smiling, feeling a shared moment and a shared reality in everyday life.