The Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, is the new Über-hot-yoga of outdoor enthusiasts. What is it? Basically, it’s stepping outside and noticing things. Which sounds ridiculously simple, but true. And apparently very difficult for most of us in our overly-wired, always-on, hermetically sealed lives.
Although the whole idea sounded woo-woo to me—even though I’m practically a certified nature girl—I traveled to southern California and made an appointment with one of its accredited teachers. When I inquired about the cost, she said, “Whatever you think is right.” Very zen. Very uncomfortable for me. How do you put a price on nature? I value time, I value nature, but how to quantify that? I decided to stash some cash, experience it and then pay.
We met up at a park in the hills above Santa Barbara. Not too hot but very dry and sunny. My instructor (let’s call her April) told me how she got started with Shinrin Yoku while living in Japan. “My apartment was next to a huge wifi tower and I noticed I was getting progressively sicker. When I went outside I got better. I realized I needed to be outside to experience grounding—getting in touch with the earth’s electromagnetic field.”
My husband has a Ph.D. in physics and hard, scientific topics are not new to me, but this was that squishy experiential area of quasi-science where you don’t want to appear a total rube and skeptic but feel some sort of methodology ought to apply. But I decided to suspend the stream of eye-rolling judgment going on inside and just follow along.
“The earth heals us” April went on to say. Well whatever you call it, nature obviously improves health and sanity after spending an hour hiking or biking outside. Your average couch potato can attest to that. She described current research going on in Japan and the experience of her father who had been a firefighter with broken health and had found his cure outdoors. But this idea is not new. The native Americans bemoaned our scorched earth policies on their sacred grounds and stressed the need to take care of the earth and it will take care of you. And David Thoreau’s Walden has introduced generations to the concept of living in tune with nature.
Personally, I’ve always felt this pull. A physical and psychological need to get outside. At some point in the day I hunger to outgas all the stress, tension, expectations and shoulding on myself. And if it’s sunny and glorious outside, you can forget about the laundry, dishes, and work. I can’t resist the siren call of the Pacific ocean just blocks away. I’m o-u-t. So I understand the visceral need to acquire a daily dose of vitamin O.
Although there was hardly anybody around, I felt my Midwestern roots making me squirm as April told me we were going to start the course with some yoga moves, in public. While I had to do plenty of stretching while swimming for the University of Wisconsin, I’ve taken a total of 1 yoga class in my life. This was outside my comfort zone.
We started out on bath towels on the ground she had provided. An upwards, stretching sun salutation followed by some other simple moves. I tried to relax about the fact total strangers were walking by with their dogs. This is southern California, this is normal to them I reassured myself. Then she had me close my eyes. “What do you notice?”
This was child’s play. This was my love language. I felt the breeze ruffling my hair and on my face. I smelled the baking piney evergreens nearby. I heard the rasping call of a Steller’s jay in the distance and a few small insects buzzing around. Apparently, these were the things April was going to point out to me but didn’t need to. But in that moment, I was alone, focused on her and the task at hand. I can’t say I’m always so in tune. And most of us are unused to getting outside and quieting our minds from the daily rattle and hum so we easily miss nature’s cues.
What saddens me is that more and more of us are only outdoors long enough to walk to the car or a building. We are so out of touch that we need lessons and instructions on enjoying and noticing nature’s siren call.
For those of us who spent our childhoods running outside in packs with the neighborhood kids until dinner time, this is a sad state of affairs. We climbed trees, noticed textures, sticky sap, insects, smells. We picked berries and swam in cool lakes. We inspected beehives. We smelled the afternoon rains approaching and noticed the wind pick up before storms. We could tell when the birds were screaming out warning cries versus chirping happily. The cardinal, chickadee and mourning dove songs were familiar to us. But increasingly, people are becoming nature blind.
Nature blindness is when you don’t know—or notice—what you are seeing. You look at trees and see trees. As opposed to evergreens, weeping willows or deciduous maples in blazing autumn glory. You can’t distinguish. They are all just trees to you. When you’re nature blind, the voices in your head are louder than the birds, crashing waves, wind, and insects. You are deaf and blind to what is right in front of you.
In years past, this blindness would kill you. Not being able to read the weather, the warning cries of animals (signaling approaching predators), the smell of smoke or rain would put you at a distinct disadvantage in the survival game. But today these natural skills are not needed inside at our desks where we spend our days. So increasingly, we are blind to the glory and nuances outside.
April next took me to an area with large trees spread out in a small area. “Pick a tree,” she said, “any tree.” I picked one. “Now, I want you to spend time with your tree. Get to know it. You can hug it if you want.” So we’ve come to this. I wanted to ask, “Do I get an official tree-hugger badge if I do?” But somehow I didn’t think this kind, gentle woman would appreciate me mocking her life’s calling so I refrained.
She went on to explain that trees were sentient beings, they know when we are around. Okaaaay. I know current research shows trees send chemical signals to other trees when they are being eaten or under stress. They send out these warnings and the nearby foliage then attempts to protect itself by tasting unappealing. But this was going too far for me. Sentient is defined in new, elastic terms these days. But it comes from the Latin sentient, which means “feeling.” It describes things that are not only alive but able to feel and perceive as well. So…I wouldn’t call them sentient beings. But I wasn’t going to get my knickers in a knot over it.
I noticed my tree had bent to the side, stretching towards the light and got points from April for that. But it wasn’t a moving experience for me. It was a rough, old and strong, kindly sort of tree. But it wasn’t like talking with Treebeard in Lord of the Rings if you know what I mean. Call me obtuse.
When I was younger and spent a lot of time climbing trees and sitting on them, I didn’t talk to the tree. I talked a lot to God. I probably bored Him with my tales and woes of family life, mean friends, and swimming struggles, but talk I did. I enjoyed the trees and appreciated their strength and beauty, but I was never moved to communicate with them. So while I value contemplative time in nature, and feeling at home amongst the flora and fauna, the presence of a tree—even if it were sentient—is not going to comfort me like the God of the universe who made it.
We left our tree time and headed down a rocky bank to a creek. April explained that water was important. It signaled “letting go.” So I spent some time on the rocks and put my hot feet in the cool creek. Water gurgled about, dragonflies flitted and I thought about what I needed to let go of. It didn’t take long. My son. My expectations of what he should be. Ouch.
I was raised in a family that valued athletics. While we weren’t expected to aim for the pros, we were expected to get outside, be active and participate. We swam, biked, rode horses, ice-skated, played tennis and did team sports. Sports taught us to be team players, to follow the rules, responsibility, time management, and goal-setting. All worthy markers on the path to adulthood. And in fact, I got a full university scholarship for swimming.
But my son is indifferent. He would rather stay in a dark room, hunched over his computer and music software than be outside on a glorious day. In fact, he loathes swimming (Quiet sob!). While I don’t think he’s headed for rickets, he certainly could use more vitamin D in my opinion. He is who he is, I reminded myself. God gave him to you to enjoy and encourage, not scold and force into a mold what you think he should be.
What would it be like, I wondered, to be raised in a home where they always wished you weren’t who you really were? I remember being told by my parents that I was “Too sensitive.” It left me feeling, “How do I change that?” Where do you find a new version of you that seems more acceptable? It communicates core disapproval and it feels unsteady.
I decided he was a glorious version of who God made him to be and I could stop nagging and coercing him to be more outdoorsy. The problem wasn’t him it was me. Besides, the basic tenet of teenagers is: the more you push, the more I resist. So I could just save myself the headache, the arguments, and celebrate his musical and technological savant-like talents. Did I need Shinrin Yoku to come to this conclusion? I don’t think so. Maybe. But self-reflection is certainly more likely and productive when you get alone outside and turn off your phone. I was content with my feet in the gurgling water and my new perspective on parenting.
After our time in the creek, we scrambled back up over the boulders and talked about the whole forest bathing experience. Usually, April explained, this is done in a group—called “the way of counsel”—and we share our discoveries and insights together. I was grateful to be the lone sojourner today. In group situations like that it always feels like it escalates into, “Who had the most amazing dream quest experience?!!” Isn’t competitive insight an oxymoron? But it’s probably just me.
The summary of forest bathing
On the whole, it was a pleasant outing and a reassurance to me I am not nature blind. When I’m outside, I notice things. I pay attention to smells, sounds, and sensations. That is, usually. But like most people, I can get swamped with work, worries, and concerns and barely notice the sun is out due to the stream of chatter in my head as I walk to my car. And so, we need to be taught this. We need to stop and take in the banquet spread before us. It does not come naturally to us.
Fortunately, there is a large growing movement of Shinrin Yoku followers. You can take classes, walks and learn to really see and feel what’s happening in the natural world. In Japan, where forest bathing was “invented,” they are putting a lot of science and money behind it. And they have discovered some amazing, scientifically proven benefits about the power of the outdoors.
For instance, one hour of walking in a forest and inhaling the healing powers of the phytoncides that coniferous trees emit is equal to a dose of Prozac™. You can read extensively about the science, health benefits and various approaches to forest bathing in Florence Williams’ new book, The Nature Fix. I found it fascinating. So much so that against my skeptical nature, I’ve taken to using cypress essential oil in a diffuser in our home.
Would I recommend forest bathing? Yes. Absolutely. Anything that gets people outside, alone, and tuning into nature is a good thing. Jacques Cousteau said, “We protect what we love.” And God knows, our national parks, wild animals, and fragile planet needs our love and protection these days.
If you’d like to try forest bathing on your own, these free journal pages can help you. The first page is a binder cover page. Just slip it in under the clear sleeve in the front of your binder. The second page has got 5 questions to help you think about and process what’s going on in your life. (“Today there is, My thoughts about this are, I noticed/hear/thought about, I am surprised by, and I am inspired to…”) Use a 3-hole punch to make your own journal pages for your binder. There are 2 versions, each with 2 pages (cover and inside journal page). Download both or one. They are free downloads for those who subscribe for them. (And you also get access to a library of free printables).