Forest Bathing as a Mindfulness Practice

Curious about the mindfulness practice of “forest bathing,” I looked into it recently for My Little Bird.

The Benefits of Forest Bathing

“STAY AWHILE,” the trees call out in Mary Oliver’s poem, an invitation to “forest bathing.” The term, translated from the Japanese shinrin-yoku, means immersing yourself in the woods; it’s an attentive way of being among trees, under the sky, on the earth.

“Forest bathing is slowing down and connecting with nature with all your senses and it’s something you can do very close to home,” says Melanie Choukas-Bradley. The author and naturalist leads forest bathing walks in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park and regional open spaces. Forest bathing, she says, is linked to other mindfulness practices like yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, “but there’s another dimension to it because you’re feeling a connection with nature.”

That connection Choukas-Bradley describes seems to reduce stress and foster well-being. Studies conducted at Japan’s Chiba University, Center for Environment, Health and Field Services and described in the book Your Brain on Nature, found “that spending time within a forest setting can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep and increasing both vigor and a feeling of liveliness.”

Guides like Choukas-Bradley facilitate forest bathing on the walks they lead.

“You’re engaged with nature and nature has a slow sweet pace, and it’s very rejuvenating to be around trees and listen to birds and smell the autumn smells from the earth and just feel fully alive.” She adds, “If we’re only engaged electronically, it’s not enough.”

At the heart of forest bathing is quieting the mind and awakening the physical senses. And it works, says Barnesville, Maryland artist and avid walker Tina Brown who took her first forest bathing walk with Choukas-Bradley in Rock Creek Park in October. The women have collaborated on guides to the plants of Sugarloaf Mountain.

“We were asked to focus on a tree,” said Brown, “to look closely at the bark and to pay attention closely to the stream, the water and rocks and smells and sounds.”  Choukas-Bradley, Brown said, invited participants to dig deep into their immediate experiences.

A typical forest bathing walk might begin with breath awareness practices or a poem, drawing people into the present moment. What’s called an “invitation” follows, a suggestion to explore a quiet spot alone and notice with all the senses, listening, observing, savoring scents and touching leaves and stones.

The mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature through forest bathing can be felt in a nearby park.

“I’m always encouraging people to connect with their own backyard or park down the street,” says Choukas-Bradley, “to find a place of natural beauty that’s very close to where you live and visit as often as you can. It’s a form of intimacy with nature.”

She described her own special sitting spot in Rock Creek Park. The day we talked, she had just seen a kingfisher in the stream.

“It’s so rejuvenating to walk through this forest in a park created in 1890. The trees are huge. I am so intimate with this place that all of the changes that I see over time are incredibly meaningful. It’s like any relationship, the more you know a person the more you love the person; it’s the same thing with nature.”

Spending the time is key. Forest bathers set aside cell phones. They suspend conversations on politics, movies and work. They let go the need to identify a bird or classify a blossom. There are no miles to log. Wonder reigns.

“When I lead walks,” says Choukas-Bradley, “my favorite moments are when everyone gets quiet. We’re looking at Virginia blue bells blooming; I love it when people stop talking and just feel the quiet moments of pure reverence for nature and pure awe.”

A survey sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and cited in an article on forest bathing in The Washington Post states that Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in an enclosed vehicle, on average.

Choukas-Bradley believes forest bathing could shift that percentage, inviting more and more people to re-connect with the nature around them.

“Our culture and our way of life separates us from nature, so we have to work at it a little bit. It’s a practice like anything else. If it’s important to you and you make time for it, the rewards are boundless.” she says.

Ready for a dip into forest bathing?

As with any mindfulness practice, you can start small, with five or ten minutes. Next time you’re walking to the train, detour under a tree. Pause. Touch the bark. Lean against the trunk.

Or pause on a bench during errands. Lift your face and watch the clouds, feel the breeze on your cheeks and mist from a nearby fountain. Smell the fresh-cut grass.

Or, on a walk with a friend through a park, agree to drift in opposite directions for a few minutes, smelling the air, collecting fallen leaves. Then reconvene and share what you observed.

Participants in Choukas-Bradley’s walks range from 20 to 80.

“It’s for anybody who enjoys nature and wants to get outside, de-stress,” says Brown, the artist. “You’re not thinking about anything but being present.”

A wonderful aspect of the natural world is that it’s vast enough to absorb our moods.

“When despair for the world grows in me/and I wake in the night at the least sound/in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” writes Wendell Berry in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, “I go and lie down where the wood drake/rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

The peace of wild things is a form of resting in the world. It’s a cleansing: Forest bathing both restores and rejuvenates.

“It’s healing and it’s celebratory,” Choukas-Bradley says. “There’s a great joy in feeling alive in the forest or in the field or any natural setting. It’s true that it’s comforting if you’re troubled or depressed, but if you come feeling happy your happiness will be enhanced by connecting with natural beauty.”

Life. Change.

Every time I practice viparita karani, “legs-up-the-wall,” or invite a student to make the shape, I recall my first yoga class. It changed my life in so many ways.

“How a Yoga Inversion Led to a Life Conversion,” reprinted from elephant journal in a slightly different version.

“Imagine your nipples like headlights pointing straight forward.”

The year was 1995. We still used a blender to mix margaritas and milkshakes, not green smoothies. “Warrior 1” was not yet standard American English. I was wobbling through my first-ever yoga class.

The teacher continued her driving metaphors. In the exercise room at the YMCA, she guided us into a seated twist and suggested we imagine looking over our shoulder to park a car. This was before a screen in the dashboard told you where the rear bumper is.

The teacher seemed old to me, confident. Now I’ve reached the age I estimate her to have been, mid-forties. She had medium-length dark brown hair, creamy skin and a mischievous look in her eyes. I trusted her and did what she said. When she placed us in viparita karani, with legs up the wall and back flat on the floor, my perspective on my body literally changed. “Picture a jack-knife,” she said, urging us to nestle our buttocks closer to the wall.

I don’t remember this woman’s name, but she changed my world. It’s as if I hopped on a bus to a part of town that had always been there but was brand new to me. Everything I saw and experienced in the 90 minutes assured me that life was for the curious. Everything I heard annotated my previous learning. I was a teacher, too, of literature and writing, and recognized in this yoga teacher the combination of creativity and logic, tempered with the caring that makes a teacher effective.

That tiny word—“yoga”—is a small submarine that took me into the deep ocean of physical, philosophical and ethical explorations.

One class. One teacher. New life. I thank my BFF for suggesting the Y. I’m grateful I accepted.

After high school, apathy had slid between Phoebe and me. Both bright but unfocused, pretty but not gorgeous, talented but not genius, we drifted to different regions, Phoebe to the Midwest, I to California, searching no doubt, as youngest siblings do, for someone or something to create a surface on which we could recognize ourselves. When we reconnected by chance, literally bumping into each other at an art gallery in Ann Arbor, the university town where our husbands were temporarily studying, we served as each others’ looking glass.

Always ahead of the curve, Phoebe’s older sister was teaching yoga in Washington, D.C. When she came home from college we admired her insouciance and elegance, her red Chuck Taylor high tops and the scarf draped across her collarbones. When Phoebe saw the YMCA class advertised, she pressed me to attend. I was a jogger with a sporadic weight-lifting habit left over from rowing crew in college. But I’d been studying Buddhism for 10 years and figured cross-legged yogis might have something in common with meditators. I agreed to one class. “I don’t think this is for me,” I said meeting up with Phoebe at the gym’s entrance on West Washington Street, clad in gray sweatpants and a “Coffee is my friend” t-shirt.

Curious about yoga in the last century, I searched online. There you can find an interview with Sting from the December 1995 Yoga Journal. As a Gen-X-er, Sting is one of my heroes.

“I feel it is a path that is involved enough to keep developing,” the singer tells Ganga White. “It’s almost like music in a way; there’s no end to it.”

In high school, Phoebe set the volleyball and I spiked it. She is lithe, a dancer and a pianist. I’m wiry, built for long walks and swimming. By the time I attended the Iyengar class at that Ann Arbor YMCA, years of stooping over children’s desks had wrecked my posture. Photos in the family album say I’d once been at home in my body, climbing on monkey bars, racing across the neighborhood park with my dog, playing the role of Athena in the fourth grade show. Along the path from adolescence to adulthood, I became alienated from my six-foot frame.

Experiencing savasana on that Michigan night with my childhood friend, I was 10 years younger than Sting when he started yoga. I get what he’s saying, though. I’m a writer, aware even in my teens that I’d stay on a creative path by hook or by crook. Yoga is practical and myriad. Since that first class, I’ve studied with dozens of teachers. When I felt ready to teach yoga, I trained first at a small Sacramento studio where I was a regular student. One of the guest teachers, Richard Rosen, emphasized that yoga asana is preparation for meditation. I’d discovered this in home practice. A strong body and fluid breath lead me into stillness. A year and a half later, Cyndi Lee’s advanced teacher training, with its Buddhist strand, brought me full circle in my work and personal lives.

When Phoebe visits our hometown of Washington, D.C. and we meet up for coffee, the word “join” comes to mind. On a lark, I joined her for that yoga class. In the more than 20 years since, yoga — which teachers love to remind us translates as “union”—has joined me with friends, students, ideas, opportunities and insights that make me who I am.
“I’ve learned to trust in the power of love,” Sting says. “Love for oneself, love for the people you’re with, your family, your friends. Love for simplicity, love for the truth. I think that without love, none of it makes any sense.”

When one of my yoga students enters viparita karani—that legs-up-the-wall pose—I notice the surprise and delight that accompanies any inversion. The world can change in a moment. Or at least our perspective on it.

 

 

 

Why Yoga Stanza?

Isn’t that, after all, what a stanza is for,
So that after a night of listening, unwillingly,

To yourself think, you can walk, slightly hungover,
Through some morning market, sipping tea,
An eye out for that scrap of immaculate azure.

– Robert Hass

Three years ago, I launched Yoga Stanza. Happy anniversary, dear blog!

I was curious to identify intersections of poetry and yoga. I wanted to highlight the quotidian. After being a dedicated journal keeper since childhood, I discarded old notebooks to live openly online.

What a wonderful surprise that you all have taken the time to read these offerings. Thank you, thank you!

 

So, why the name Yoga Stanza?

Well, the yoga part…that’s obvious.

And, stanza? A stanza is a group of lines forming a unit in a poem.

“Stanza” derives from a 16th century Italian word meaning “standing in place.” Stanza is also interpreted as a roomThis poem from Robert Haas, is a keen example of that.

I hoped this blog to be a little room, a virtual studio, an alcove or nook, where you could read something inspiring, enhancing, amusing, comforting or just plain lovely.

(Thank you to YS’s guest bloggers and contributing poets and presses for your posts!)

In yoga, an asana is a posture. (There are lots listed on this site, often paired with poems.) The word also contains the meaning of a “seat.”

With each asana, we take a seat in a moment in time in a place in time. We inhabit where we are with dignity, compassion and integrity.

The seat can be a spot in line at DMV or in the center of the sofa flanked by friends. The seat can be in an easy chair with a cat on the lap or on a bicycle zipping down a hill.

Both the words “yoga,” often translated as “union,” and “stanza” invite reflection on time and space.

We are one : we are two.

We are inside : we are outside.

This is now : that is then.

Where is the bubble in the center of the carpenter’s level that marks equilibrium?

Where is your fulcrum in the see-saw of a life?

In poetry and in yoga, — in life —, what is the tension between unbounded creativity and defined structure? Where can we be strong and pliant? Still and fluid?

This morning in a lesson I offered to students ways to feel into the expansiveness of an exhale. The students are entering their sixth month of practice with me and we’re looking at nuances of breath.

An exhalation is not truly an emptying the way all the air can be squeezed from a balloon or a bag. There can be on the exhalation an enlargement, an elongation, even an amplification.

Every exhalation contains qualities of an inhalation.

Every inhalation contains qualities of an exhalation.

Alive, we breathe one breath. Stitches along a seam of time.

Similarly, all the world’s poems are part of one whole poem.

The end of each poem tones beyond the last uttered syllable of word, the quiet between the exhale and the inhale.

And that resting pose, savasana, that concludes a yoga class? It’s but a pause in the ongoing rhythm of who we are and what we do.

And who you are and what you do.

Like many of you, I’ve seen breath leave a body for a final time. Not an exhalation, that ultimate moment is more of a departure, a separation, a taking of leave. Afterward, all seems quiet, subdued.

Yoga Stanza, dear readers, is suspending her breath. I’m turning more attention to teaching: face-to-face, hand-to-body and heart-to-heart (as my teacher, Cyndi, puts it). You all know teaching yoga is my true joy.

I’ve returned to journaling with my favorite practice of keeping a commonplace book, transcribing passages from my reading to rediscover down the line and possibly weave into concepts for classes.

I’m practicing asana and meditation, breath awareness and pranayama and pratyahara, walking outside, cloud watching.

You can find me at home in the world. After all, It’s All Yoga – as the studio where I cut my teaching teeth shows.

Please take a moment to subscribe in the sidebar; you’ll receive any updates such as those delicious recipes!

You can also stay in touch:

Email: alexamergen(at)gmail(dot)com

Facebook: Simple, Joyful Yoga page or Alexa Mergen

USPS:  1703 West Washington Street, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Be well!

P.S. Peruse the blog’s past offerings. Posts are organized by topic and searchable by key word. Lots of good stuff here, all available (including the poems and recipes!) to share. Please do credit me and other contributors for our ideas: this project has been a labor of love. Love, Alexa

 

 

 

 

Chickpea Poppers

chickpea-poppers2
Make these! Now. They are so savory!
chickpea-poppers
Fragrant from the oven! Minimal clean-up.

These chickpea poppers are a fantastic snack or a light meal with a mango smoothie, a side salad of cucumber and tomato, a tabouli salad piled onto lettuce leaves or all of the above.

  • Drain and rinse two cans of chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • Spread the chickpeas to dry on two cookie sheets lined with absorbent paper towels
  • Cover with another layer of paper towels and set aside for 1 to 3 hours

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

  • Line the cookie sheets with parchment paper and transfer the chickpeas to the sheets, removing the paper towels
  • Roast for 10 minutes
  • Stir the chickpeas and rotate the pans
  • Roast for an additional 15 minutes

Meanwhile, prepare the spicy sauce by adding to 2 – 3 Tablespoons olive oil the following spices and herbs: cumin, paprika, cayenne, thyme, salt; blend

  • When the timer dings, remove chickpeas and coat evenly with sauce
  • Return to the oven for an additional 10 minutes
  • Remove from the oven and season with additional salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • Serve! We eat these at least once a week. Mmmmmm.

Feeling daring? Experiment with other spices and flavors.

 

How the simple, joyful owl came to be

Photo, Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery India, Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj, ca. 1000-1050 CE Sandstone, “Seated with her legs audaciously akimbo on an owl vehicle, this flying yogini has the weapons and bared teeth of a fierce deity and the voluptuous body of a benign goddess. Magnificently carved, it is the only surviving trace of a temple that would have housed 42, 64, 81 or 108 yoginis of similar size.”
 That’s the why.

poem: Everything falls in autumn

Welcome autumn! A love poem for the season.

Everything falls in autumn

sycamore fronds of gods’ large hands
dry drops of birch leaves
confetti of caterpillars in ivory, sunflower, tiger
orange, clover green, tulip red and tulip black

We too fell in love in this season are
falling now into another into
the planet’s soft soil where bones
are words to tell an account–

hollow skull of a nuthatch
a sow’s pin-shaped fibula
one white-tailed deer’s hollow tibia
bleached ribs identifiable as ands

– Alexa Mergen

Olive Oil Almond Cake

olive-oil-almond-cake

Leaving the butter behind? I revised this DELICIOUS almond cake to use olive oil instead of butter. It’s light and fragrant, lovely with a cup of green tea.

Blend together

  • 2 fresh eggs
  • 1 scant cup good quality white sugar
  • 3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons good quality olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract

Stir in 1 cup flour

and spread in a lightly greased 9 inch round glass pan. Top with blanched, sliced almonds.

Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving.

Enjoy!

Compassion is the whole

Autumn with its fading greens, bright golds, deep reds and fiery oranges, its liquid sunlight and blue sky spotted with white clouds, its cooling temperatures and slowing pace, seems like the quintessential time to practice compassion, for ourselves, each other and the earth.

 Compassion is not something you have, like a virtue or cultivated quality. It is rather an expression of your larger being and can be understood as integral to your belonging or interbeing in the sacred living body of Earth. Compassion boils down to not being afraid of the suffering of your world or of your self.  It involves being open to what you’re feeling about that suffering (grief, fear, rage, overwhelm) and brave enough to experience it. It helps to know that we are all going to die. And you have this precious moment to get close to the suffering and see what it has to tell you. You can’t heal something you’re afraid to get near. Compassion is what impels you to act for the sake of the larger whole—or put more accurately, it is the whole acting through you.

More on compassion from Joanna Macy here.

 

Spuds ‘n’ Kale

Autumn comfort food. So quick. So easy. So yummy.

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Wash several fresh small red potatoes. Cube and cover with water in a large pot. Cover with lid. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until tender when pierced with a knife.

Meanwhile, wash and tear into bite-sized pieces one small bunch of fresh tender kale. (I like the leafy kale for this dish, not the dinosaur or lacinato.)

When potatoes are done, drain. (It’s helpful to leave a thin layer of water in the pan.) Top potatoes with prepared kale and replace the pot lid. Let the heat from the potatoes steam the kale briefly. Remove lid and add enough good quality olive oil to coat the spuds. Mash by hand with a large wooden spoon, smooshing the potatoes and blending in the kale. Season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

We often eat this as a late supper with a glass of apple cider or with sliced apples or sweet radishes.

 

 

poem: Chemical Elements

Chemical Elements

My heart is tired today. Tired of the round black zafu,
its unflagging suggestion of a conical haven.

Tired of flat pink September roses, the glass
of shattered beer bottles at the bushes’ roots.

Along the avenue relentless joggers run, ears
plugged with music or news. City dogs wait

nervously to go-ahead across the pitted street.
They have twenty minutes to crap and pee.

From the urban trees catbirds hawk
the hot chocolate of enlightenment as

butterflies struggle into their condensed
existence. My students know to seek beauty

in the fissure between O and K
on either side of all and right. But,

I’m lost this morning in the captions
for all that’s happened, the twilight sortie

into nothingness from humanity’s
so muchness.

My tired heart has set on ocean’s deep sand
where sightless gelatinous creatures twirl

through aquatic space, where sound
is movement and everything smacks of salt.

– Alexa Mergen

 

This poem arrived after a period of extended “sitting,” as in sitting Zen. I’d gotten up and exited my DC apartment building to take the dog for a walk on the crowded city avenue; I started noticing things. My thanks to poet Luis Omar Salinas, who once was and may always be my favorite American poet (along with Walt and E.D.) ; he’s kept me close company for many years. 

Although this poem arose from sitting still, it might be helpful to remember that meditation doesn’t always lead to a feeling of creativity, bliss, or even contentment.

After a day-long sit with Edward Espe Brown years ago, I remember feeling very pissy as I rode my bike home. Brown is funny and low-key like most Zen priests: it wasn’t him. It was the intensity of sitting still and being with the big question mark of existence ?. 

Another time, I bailed on a day-long sit at my home zendo, All Beings, knowing I didn’t have the composure yet to put aside my agitation from weekend travels. Sometimes taking a walk and receiving a poem are best for body and mind.

Sitting meditation feels sometimes like being a loaf of rising bread dough. Something’s happening all on its own, both very ordinary and quite magical.

Meditation can be simple, even joyful, but it isn’t always easy. It does lead to clarity…eventually.

Insight can pop up like a praying mantis on the other side of a screen door.

Or all of a sudden a bit of advice sounds in your ears like the seemingly random chorus of cicadas.

It’s all about possibility, receiving it and letting it go.

 

“Poetry,” Alice Oswald says, “is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”

Yoga, I’ll add, is not about the living body but about what happens when the distraction of that body dissolves.

And meditation?

Meditation is not about the mind but about what happens when the mind, as Kosho Uchiyama says, opens the hand of thought.

Peace, all.