Area therapy programs use ‘nature connections’ for healing

The garden work crew at CooperRiis. (Jordan Foltz/ Mountain Xpress)

What is the draw of the garden, the chicken coop, the pasture? For many it’s a connection that can offer unseen spiritual, mental and emotional yields.

“Just being connected with nature is spiritual,” says Debbie O’Neil, managing director of at the Montford campus of CooperRiis Healing Community, a holisitc mental health program with a second location on a 97-acre farm in Mill Spring.

Many of the residents at CooperRiis are dealing with feelings of isolation, O’Neil explains, in large part due to the stigma that surrounds mental disorders. CooperRiis’ approach to healing brings residents into the surrounding community — through projects such as maintaining beehives at an off-campus location or helping the Odyssey School maintain its trails.

“I’ve had residents with whom I feel like I’ve seen a miracle happen,” O’Neil says. “I’ve asked them, ‘What do you think shifted?’ and a lot of people have told me it was that ‘it mattered whether or not I showed up and was part of my community.’”

This spring the 4-acre campus began a garden program — offering residents an opportunity to cultivate not only food but purpose as well.

“I’ve had a lot of residents come back from the garden and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that that would feel so good,’” O’Neil notes. “And [this feeling] is coming from being grounded in something bigger than ourselves— it’s a community offering.”

In addition to offering a sense of purpose, gardening is an opportunity to feel grounded by the rhythms of the growing season, says Ben Hancock, CooperRiis crew leader.

“When we suffer from emotional challenges, one of the things that we lose is rhythm in our lives — and I think that gardening is a very rhythmic process,” Hancock says. “You need to water in a rhythm, you need to plant on a rhythm, and working rhythm into our lives is a very helpful thing to becoming stronger individuals.”

Just as plants and soil can be therapeutic, so can animals, according to the staff of Operation Pegasus, a recovery program for post-traumatic stress disorder held at Razor Mountain Farm in Barnardsville. The program uses equine therapy to help veterans chart their own path to healing.

“The thing about a horse is that it’s your mirror,” says Mike Quirk, co-founder of Operation Pegasus. “If you’re stressed, the horse is stressed; if you’re calm, the horse is calm.”

Operation Pegasus director and trauma therapist Stewart Canter says the program helps patients to recognize the physical sensations in their body that occur when the memory of trauma is triggered. Patients can then learn to make a “mental map” of the sensation, Canter explains.

“By making your brain do that, you are getting access to the core of the brain that’s turning on that sensation,” he says, noting that the next step is mastering the reciprocal ability to turn the sensations off.
As patients learn to identify the physical sensations that come with PTSD, they work with the horses, who pick up on their mental state and reflect it back through attitudes and body language.

For those who are seeking a place for quiet or meditation, there are many spiritual gardens in Asheville that allow visitors to gather together or wander in as needed — including the meditation labyrinth constructed by volunteers from RiverLink and the Outdoor Industry Association next to Cotton Mill Studios in the River Arts District. The “all-spiritualities-welcome” space  has been blessed by a leaders from Christian, Jewish and Wiccan faiths.

“A labyrinth is a place where people can slow down and reflect,” notes RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin. “The river is a perfect place for that.”

For more information about CooperRiis visit To find out more about Operation Pegasus, call 712-5759. To find out more about the labyrinth garden, call RiverLink at 252-8474. 


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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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