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.”

Romance has hooked me!

My Little Bird encouraged me to explore why romance novels have me hook, line and sinker. I talked with some authors and did some soul searching to figure it out.

IMAGINE A WORLD created by intelligent, plucky women.

Imagine a world where fantasy is played out on a secure stage, where pleasure and principle are not at odds.

Welcome to the world of the romance novel.

Are you reading them? A whole lot of people are.

According to a recent story in the New York Times, romance novels are so popular that sales in 2013 exceeded $1 billion and are expected to keep growing.

I’m contributing to those sales, selecting the latest release from the rack above the magazines at CVS to add to my red shopping basket, and I’m rereading the Bröntes in thick hardback editions borrowed from the library.

Continue reading here.

Bye, Bye, Black

As the days offer more light, I’m bringing color back into my life, blouse by barrette, plate by pillow, gradually phasing out the long-relied-upon black and grey in my closet.

Life is change and, for me, this is a big one.

To try to figure out the full impetus, I ginned up an essay for My Little Bird.

 

MY FIRST GROWN-UP dress was a Ralph Lauren knee-length black jersey with ballerina neckline, long narrow sleeves and a wide belt to cinch the waist. When I wore it, I felt beautiful, a new sensation. I was 16 years old, growing up in D.C. and awakening to the peculiar power of youth and femininity.

That same year, my mother also gave me a string of good-quality pearls. When I learned that oils from skin help the gems retain their luster, I rarely took them off. This was the late eighties. We wore pearls against our crewneck volleyball uniforms or doubled the strands on our wrists to pile up with friendship bracelets woven from embroidery thread.

I remembered that dress when I recently watched the classic film “Funny Face” (1957) in which Kay Thompson plays the editor of a fashion magazine. Tired of drab wardrobes, she declares “Banish the black,” and demands a remake of her next issue.

“Now hear this,” her character Ms. Prescott orders over the office intercom, as she assembles her staff for a meeting. Wearing a black suit and white blouse, she pronounces the planned fashion spread dreary and demands: “Everything goes pink!”

She speaks my language.

Continue reading here.

 

 

Feet first

Scanning a weather map in March reminds me how many climates the country has. Forecasters predict chilly wind, sunshine then snow for the D.C. area this week; rain and warmer temperatures for my friends across the country in Sacramento.

This winter has been the first true cold weather I’ve experienced–I mean needing boots, hat, gloves, scarf and coat most days–since I lived in Ann Arbor in 1994. As I walked D.C. in December, January and February, I noticed plenty of people sliding around on loafers and pumps. I had to refrain from tapping their shoulders and insisting they don overboots.

For yoga teachers, feet are fundamental.

We seek to help those toes, arches and ankles feel flexible and strong. I kid my private students that their narrow feet will broaden into wide yoga toes. Look down at the feet of the most lithe yogini and you’ll likely see some sturdy-looking dogs.

After observing two women leave my apartment building to walk through the snowy courtyard in four-inch-heels last month, I got curious about how important foot care really is.

The result is “Tending to Your Soles” that ran in My Little Bird

Warm-weather pals, if you’re skipping off to the salon in flip-fops for a pedicure, click on the article. You might reconsider after hearing from the podiatrist!

 

Stay calm and keep still

frances photo
A neighborhood garden a few days before January’s snowfall. Photo by Matt Weiser.

STILLNESS CAME to D.C. this January with 36 hours of snowfall.

“Snowzilla” stalled buses, planes, Metrorail and cars. Shops closed. People stayed home. Pets hunkered down.

It was quiet. It was calm.

Then, upon the sun’s return, the city of 700,000 had no choice but to stir.

Movement is inherent to life. Time and space are precious commodities in a city’s busy-ness.

Yet, one action, the snow reminds us, is always available: stilling.

“Stand still.”

This imperative begins the poem “Lost,” by David Wagoner.

“Wherever you are is called Here,” the speaker continues.

Stillness is an intentional pause to think, listen and notice the external world, to observe one’s internal state; it transforms our relationship with time and space and often ourselves.

A moment of stillness is like a brief journey to another place.

“When the body is able to find some quiet,” explains Reverend Inryu of All Beings Zen community in Adams Morgan, “the mind has an opportunity to quiet down.”

Stillness is a precursor of meditation. One settles on a chair or on a cushion, organizing the skin, tissues, muscles and bones of the body to find a steady seat.

Even in the movement of walking meditation, a person cultivates a sense of internal stillness, clearing the sky of the mind. In group walking meditation, the custom is to take the pace of the most unhurried walker, voluntarily slowing. Notions of compassion and interconnection correlate with stillness. Inryu points out that all religions include contemplative practices for quiet retreat.

“Stillness has a lot of virtues,” agrees Washington, D.C., area bird watcher Nick Lund, who blogs at The Birdist, “and one of them is seeing how quickly everything else is moving. There’s a relativity there.”

We know that as long as we’re alive, we’re never truly still. However, by identifying gradations of movement, we increase awareness of ourselves and others.

“Birding is not particularly still in general,” Lund clarifies, “but when you’re in the woods, especially at this time of year when the woods can seem empty and quiet, you can just stop and close your eyes and be perfectly still and listen, and that’s when you start to pick up on how active everything else is. You start hearing birds and squirrels and all the other animals, people and dogs moving around.”

In a room, where meditators typically keep their eyes open, “being settled may open up a vantage to be more aware of what’s happening in the moment,” Inryu explains. “That can be a lot of activity, shifting sunlight or moonlight, shadows on the walls, the breathing and adjusting of people in the room.”

Inryu describes a quality of peace with our essential essence that comes from slowing down so completely. This peace allows us to be present.

“I think of being still as an opportunity to create conditions where you can be a human in your being aspect, rather than your doing aspect,” Inryu says.

Read the entire article on My Little Bird.

Hum for health

The year 2016 is here. Off to a humming start? Or feeling ho-hum?

In any case, try humming.

It’s free and easy, takes only a few minutes and seems to promote health and harmony.

Humming. Bird.

Humming turns the body into a musical instrument, creating vibrations that travel through spaces, such as nasal cavities. Like a hall monitor, humming keeps things moving to clear the way.

Recent studies reported in the New York Times show that humming “helps increase airflow between the sinus and nasal cavities, which could potentially help protect against sinus infections.” Mucus build-up leads to infection. That’s when your head feels dull and achey.

The musical aspect of humming may explain why it can be a mood lifter. We connect with another time and place by humming a nostalgic tune. Musicologist Joseph Jordania believes humming may be one of humans’ earliest means of communication, letting one another know they are safe.

As with singing, humming leads to a longer exhalation, which can be soothing. A humming breath sequence used in yoga, called brahmari, or bee breath, is said to deepen breathing and reduce anxiety. Practice the breath alone, where you might feel less self-conscious, or recruit a friend.

When I’ve led brahmari breathing in yoga classes, buzzing like bees proves so fun that people often smile. This exercise can delight children and — if you’re willing to hum like a hive with them — may distract them from a bad temper.

Want to try it?

Continue reading on My Little Bird.

Grounded

HOW SETTLED ARE YOU in your seat? If you’re sitting on a chair of any sort, you may have already joined the ranks of the uncomfortably settled.

The health hazards of sitting are making news: A recent poster published by The Washington Post graphically depicts the disease, degeneration and correlating death that may result from too much cushion warming.

The Post’s tips suggest sitting up straight, away from the chair back, shoulders relaxed, arms bent at the elbows and close to the sides, relying on the body’s underpinnings,

A rarer option is abandoning the chair to come to the ground. Sitting on the floor gives new meaning to supporting oneself. And because most of us can’t sit on the floor for any great length of time, we move around more than we would when planted in a chair.

Sitting on the floor reconnects us with the earthiness of being alive. It can be easier to find one’s center of gravity without furniture’s encumbrances. Some consider the practice “grounding,” believing it calms and centers the mind while energizing the body.

“It’s a confidence builder,” says Sally Craig, who teaches gentle yoga at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in D.C. “Being aware of where your body is in space. Having that level of body awareness is critically important for avoiding falls or falling safely, with the least amount of damage.”

Continue reading in My Little Bird where the story ran last week.

Prefer to stretch in a chair? Check out these moves.

Want to stick with the mind? Practice morning mindfulness.

Walking Meditation

These past couple of months I’ve been taking my meditation practice outside, experiencing movement, place and mindfulness at once. Walking meditation can be practiced just about anywhere.

Any walk becomes mindful through breath awareness and focus. In walking meditation, we notice surroundings at the pace of the body. The ability to just be, with ease, reduces stress and contributes to mental and physical health.

Stand. Feel the connection of your feet with the ground. Sense the body’s organization, hips aligned over ankles, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders. Relax the outer corners of the eyes. Keep the chin parallel with the ground as the gaze lowers. Clasp hands in front of or behind the torso or let them swing freely.

Start at a crossing-the-room pace. Then walk more slowly. This may feel off-kilter, as if you are relearning the body’s relationship with gravity. Slip into what meditators call “beginner’s mind,” a perspective of openness and receptivity.

Apply a sense of spaciousness to thoughts as well. Imagine the mind made of baleen, the keratin bristles found in a whale’s mouth. Gather through the senses what nourishes; filter out what doesn’t.

Continue reading here.