A Nature Bath at Huntley Meadows

Huntley Meadows is a nature park a short walk from my daughters townhouse in Alexandria. Everyone was excited to take me there knowing how much I love being in nature. I am grateful that they, too, love nature. Not long after my arrival, off we went into the woods.

As we began our walk I became very aware of the specialness of place within the city limits — an opportunity for people to step away from their fast paced lives and connect with nature. Living in the epicenter of our government’s hot spot, nature is a welcome respite. Though I noticed few other visitors. I was grateful for the quiet moments when we walked in silence. I also noticed the majority of others walking along slowly or standing by their cameras on tripods were Asian, which is where Shinrin Yoku or Forest bathing as a healthcare practice began.

With each step into the woods we all relaxed and opened our senses to what surrounded us and what surprises we might witness. We shared in one another’s excitement when we noticed something new and awesome — a Kingfisher which invited us to linger at the end of the boardwalk, a tree whittled down by a beaver, the wet footprints of some forest animal on the boardwalk, the variety of ducks enjoying the water, the deer enjoying the woods and the blue herons which seemed to be everywhere.

We relaxed. We enjoyed being together in quiet (or as quiet as children can be). We paused every few steps to witness our surroundings in awe. Though we were cold, we continued because being outdoors together was more important. So we made light and comical banter about being cold and, in places, numb. We were, indeed, bathing ourselves in nature.

Noticing what happened to each of us, I was reminded of living daily with the woods at my doorstep and why I spend so much time outdoors to walk, to meditate, to garden, and simply be in the presence of birds, wildlife, and the changing weather through the seasons. I noticed that, not only did we relax, our attitudes shifted toward more joy, we laughed more, and enjoyed being part of something greater than ourselves. For me, it was a deeply spiritual experience throughout the walk. I love being in nature where I can feel the presence of spirit in every living thing. Each breath and each step I am bathed in love and expansion.

Having recently moved away from the woods and into a neighborhood in the town where I work, I needed the refreshing rejuvenation of the woods. My daughter and family also recently moved from one city to another for a new job opportunity. We all needed to let go of the boxes both unpacked and still packed, finding new routines, and away from the stresses inherent in a major move. For them, Huntley Meadows is only 1/2 mile away. For me in my new home, I must drive several miles to go into the woods. Fortunately, we all have dogs who love the outdoors. I know that the responsibility of animals makes it easier to get outside.

My dog, Willow, loves the outdoors and the exercise of a good hike in the woods. She is my companion to explore and bathe in nature. Daily (weather permitting) we get in the car to leave people, cars and activity behind. Willow excitedly jumps into the car — she knows when we are going to the woods. As I drive the five minutes to a local state forest, I feel my shoulders relax.

Our first few minutes we walk at a brisk pace as if shaking off the cares and stresses of the day. Then we slow our pace to a meditative exploration — my breath deepens, my senses open to the view over the lake, I notice the scents of pine, wet earth, the breeze on my face, and the occasional campfire smell in the air. Willow puts her nose to the earth to explore who’s been here before us. My mind calms as I notice the song I am humming and I settle into the stories I imagine of this land before me. My imagination wanders into narratives such as my curiosity of the volcano that formed this lake, focus on the giant car-sized rocks left over from the glaciers, or who lived here and left their mark with the stone walls that wind through the woods of New England. I find my center, my connection, and my creative inspiration in nature.

I return home with gratitude and joy every time. Once home I more easily begin again the work that awaits my focused attention. For my daughter and family, our walk after Thanksgiving dinner allowed us to reminisce our gratitude for one another. We returned refreshed from the cold air and our exploration of nature.

Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing

 

Shinrin Yoku is something I’ve done most of my life and it now has a name because its health benefits in an increasingly stressful world are being discovered as important.  About two years ago, I was introduced to forest bathing while reading Florence Williams book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative” . While reading about forest bathing, I was reminded of some of my earliest memories (before 4th grade) in communion and relationship with the natural world.

My interest was piqued and I’ve continued to learn more (initially, to deepen and expand my personal love of nature). The more I learn and practice, the more I feel Shinrin Yoku may be an essential part of our self-care.

Shinrin Yoku (aka. forest bathing) is a guided service available in Japan, South Korea, and, now, in some parts of the United States. In Japan, there are a growing number of designated forest bathing parks & paths. Scientists are beginning to study the health benefits of forest bathing and, as a result, the practice is gaining momentum as a health and well-being  practice. 

What is forest bathing? It is a slow walk and exploration of nature with our senses wide open. It is not exercise. It is a consciously mindful practice with the intention of relieving stress, balancing blood pressure, and improving the functioning of our immune systems as well as build a beneficial relationship with this home we call earth. Forest bathing is using all of your senses — touch, see, smell, hear, and more — to fill yourself with the healing energies of the natural world around us.

We’ve all had the experience of breathing in negative ions (that fresh smell) when near a flowing brook or river or after a rainstorm. In nature there are a multitude of healing properties that we can ‘bathe’ in for our health and to relieve stress. There is a sensuality to our experience when we use our senses to see, smell, hear, touch. I find being in nature in a slow and deliberate way is also a spiritual experience as I remember and nurture relationships with all living and non-living elements while acknowledging that I am part of a larger web of living and being. When out in nature and away from the busyness of cities, highways, and the shops along Main street we connect with our primal selves who, not so long ago, lived in harmony with the natural world. Forest bathing is an opportunity to reconnect to the energies of the earth (especially if you go barefoot) — the  ground, the trees, grasses, wildlife, and flowers.

Forest bathing as a guided experience is about slowing down enough to listen with all of your senses while breathing in the healing found in nature. Your Shinrin Yoku guide will offer exercises or invitations to lead you into a deep experience as well as opportunities to write and/or share your experience with others (when done in a group). A forest bathing experience often lasts an hour or more while exploring less than 1/2 mile in the woods. Even though the word ‘bathing’ is used, in a forest bathing experience you are fully clothed (unless you choose to remove your shoes so you can go barefoot). The bathing is what happens when our senses are open and receptive to the natural world. 

Note: Interested in knowing more or having your own experience of Forest Bathing? If you live in New England, I would be happy to be your guide. Feel free to comment below or send me an email at: LJ5250@aol.com.