A few months ago I went to brunch with friends and was invited to sign up for a free “green walk forest bathing experience” at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. It sounded interesting. What is forest bathing?, I wondered. I didn’t even know we had a botanical garden in Kahului! I put my name in as soon as I found out it would be at the old Maui zoo location. I was so curious! With a name like “forest bathing,” how could it not be fun?
I teach group classes like yoga, spinning, and all things fitness, but I still get intimidated to try things outside of my comfort zone. But I was excited at the same time. Am I gonna be good at this? Do I have to partner up with people? Do I swim in the leaves and paint myself with flowers?
One humbling experience a day is good for the soul, I believe, so I went for it.
The morning of the event I found myself getting more excited. I parked my car and walked into the gardens, and was brought right back to my childhood at the zoo… minus the animals. I walked up to the check-in desk and was greeted by the friendly staff.
I was ready for a forest bath.
Phyllis Look of Forest Bathing Hawai‘i was our guide. She has a calming and passionate energy about her and happens to be Hawai‘i’s first certified forest therapy guide. There were about 25 of us, and she gathered us together to explain the concept behind forest bathing. It’s a nature therapy called shinrin-yoku that started in Japan (shinrin means forest and yoku means bath).
Shinrin-yoku is a wellness practice that serves the natural world and brings individual awareness to it. I felt intrigued and immediately comforted, like I was giving my soul a gift – but it wasn’t only me that was receiving. I was also giving back to nature by respecting and honoring it.
We started our forest bathing journey with an exercise in stilling our minds and opening up our senses. We walked to an open space and found a place to sit or lay comfortably, closed our eyes, and just listened. I could hear the birds while feeling the Earth beneath me and breathing in the freshness of the trees and open sky. The goal was to be completely present in the space between thoughts. I practice guided meditations daily but this felt new. I took it all in and just simply was, and it felt safe and pure. This first invitation, as Phyllis called it, had me feeling pure joy just to be exactly where I was.
The next exercise was all about slowing down and observing while making our way to a destination. The goal was not far at all, and I probably could have got there in three minutes if my focus had been on arriving there, but this second invitation was about the journey, the slow down. This next exercise in mindfulness took us 20 minutes, during which I was mindful of every step I took. I observed the trees, the leaves, the patterns the leaves weaved, the roots. I watched butterflies and bees, and at one point I thought I could feel the Earth rotating beneath my feet. I moved like a sloth and observed everything. It’s so easy to look, yet not really see, when we are always rushing to the next destination. There is breathtaking beauty when we just stop, let our thoughts subside, and simply observe.
Our next 20-minute invitation was to make friends with a tree in the garden and observe it. In a botanical garden it’s so hard to choose just one, so I let my tree choose me. I used what I learned from the previous invitation and took my time, and found my way to a beautiful tree whose roots were weaved through a fence. It looked like art. I talk to my plants everyday at home, so it wasn’t hard for me to make friends with this pretty work of nature. I have always felt like all living things need love, so I gave the tree some of mine.
Phyllis had us pick quotes and she asked us to read it to our tree when we made friends. I love quotes and trees, so this was fun. The challenge for me, though, was that I wanted to pick up my phone and take a picture and (naturally in this day and age) post to social media. It was another lesson, one that came to fruition by just moving through these invitations.
Our final invitation was to taste a piece of steamed local kalo, or taro. Phyllis told us the Hawaiian story of the plant. The Hawaiian people have a deep and profound appreciation for the ‘aina, the land. Their roots trace back to the story of creation in which kalo is family. In this invitation we were absorbed in letting our taste buds enjoy the kalo, but for me it was more than that. It was acknowledging that this was a connection to nature, to the land, and honoring the ancestors that were here long before. It was pure appreciation for the traditions and stories passed down through generations that keep us connected to our roots and culture.
The whole forest bathing experience wasn’t a workout. I didn’t break a sweat. It was a work-in. It was soul-fulfilling. It’s about patience and the joy of connecting with something greater than ourselves, Phyllis said; it’s a way to de-stress and embrace the pause, to be able to come back and find creativity and inspiration. I received all of these things from my experience and more. I hope I was able to give some of it back to nature as well, to give my gratitude and love for the natural world and myself. I was replenishing my soul.
It’s a wonderful time to explore this concept of forest bathing as we self-isolate during this pandemic. Use this time of social distancing to be gentle with yourself and connect with nature.
Here are some ways to connect with nature during this time:
- Step outside in nature. It doesn’t have to be in a forest or jungle. It can simply be in your yard. Anywhere you can open up your senses and quiet your mind.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes. It may feel like forever, but at the end of the 20 minutes you’ll begin to settle in.
- Really look. If you’re in your yard, find a plant, a flower, a blade of grass… and really look at it. Look at its curves and edges and fine print. What do you see when you really take a closer look?
- Feel more and think less. Get out of your head. We’re human so thoughts will arise and that’s OK. Let them come in, let them flow out, and let your focus be on the present moment. A good tip that I use while meditating is to bring awareness to your breath. When you are aware of your breath, you are present. When you are grateful, you are present.
- Not naming, just knowing. Take the biology out of it and see something for what it is.
- Go slow. Sometimes we get so caught up on the next thing and the next and the next, that we don’t get to fully appreciate where we are. Slow down, be here, in this moment. No rush.
- If you’re with a friend, try not to talk. Let nature do the talking.
- Put away your phone and be present.
For more information on forest bathing: