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In these early days of August, I find myself reflecting on a very busy and fast-paced summer. Basking in the glory of warmer and longer light-filled days, there is an inner sense of urgency to pack in all the activities of this sunny season. I recently returned from a wondrous week-long backpacking trip in the South Cascades and noted that nature, in her own way, matches this urgent rhythm of summer. At higher elevations, the alpine meadows were bursting with a multitude of vibrant wildflowers, while butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees gathered in close proximity, eagerly gathering nectar. At lower elevations, branches of thimbleberries, huckleberries, and elderberries were loaded with fruit, close to ripeness. In this limited peak season, nature too is bursting at the seams.
Despite this sense of urgency and busy-ness, many of us also feel a desire to find time to slow down in order to really experience the beauty this season provides. Nature can be an ally on this quest for more stillness. Going to the wild for peace and healing has a long tradition in most cultures. However in recent decades, humans have become increasingly detached from the natural world. The average American spends 90% of their time indoors, and this is having a negative impact on our well-being.
In the last twenty years, there has been a plethora of research highlighting the positive impact of nature on our health. Most notably, in the early 1980s, Japan designated specific shinrin-yoku sites as a means to invite its overworked citizens to the healing power of nature. As a result, the Japanese undertook a tremendous amount of research to better understand the health benefits of nature. This research has uncovered that time in nature helps regulate our nervous system and has a positive impact on anxiety and depression. In addition, there are many cardiovascular benefits including decreased blood pressure and heart rate.
You may be asking at this point, “what is shinrin-yoku?” Shinrin-yoku is simply translated as “ taking in the forest atmosphere.” And it is this forest atmosphere that has a significant impact on our health. In fact, phytochemicals called terpenes secreted by trees and plants into the forest atmosphere actually impact our immune system. Spending just two hours a week in a forest can increase your immunity for up to one week.
The founding principle of forest bathing/shinrin-yoku is to utilize the five senses to connect more deeply to the wild, thus providing a gateway to presence. I find it helpful to invite a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity to guide you, like you are seeing, smelling, touching and hearing everything for the very first time. Simply slowing down and being present and curious in the outdoors connects us more deeply to the mystery and healing benefits of the natural world. And you don’t have to travel far into the wild to get these benefits. Our urban parks and gardens, like Kruckeberg Botanic Garden (KBG), provide generous opportunities to practice and play with forest bathing techniques. For example, you could spend some time with one of the Dawn Redwoods or Western Red Cedars at KBG, first taking time to just observe all of it from the ground all the way to the crown, noticing the spread of its branches and the play of light or breezes crossing its path. You could then take time to feel the texture of the tree’s bark, even smelling it. As you do this notice what you notice within yourself. You could take a nice slow walk through the garden with the invitation to see what calls your attention. Perhaps you are drawn to the various flowers in bloom, noticing their colors and aromatics. Or maybe the movement of birds in the canopy catches your attention. Perhaps you crave stillness and you can find a spot in the garden to comfortably sit for 15-20 minutes. Again, the simple instructions are to be with what calls your attention. The longer you sit, the more surprises you may encounter.
In our fast-paced culture and particularly in this busy time of year, it is valuable to take time for stillness. The natural world, through her spaciousness and tranquility, provides a gateway to the present moment. If you are interested in learning more about shinrin-yoku or mindfulness techniques, please join our class at Kruckeberg Botanic Garden on Wednesday, September 11th from 9-11 AM. We will take a two hour leisurely stroll through the garden, incorporating practices of mindfulness meditation and shinrin-yoku. You will be guided to connect with each of your senses, allowing you to relate more deeply to the beauty, wonder, awe, and healing potential awaiting you in the late summer garden.
In anticipation of the first Mindful in the Wild class at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline, Jessica H was asked to write a blog post.
When the vibrant, multi-colored petals of summer have faded and the rains have softened the
autumn leaves so that they no longer crunch underfoot, the Winter Garden becomes a place of peace and sanctuary. The lack of crowds provides a quiet beauty and solitude sometimes hard to find in other seasons. As you wander through the Lost Meadow or cross the bridge into the Ravine Experience, it feels as if you are miles away on some wilderness trail. Did you realize you could even take a bath in the forest? Shinrin-Yoku (JapaneseForest Bathing), along with some simple techniques from Mindfulness Meditation, provide some ideas for how to experience the Winter Garden in a whole new way.
I have been coming to the Garden in various seasons with my family since my parents, Lyle and June Ann Hassebroek, became involved over two decades ago. Nature was always an essential part of my childhood, wandering in the woods with my brother for hours on end. As an adult, I found myself often seeking refuge and healing in nature, so after a decade as a psychotherapist, I began inviting clients outside for sessions. Of course, healers within various medical disciplines all over the world have turned to nature as medicine for thousands of years. Japanese Shinrin-Yoku, based on ancient Shinto practices, encourages you to let nature into your body through all five senses. I also began teaching Mindfulness, which simply means being fully present to each moment, with acceptance. My colleague Jessica Volpentesta and I found we shared a passion for combining the healing powers of nature with the therapeutic effects of Mindfulness and recently formed Mindful in the Wild, teaching a class at the Bellevue Botanical Garden in September called Mindfulness in the Garden: Creating Calm Within. Let me share a few practices from that class that all of you can try yourselves as you wander through the Garden this Winter.
Mindful Walking Shinrin Yoku Exercises
Open Your Awareness
As you enter the Garden, focus your attention first on your breathing, something you always have with you to anchor yourself in the present moment. Take three slow, deep breaths, inhaling the fresh air and releasing any tension you are carrying with you. As you begin your walk, open your
awareness to the Natural world, recognizing the reciprocal relationship we have with all living things.
Usually we walk briskly, sometimes lost in thought, hardly aware of the earth beneath our feet or the beauty around us. Instead, let yourself slow down and focus on how each step feels as it touches the ground. Imagine yourself gliding, smoothly and quietly, softening your presence
in the natural world, honoring life around you, trying not to disturb it as you walk. As you move from the gravel of the main trails to the earth of the side trails or the Ravine Experience, notice how different it feels to walk on the softer bare ground—silent and connected.
Focus on Your Senses
As you walk, thoughts will naturally enter your mind. Just note them and let them float into the background as you refocus on your breath or on your various senses. Sounds are everywhere. Listen to the wind in the trees, the chirp of winter wrens, or the crunch of your feet on the
gravel of the main trails. Notice the silence between sounds and soak in the serenity and peace of this place of quiet. Also let your eyes expand your vision outward to the sky, watch the clouds move, or the branches bend and swirl. Notice the various shades of brown, green and gray that make up this season. Let yourself be pulled toward anything that grabs your attention, looking at it as if for the first time. Examine the veins in a leaf, or the gentle fronds of a fern. Touch with sensitive fingers, feeling the texture, smooth or rough. Rub a leaf, plant or branch between your fingers to release its aroma. Breathe it in, curious—perhaps, even entranced.
Lose yourself in the magical world that is alive around you, soaking in the serenity and peace of this place of quiet winter beauty.
In Beauty May You Walk!
After we taught our first class at the BBG, they asked us to write an article for their upcoming newsletter talking about how we got into this sort of work and giving some examples of the types of Mindful in the Wild practices we teach