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.”

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

No-bake Apple Butter Breakfast Bar

These breakfast bars will start your body’s engine and keep it revving all morning.

breakfast-bar

In a large bowl, combine

  • about 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • about 3/4 cup smooth “natural” peanut butter
  • about 1/2 cup apple butter
  • dash of cinnamon

Microwave for 30 seconds to one minute (optional.) Stir until smooth.

Stir in,

  • about 2 cups rolled oats
  • pumpkin seeds (raw, unsalted work best)
  • sunflower seeds (raw, unsalted work best)
  • sesame seeds
  • currants.

Spread in an 8-inch square baking pan lined closely with aluminum foil (let the edges of the foil overlap the pan). Place a square of waxed paper to fit on top and press with fingers and palm of hand until even and close-packed.

Refrigerate for 12 hours or more.

Lift out of the pan using the foil edges and place on a cutting board. Remove the waxed paper. Slice into squares. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Delicious served with juicy fresh fruit like sliced peaches. In winter, a glass of orange juice washes the bar down nicely.

Any combination of nut butter and seeds and dried fruit might work. I’ve been meaning to try almond butter and dried apricots. Another liquid sweetener might do in place of maple syrup. Try other spices, too, like ginger and cardamom.

Experiment and enjoy.

the navigatio of yoga

In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane quotes waterman Richard Kearney,

In antiquity, Irish scholars were known….for their practice of ‘navigatio’…a journey undertaken by boat…a circular itinerary of exodus and return…The aim was to undergo an apprenticeship to signs of strangeness with a view to becoming more attentive to the meaning of one’s own time and place–geographical, spiritual, intellectual.

The study of yoga is a navigatio, a recursive journey of beginning and beginning again until there is no beginning without an end, only study, travel, movement and stillness.

In practice, we undergo an apprenticeship into the strangeness of making shapes and sounds. We step from that practice into the world and engage.

 

 

 

poem: Desert Heart Home

A late summer love poem for the Great Basin and for my desert grandmas, one born September 12, the other September 18.

Alexa at Pyramid Lake

Desert Heart Home

Wind blows through skin,
flesh & bones. Crows swing through air.
Six raindrops release the smell of creosote–
the scent of tires burning. Bats & their star
flowers bloom at night. Dust, ash.
Blue sky, scorching sun, steel-colored clouds.
Must is a modal verb, carrying a mood of ‘can do,’
of survivors, loners, a family of few.

-Alexa Mergen

Breath inside the breath

Practicing breath awareness, the tiny pause at the bottom of an exhalation is the small space where movement and stillness merge.

It often makes me think of this poem.

The next time you breathe out, linger. Ride the exhalation a little longer, a surfer skimming into shore.

Are you looking for me?

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.

When you really look for me, you will see me instantly –
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.

Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

– Kabir

Mac-un-Chz

“What’s this yummy concoction?” Matt said after taking a bite.

mac no chz

Aha! It’s mac-un-chz! And it’s delicious.

Eating veg-strong can be invigorating; I do feel spunkier relying on plant-based foods. But, at least for this on-again, off-again sort-of -vegan, it hasn’t always been flavorful or fun.

Even though my parents accommodated childhood vegetarian explorations, and adult forays into raw and dairy-free, I come from meat-eating people, some who worked the land, reverently hunting wild game, and slaughtering and eating animals they raised with care.

My relatives are also gracious and curious world travelers who value and emphasize eating what’s served and trying new things. I  internalized these values and abide by them as much as I can endeavoring, like my hero Peace Pilgrim, to savor and appreciate any edible shared by a host as the gift that it is.

At home, though, vegetables and fruit rule the roost. And this time around, partly in honor of Prince (whose 1984 Purple Rain Tour remains the best show my teenaged self ever saw!) and largely in an effort to practice ahimsa, I’m giving mostly vegan another go.

[Click here for an interview I did with Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan. Breezie offers her take on compassion, race and the environment.]

It’s working out well for this body, budget and mind so far. (Everyone’s different. Do what suits you!) For now, that means plant-based plus a few eggs a week (from my local CSA) and yogurt at breakfast. Once in awhile, butter comes into play for almond cake.

As for many Americans, macaroni and cheese is my comfort food. I’ve eaten it any which way–with fancy white cheeses, plain old orange cheese (what my family called “rat cheese,” because sometimes it baited the rat traps…what can I say? I grew up in a D.C. row house), fluorescent from a box, organic from a box, scooped from the steam table, unwrapped on the tray table, fresh, frozen as a main dish or a side.

Well, readers and friends, I present a plant-based macaroni and cheese that Matt said was “the best I’ve ever had.” And, having lived with me for lotsa years, he’s eaten lotsa macaroni and cheese and attempts at mac-un-chz.

This recipe is adapted from one that came through the Animal Place Sanctuary Sweets email. If you’re wanting to be Veg Strong, I suggest subscribing. The email service offers more than sweets.

Mac-un-Chz (aka Yummy Concoction) adapted from clean food dirty girl

  • Soak 1/2 cup raw cashews in water to cover. Set aside.
  • In a small covered saucepan, simmer for 20 minutes in 2 cups of water : one peeled and chunked russet potato, 2 carrots, one small onion, 2 cloves garlic.
  • Meanwhile, start cooking macaroni or other noodles of your choice.
  • After 20 minutes, place cooked vegetables and cooking liquid in a blender, along with the drained cashews and about 1/2 cup nutritional yeast. Blend until smooth and creamy. Add water if needed but be conservative.
  • Return sauce to pan. Add powdered turmeric (I used at least one Tablespoon), a dash of ground sage, a dash of dried basil and dried parsley, 1/4 teaspoon good quality horseradish, fresh ground black pepper and salt to taste.
  • When macaroni is cooked, drain. Place back in its pan and douse with olive oil (optional). Top with the sauce, stirring to combine. Enjoy!

Notes:

I have a regular ol’ blender. No high power needed.

The concoction thickens and turns creamier when you let it sit with the lid on, stove heat off, for 5-10 minutes.

Served here with diced fresh tomatoes marinated in lemon juice and olive oil with a tiny bit of sugar, salt and pepper.  They’re what I had on hand. Mac-un-Chz would also be delicious with a side of tender steamed broccoli garnished with lemon or a fresh green salad.

The concoction reheated superbly in the microwave.

 

 

When the mind is still

“When the mind is still

the floor where I sit

is endless space.”

form the poem “Green Mountains” by Muso Soseki translated by W.S. Merwin and Muso Soseki

Edouard Vuillard, Woman Sitting by the Fireside, 1894, National Gallery of Art

from Zen Sourcebook, edited by Stephen Addiss, with Stanley Lombardo and Judith Roitman