There are two parts to this story: Part 1 is a q+a with Brooke Mellen. She runs an organization called Cultured Forest that leads walks in nature. Part 2 is my experience.
Part 1: Q+A
What is Forest Bathing? Forest Bathing actually started in Japan in the 1980s when the Japanese government decided it wanted a cure for worker stress,so it developed Shinrin-Yoku which translates to bathing in the forest atmosphere. They conducted studies and found that time in nature reduces the stress hormone cortisol, lowers blood pressure and improves immunity. Here in the U.S., forest bathing means different things to different people, but mostly it is spending at least a few hours just soaking in all that nature has to offer. It doesn’t actually involve getting in water, although that is certainly welcome! It is more an activity to help connect with oneself.
How did you get interested in Forest Bathing? I was browsing in a store in the Lower East Side of New York when I discovered the book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li. This book opened my eyes to what I already knew, which is that time in nature is very healing and I crave it.
You just got back from Japan where Forest Bathing originated. How does it factor into their culture? There are actually 62 dedicated trails for practicing Shinrin-Yoku in Japan. They are very nature-oriented with their pristine gardens and because of the Shinto religion. I wouldn’t say their culture is “outdoorsy” in the Western sense where they do a lot of camping, but they do revere nature in a way above and beyond what we do here. They actually see it as holy.
How has starting this company and taking these walks affected your life? Cultured Forest is a passion project but it has enriched my life because I am meeting fellow nature lovers and people who desire connection with nature. It has brought a great deal of positivity into my life through the people I’ve been meeting.
If someone can’t make one of your walks, how can they experience forest bathing on their own? One can Forest Bathe even in the city. You find a park you love and just go and focus on being in nature. Close your eyes and notice what you smell and hear. When you open your eyes imagine you are seeing nature for the first time. What do you notice? Pay attention to your five senses and take several deep breaths. Forest bathing is really about slowing down and just BEING in nature. It isn’t like a hike where you have a particular destination. It’s more about the journey.
Part 2: My Experience Forest Bathing in Central Park
Early June evening. Trees are lush with new foliage, blooms are fading on the azaleas, and the birds are chirping like crazy. The air is heavy with the scent of honeysuckle. The stage is set for spring to pass the baton to summer and transition to the next season. Summer used to come with mile markers like the last day of school, but now the summer signal comes from the the expanding hours of sunlight into the evening.
We met in Central Park, a group of about 25 strangers. Brooke led us on a walk through the park. We would stop every so often, Brooke would offer an observation and then set us off to find inspiration.
Some of the highlights were:
- Used my five senses. I know, we do this every day and it sounds basic. But doing it within the context of nature heightened everything. Hearing and focusing on the sound of a bird’s fluttering wing sounds easy, but I had no idea how relaxing it could be.
- Slowed down. I love to walk with the purpose of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This journey had no agenda. Haven’t walked that slow ever. But the things I observed could only be seen once I settled down.
- Closed our eyes and did a group meditation. Then we took rocks in our hands. Keeping our eyes closed we transferred our worries to the rocks. Then we traded the rocks with the person across from us. Again, shockingly relaxing and my worries were gone.
- Walked to a rocky area and felt the massive boulders. We were encouraged to touch them and run our hands all along the rough nubby surface. I thought about how long they had been there. Compared to the sturdy rocks, our human lives are pretty short. Comparing that timeline to other things in nature it got me thinking about how useless fear is when it comes to trying something new. So what if I fail? In the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter.
- Finished with a tea ceremony near a stream. It sounds very formal, but it wasn’t. A cup of tea was “offered to nature” as a way of giving thanks. It was a perfect ending to a beautiful experience. We then went around the group and say one word to describe the experience. Mine was “epic.”