by Tami Astorino
Editor’s Note: In honor of Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees, we’re sharing jkidphilly mom Tami Astorino’s wonderful blog that originally appeared here.
As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
Walking (Henry David Thoreau)
Science, history, and our own intuition tell us that nature is transformative for the human body and psyche. Trees have the power to to make us healthier and more connected to who we are, and the world. I’ve always enjoyed immersing myself in nature and recently have discovered new aspects of the experience which make it more meaningful and potent.
I was given an opportunity that turned out to be a gift at Rise Gathering Weekend when a facilitator was unable to lead a meditative experience in the trees. I immersed myself in learning Shinrin-yoku, a practice that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Since then I’ve continued learning about and experiencing forest bathing and my own well being has shifted as a result. I find myself feeling the powerful effects of this healing modality that is so readily available to all of us when we just get ourselves out of our own thoughts and in awe of the nature that surrounds us.
Getting into the woods for mind and body renewal is as simple as the sun shining it’s rays through the trees. It’s not a nature walk where you are leading with your head or have a destination. It’s not a hike. It’s standing, moving and sitting and using all our senses to connect with the nature that surrounds us.
You don’t need any guide other than your internal compass. Here’s some ways you can forest bathe today – all you need is a tree.
Open Up Your Senses
Start by closing your eyes. Pay attention to what you can hear both close by and far away. Stay with the sound. Then breathe deeply and discover what you smell and taste. Open your eyes and gaze for several moments at something very close to you, something far away, and then something up high. Finally, “feel” the forest by touching anything that beckons for your attention, or even better, take off your shoes and ground yourself, experiencing the earth through the soles of your feet. Lean on or wrap your arms around a tree (yep, hug it!)
Awesome means “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear”. In the 80’s we overused the word and everything became “awesome!” Not only has the word lost its meaning, our ability to feel awe is dulled by the multiple things competing for our attention by trying to be “epic” “life changing” and “so amazing”. With all this noise it’s critical to turn our attention to what is truly ‘awe-some’ and doesn’t require travel, money or trying so hard.
In the forest you might experience awe with an invitation to yourself like the following:
Visualize your body as a leaf. Feel the sun’s rays flowing into you, turning light into life. Extend your arms and imagine you are all the leaves on a tree — each leaf receiving the light of the sun.
Shift Your Gaze to Soft Fascination
Most of our day is spent using “focused attention” which requires effort and concentration. We use focused attention when we are at work, or driving, or just walking along a street or the grocery aisles. In forest bathing you slow down and switch from mental effort to what comes naturally. You use soft fascination to let your mind be captured effortlessly by the movement of trees in the breeze, by the sounds of birds or the way the sun shines. As a result we give our mental resources a break. When we allow our minds to wander and reflect we restore our capacity to think clearly.
As you take in your surroundings be curious about any metaphors that come to mind. Do the roots of the tree remind you of your own support systems? A “mother tree” keeping a sapling alive until it can reach the sun on it’s own reminds us of our interdependence. The massive height of a tree and its tremendous age is a testament to its ability to survive storms. What is a metaphor you witness in the wilderness?
Breathe In and Out
Typically when moving our breath is shallow. In the forests you can breathe deeply; fill your lungs with life-giving oxygen, given to you by the trees and plants that surround you. As you exhale, gratefully return the favor, offering carbon dioxide that is keeping the trees alive as well. Be aware of how interconnected you are with the forest, and of the reciprocal relationship all beings have with one another.
Look up! We experience much of our days looking down as we walk, sit and stand. We are busy looking at our path, or even as we walk, our phones. Change your gaze to one that looks in all directions. Just this practice will encourage your body to slow down and your breath to deepen. Rise taller to meet the tree tops, raise your hands and lift your face toward the canopy of branches above you. As you experience your surroundings you may discover a mantra to remind you to stay present. When I hold still in the forest I breathe and repeat to myself “root down, rise up” I take it with me when I leave the forest.
Don’t wait for the perfect weather or season to do this. My favorite forest bathing experiences have been in the rain! The longer you spend in nature the more potent the effects, but just a few minutes of connection to nature will have you breathing deeper, make your thoughts more harmonious, and ground your body to the vibration of the earth.
Tami Astorino, M.Ed., co-creator of Rise Gatherings, facilitates classes and retreat experiences to empower women. Fueled by her years of creating opportunities for people to grow and experience more joy, Tami seeks to create communities that raise voices and spirits.