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Nature Therapy for People of Color in Traumatic Jobs

Raynelle Rino, the founder of Rino Consulting Solutions, taps into the therapeutic effects of nature, specifically for people of color who work emotionally taxing jobs

Raynelle Rino (Scott Hoad/@rockwellcreative)

Around 3 P.M. one Friday, I pulled up to Sibley Volcanic Preserve, a once active volcano and former quarry in Berkeley, California, for a group hike. We’d been asked to prepare for a beginner-level hike—good walking shoes, water, sun protection. At times hiking in the Bay Area seems like a competitive experience, prioritizing fitness itself as self-care. But Raynelle Rino, the organizer, suggested we sit quietly for a few minutes to prepare for what she calls a “healing hike.” We were asked to bring a certain level of openness to the experience. Since I had jitters from an hour of California traffic, one too many cups of coffee, and the anxiety that comes with meeting strangers, I heeded her advice and took a few deep breaths. 

Rino, a former ecology field researcher, environmental educator, and certified professional coach, is the founder of Rino Consulting Solutions. It’s a unique mashup of professional guidance and outdoor-based therapy, offering healing hikes and leadership coaching. And she’s designed it specifically for people of color in caring professions, like therapy and teaching, whose jobs often take an emotional toll. 

“My goal is working on outdoor engagement and personal development, around the central principles of self-care, health, and wellness,” Rino says. “I approach people like, ‘Look, you do really deep work with people. How do you take care of yourself?’”

In 2016, Rino had just left her job with a San Francisco–based environmental-education nonprofit teaching urban agriculture to youth in prison. “I started going to therapy to understand why we were doing this to to young people,” Rino says. When her therapist mentioned vicarious trauma, it sounded familiar. She realized that her work with suffering young people had left her with unprocessed trauma and burnout. “When you are doing this kind of work for this community, but are also of it, there’s no rest, separation, outlet, or balance.” 

She needed to figure out ways to cope. Rino started working with a spiritual healer in addition to meeting with her therapist. She developed and co-led hikes with her spiritual adviser, but didn’t start leading her own until after the 2016 election. “When the 2016 election came, things really clicked. People were freaking out and posting [on social media] about needing space for healing,” Rino says. “So I texted friends in the vicinity and we met in the Redwoods the Friday after the election, around sunset.” 

That hike, in which the group walked in silent meditation, observing the world around them and the feelings it evoked, was the prototype for what would eventually become the healing hikes she now offers. Shortly after, she launched her company. She’s worked with therapists, nurses, local activists, people in conservation and land stewardship, a PR rep for artists and women of color, a screen printer, and hair stylists, among others. Many clients have found her through word of mouth, but this year she plans to do more outreach. 

Rino convened a small group of acquaintances for the hike at Sibley Volcanic Preserve to give me a sense of her process. I introduced myself to Eesuu, a visual artist and longtime Oakland resident; we sat on a stone wall and chatted as the other participants trickled in. 

Eventually, Rino gathered us at the trailhead. “The goal of this hike is to allow you to experience nature as a tool to help you understand what’s going on with you,” she said. “We interact with nature as metaphor, and we can treat those reactions as signs.” 

Eesuu was weighing the decision to move home to care for aging parents. Naomi, superintendent of a National Park Service historic trail, had experienced what she referred to (with some mirth) as an annus horribilis, marked by a cancer diagnosis and a divorce. She had met Rino at a conference and was excited to experience the outdoors as mindfulness practice. Zotunde, an executive at an Oakland nonprofit, learned about the hikes and was immediately interested; he’d been having trouble focusing. Paloma, a small-business owner and friend of Rino’s, was the only one who’d been on a previous hike. She had noticed some restless energy and was hoping to reground herself. 

We formed a circle under a tree a few hundred feet past the trailhead. Rino pulled out a prayer bundle: a shallow wooden bowl with a stub of sage and some assorted crystals. She invoked the four cardinal directions, gesturing toward each in turn and associating each direction with a different element. Then we spoke in turn about our goals for this hike. Each of our struggles surfaced quickly. Our openness itself felt like a sacred offering.

Healing hikes and the other services Rino provides are situated somewhere between wilderness therapy, mindfulness practice, and corporate team building. A lot of her work supports professionals of color working to build their communities. But that work often comes at a cost. Rino experienced burnout and found that she could not continue working to help others until she took care of herself. She found that other people needed ways to manage vicarious trauma to continue doing healing work. 

The hikes are unique because they establish a formal practice for people in nature. Rino fosters a culture of introspection, of silent walking, associating different natural features—roots, shadows, smells, whatever images and sensations linger—with different feelings we might be having. Some crave energy, others grounding or flexibility. For example, you might interpret the bark shedding from eucalyptus trees as a reminder of the need to connect with an inner self and focus less on external validation. 

Rino asked us to observe our surroundings carefully and take note of our reactions. What were we drawn to? What connections were we making? By taking the things we notice seriously, we can start to associate them with conflicts in our own lives. Rino’s clients often come to surprising, action-oriented conclusions about their own needs during this process. 

Rino lit the sage. As she passed it in loops around me, I closed my eyes and was transported to childhood. My family is nominally Hindu; I remembered the flicker of a sacred fire, feeding it ghee and other offerings as a priest chanted in Sanskrit. I opened my eyes to watch Rino coax the smoke with a cupped hand toward Paloma, Naomi, Zotunde, and Eesuu. Lots of hikers passed by with their dogs, but we were a remarkably focused group. 

We started hiking. As we walked, I started to notice my lack of balance, the steep slopes underfoot, and the corrective postures I took. Since I usually have my bag slung over my left shoulder, I moved it over to my right to see how that felt. I paid close attention to the dappled light, sun filtering patchy to the dank, cool space under the trees. As we crossed the tree line into a dry, grassy section, I noticed the smooth curve between the two regions, the boundary between shade and sun, dark and light. 

In part, these hikes allow people of color to physically and emotionally access ways of being in nature. According to a 2011 survey, around 80 percent of national parkgoers are white. Though Sibley is free to use and easier to access than most national parks, I did notice that most people there were also overwhelmingly white. More than representation though, Rino encouraged us to see our relationship with the outdoors differently. Nature can tell us things about ourselves, she said, and we can be mindful of the thoughts that arise out here. This is a shift from the concept that the outdoors is there solely for relaxation and stress relief, though it’s well-established that spending time in nature has therapeutic value. It also can help us process trauma and make life decisions. 

Jeff Rose, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah, studies the intersections of political identity and the outdoors. When it comes to outdoor therapy for people of color, Rose agrees with Rino that the issue is bigger than representation. “The outdoors is positioned as a ‘white space,’” Rose says, which becomes an issue when nonwhite people are invited to join. This neglects the obvious fact that people of color also have varied and deep relationships with nature. Rino’s service is different in this way. Instead of approaching outdoor therapy as a boon for people of color who have otherwise had little to no relationship with nature, she thinks of the healing hikes as an opportunity to remind her clients that this is not the case.

Toward the end of our hike, we made it to the crest of a ridge and paused. The slopes were steep, wrinkled, and dry. We could see labyrinths below, two coiled paths carved into the dry earth. We hiked down toward them in silence. Rino instructed us to follow her around the larger of the two when we felt ready. A small pile of rocks with various offerings and old notes teetered in the center. That was where we were headed. Labyrinths require trust that the path will lead us where we want to go. I noticed my acute frustration every time the path wound close to the center and swung back outward. But eventually we made it. We were instructed to imagine whatever negative energy we wished to let go pass through our bodies, down through our arms, and out through our palms. Rino poured lavender-scented water over our hands, and as we released it, we thanked the earth for taking what we wanted to discard. We each made some final comments. I recognized the balance as a reminder to see light even in dark places, because in our relationships and small kindnesses, it’s still there. 

Paloma was tearful, expressing her gratitude for the experience, the connection she felt to our group, and the people who had supported her as she struggled to succeed in business. “I noticed when a tree was fallen, the other trees were holding it,” she said. “Just like the community.” 

Filed To: NatureMindfulness
Lead Photo: Scott Hoad/@rockwellcreative
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