The two words are incongruous—Forest Bathing. What does one do? Swim in a pile of leaves? Walk in the woods when it is raining?
All the questions were in my mind when I attended my first introduction class to forest bathing organized by the Smithsonian Associates in late October.
The timing was exquisite. DC’s fall fest with the dazzling palette of golds, oranges and reds was in full view. Our group met at the Smithsonian’s Enid Haupt Sculpture Garden early in the morning. Our teacher was Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of a forest bathing book called The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect With Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life .
Choukas-Bradley is a well-known author and naturalist who has written extensively on this region’s forestry. My favorite book which she wrote is A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild Wooded Heart of Washington, DC. She clearly loves being in the woods. She is also a Certified Forest & Therapy Guide.
Our class sets up tiny chairs in the Moongate section of the gardens, where we perch like birds in our nests. One wrong move and we might tumble out of our seat!
Choukas-Bradley’s invocation to forest bathe begins with the ding of her Tibetan bell, as she describes in her forest bathing book. It is the ceremonial start—the Threshold of Connection. I have silenced my iPhone. My intention for forest bathing is to silence my brain from any distracting thoughts about work deadlines. I am here solely to commune with nature. I feel like a congregant entering the leafy sanctuary to pray.
We close our eyes. The idea in “Embodied Awareness” is to tune into our environment and tune out the monkey brain. I purposely try to hear myself breathe and listen to the swish of the wind embracing the leaves.
I am keenly aware of the maple tree to my left. As I tether my mind to this resting spot, I suddenly feel electrified by the tiniest of sounds—the trill of the bird, the splat of an acorn falling to the ground, the buzz of a bee.
I am discovering my “inner forest” as described in the forest bathing book. The connection is so strong that it pulls me back like a rope to my childhood in Silver Spring, Maryland. I loved to play by the creek in a grove of trees near my house. I can remember the delight of collecting autumn leaves—which had brilliantly transformed from summer green to rust, tangerine, gold and ruby.
According to Amos Clifford, author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, we carry a forest inside us.
“It is a mirror within of the great forests of the world. This book is an invitation to bring those inner and outer forests together. Forest bathing is a practice that belongs in each person’s palette of self-care strategies.”
A core forest bathing philosophy is to work with the forest. It is our partner. “The forest has your back,” explains Amos in his book. And yes I like to sit on the floor of the forest and lean my back again a big oak tree. This is how I fold myself into the woods.
As Founder and Director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT), Clifford has developed a six-month training program. As of the end of 2018, ANFT had trained over 700 guides who are guiding this practice in 46 countries. His work is inspired by the practice—known as shinrin-yoku—which originally developed in Japan in the 1980s.
In his book, Clifford explained that the practice of forest therapy was “inspired in part by Japanese practices, but we don’t attempt to replicate their methods, which have developed in a way that is a great fit for unique aspects of Japanese culture. The Japanese term for this practice, shinrin-yoku, translates literally as ‘forest bathing.’”
From the moment I leave my chair to roam among the coterie of trees and bushes at the Enid Haupt Gardens, I feel myself distancing from the petty annoyances of life. My iPhone is silenced.
My brain isn’t obsessing on a work deadline. I actually hear the tiniest of noises—the rustle of an autumn tree branch as it drops a leaf to the ground. I also find my thoughts fly away like the birds that are perched in the branches—ready to switch location just for a better view.
After our allotted time to observe and feel, we wander back to our group for a sharing circle to discuss what we saw. The imperative in sharing is the prompt. “I am noticing …”
Notice Choukas-Bradley does not ask us to answer the question “What did you notice?” Her invitation is open-ended.
The group can use a stick to pass around so each person can speak and not be interrupted. We do not comment on what the other participants shared. Just accept it, like the flow of the water down the stream in a creek. Let it wash over and around you.
It is very clear that if you approach the forest with a child’s playfulness—as opposed to an adult mindset—that you will be led down the forest’s secret passage ways.
Series of Invitations
Over the two-hour period, Choukas-Bradley issues a series of invitations to explore our surroundings in silence. I dive deep. Each time I feel myself leave the group and climb a proverbial tree to look down on my world.
I am keenly aware of using all my five senses. Even now I can remember my awe at really seeing the birds perched in the tree, feeling the suede texture of a leaf, hearing the wind rustle the trees’ branches, and smelling the intoxicating scent of the rose bud.
Choukas-Bradley ends our session with a tea ceremony (maple tree water) described in her forest bathing book. We are also given maple sugar candy shaped like a leaf. She reads a poem to us.
My mind slip out of my body so it can return to the magnolia tree’s shelter. I am bathed in the benevolence of the woods.
Below I share a poem by one of my favorite poets who writes about nature. I hope you enjoy it!
Sleeping in the Forest
by Mary Oliver
I thought the earth remembered me,
She took me back so tenderly
Arranging her skirts
Her pockets full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before
A stone on the riverbed,
Nothing between me and the white fire of the stars,
But my thoughts.
And they floated light as moths
Among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
Breathing around me.
The insects and the birds
Who do their work in darkness.
All night I rose and fell,
As if water, grappling with luminous doom.
By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times
Into something better
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