Staying Grounded As I Soar: Tips for Vibrant Health During Travel

By Dr. Tumi Johnson. Photography By Deun Ivory.

One of the names given to me soon after my birth is “Ayotokunbo,” which in Yoruba translates to “joy returned from overseas.” I was born in Evanston, Illinois to Nigerian parents and I took my first flight around the age of 3 months old, returning with my mother and father to our homeland. To the family waiting in West Africa for me, I was the joy that had come across the seas to them, in the heart-softening form of a newborn child.

So traveling began very early for me and forty years later, given my healthy dose of wanderlust and a world in which traveling is logistically easier and easier, the voyages continue.

Three and a half years ago, however, my frequency of traveling increased from an average of a couple of times a year to living on the road. This happened for a very simple but life-altering reason— I fell in love.

It was the kind of love that caused me to pack up the few things I owned (minimalism definitely helps with globe-trotting), quit my part time job, and move across the world to begin full time travel with my beloved.

Just last year, we visited over ten countries, often staying just a few days in one location before moving on to the next.  I often receive emails or Skype calls from friends and family saying “I have no idea where you are now!” and sometimes my response is “I’m not so sure myself.”  Yet despite all the jet-setting and time zone changes, my health and sense of peace and centeredness have only increased. This is in part due to some hard lessons learned through years of experience of how not to travel. It is also due to the fact that I work as medical doctor and a dancer, with a focus on holistic health. To be able to do my dance performances regularly on the road and do them well, I have to optimize feeling my best during travel. And as a doctor seeing patients and clients throughout the world, it is part of my job to know how to counsel others on how to stay well even when away from home. And I believe in walking my talk.

There are three places that I’d like to share with you that have been instrumental in my staying grounded no matter what corner of the earth I might be in, and these three places are available to you basically anywhere you go to on this planet. I will also share three self care rituals that I maintain while on the road, each ritual being inter-connected to one of the three places that I speak about.

Place #1: Nature

One of the very first things I love to do when arriving at my new destination is to beeline it to Nature. On a recent trip to Paris, that meant taking the metro straight from the airport to the Jardin du Luxembourg which is especially gorgeous in Springtime. Eight years ago, I spent a few weeks in Port-Au-Prince doing medical volunteer work just after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. I found a tree close to where I was living and spent significant time on the small patch of grass surrounding its trunk, my back pressed against the bark, finding calm in the midst of feelings of despair. Nature can be found anywhere and it is potent medicine.

The self care ritual that I love to practice in Nature is grounding, also known as earthing.

Our planet holds within its mass free circulating electrons and science has shown us that the placing our exposed skin on the surface of the Earth improves inflammation, pain, and our immune response (1). Multiple studies show that time in Nature alleviates anxiety and depression and evokes a sense of calm (2-4). On a more esoteric level, I believe that when you put your bare feet on the ground of the place in you which you are traveling, it helps you truly arrive. Your skin takes in the messages and unique topography of this new place, and those messages enter through pores, through maybe a a nick in the epidermis, through meridian lines, and expedites your ability to acclimate to your new surroundings.

Place #2: The Market

So wait— I just wrote about the serene respite of Nature and now I am recommending the loud, often crowded and odor rich arena of the market?!

Yes, yes, and yes. My food shopping preference are the open aired local or farmers markets that I’ve found all over the world, from Alajuela, Costa Rica to Ljubljana, Slovenia to Ubud, Bali to NYC. If I can’t find open markets, then I will go to any market that is selling fresh fruits and vegetables or at the very least, spices and herbs. I know that food deserts exist and fresh produce might not always be available at your travel destination, but if you look for locally grown food and are creative and open to where you find them, it has been my experience that you’ll be successful. I was in such a food desert recently in a U.S. midwestern city but found on a public sidewalk a huge mulberry tree full of delicious and ripe fruit.

Time at the market is always a great travel and health move because if you choose one well, it is full of people who live in the place in which you are traveling. You may have the opportunity to buy figs or mango or fresh collards or butterfly pea flowers from the garden of the woman selling them to you, who then gives you a fantastic tea recipe to go along with your herbs.

Markets offer the amazing opportunity for us to acclimate both physically through being exposed to the local foods of the region, as well as socially through meeting and interacting with the inhabitants of that place. These are people who can give you the best advice on how to live for how ever long you are visiting this new place, with greater ease.

And the self care practice connected to the market place?  Eating vibrant preferably seasonal, preferably natural (i.e. organic) and unprocessed food that is local to the region. Sometimes, I leave the market with a bag filled with fresh produce, seeds, and herbs to take back to wherever I’m staying and make myself a healthy meal there. Sometimes, I pick up my favorite fast food from the market: fruit. It is fast and it is real food.

The self care practice of eating from the market is one I often recommend to my patients and clients who complain to me of gaining unwanted weight when traveling, or having digestive issues and low energy from eating out all the time during trips.  In any town I am visiting, the market is usually my favorite “restaurant” from which I order out.

Place #3:  Dance (or Joyful Movement of your choice)

The third place that I always go to while traveling and that keeps me grounded, is dance. This is not a physical place but rather a space of exploration, of release, and of healing, the perimeters of which are beautifully undefined.

Because dance is part of my work and passion, it is important to me to keep honing my technique and so I choose to dance daily. However, oftentimes, my travels take me to places that are devoid of dance studios.  Rather than having trips impede my intention of daily practice, I became creative about where I have my dance classes and rehearsals. I have danced in tiny hotel rooms, on several balconies, rooftops, beaches, city parks and under jungle waterfalls. Switching up the setting while doing movement in my very familiar body, not only helps up-level my dance skills, it is a constant reminder that my true home is my body and spirit, which are with me no matter where in the world I am.

Thus, dance is both a place and a self care practice for me and I encourage you to take any movement practice that brings you joy, and do it while you travel, being open to perhaps different “class settings” for your movement practice. These might be your hotel room,  a semi quiet corner of the airport during a layover (a favorite of mine), or any beach. Recognize the world as your open gym or movement studio.

Also, I invite you to take the unparalleled opportunity that travel offers and consider exploring a new fitness class that you’ve never taken or maybe even heard about, at your travel destination. Taking a Muay Thai boxing class in Koh Phangan was one of my favorite exercise classes anywhere to date. These new-to-you classes might just catapult your fitness to the next level. At the very least, your world will open up.

My wedding to my beloved is planned for about two months from now and moving forward, we are excited to root a bit more in one place rather than constantly living on the road. That said, our life voyages continue whether or not we take a trip in the literal sense. The lessons in health and self knowledge that I’ve gleaned from my travels are ones that will always be with me no matter where in the world I choose to call home.

Much love to you and happy travels.

Links to Medical Evidence cited in this article:

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4378297/

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551166/

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/

4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032712002005

Dr. Tumi Johnson, M.D. is a globally-based physician, dancer, poet, and the author of the holistic wellness book Delicious Healing. You can find her on Instagram @thepoemdances, You Tube  thepoemdances, and on her holistic medicine website, www.drtumijohnson.com.