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.
Jessica Hancock, ND, is a naturopathic physician (www.mapleleafnaturopathy.com) and co-teacher at Mindful in the Wild (mindfulinthewild.com). She utilizes mindful healing approaches in her private practice in Shoreline.