Taking a bath in the forest: The Japanese Practice of Shinrin-yoku

As the leaves change colour, it reminds me that once again a season has come to an end.  In the past, I’ve always hated leaving summer behind.   However; I’ve been trying to shift my perspective from endings to embracing new beginnings.

There is a brightness to fall, an incredible burst of colour  that fills our world before the leaves fall to the ground and welcome winter.  Even though the air is chiller, there is a smoky woody scent that only autumn seems to have. Autumn is truly magnificent, but for some reason this seems to be the first year that I’ve really noticed it.  Perhaps, its because I’ve  recently  been trying to bring my practice outdoors.

I begin and end my fall practice with a meditative walk.  As I walk, I try to take everything in, allowing all my senses to absorb the environment.  My practice isn’t always silent. To be honest, my most favourite fall walks is when I have my children with me.  Not that I don’t enjoy the silence.  I do. But there is something in their impulsivity, their expressiveness, their awe. that is contagious.  If its a milder day, we will all take of our shoes and socks and feel the crunch of the leaves under our feet.  The coolness combined with the crumbly texture of the ground is truly a magical feeling.   According to a 2008, University of Michigan study walking in nature can improve attention span and memory performance by a much as 20%.  Now who wouldn’t want that benefit.

Once in the midst of the forest, I take my time and spend some moments either reflecting, telling autumn stories (why the leaves change colour, what happens to the animals) or practicing the asanas.

My favourite poses in nature are the more grounded ones. The ones that help me feel my connection to the earth.

Taking a deep breath, I reach for the sun in Tadasana and begin a full Sun salutation.  In the forest, I typically practice a more gentler Hatha version.  This is a slower practice, not yin, but a practice where I try to consciously spend time absorbing each pose and noticing the earth that my body is connecting with.  I love the feeling of the earth beneath my fingers and toes in Downward Dog, and it’s gentle warm embrace in Child’s Pose.

My daughter insists that we practice tree.  As our bodies sway in unison, (I’m usually holding each of my children’s hands), it feels almost musical.

As I sway with my family, we try to move together with the rhythm of the tress.  Usually, we topple down together sometimes on purpose and sometimes our bodies just tell us that it’s time to lie down.   It’s a simple practice, a place where I try to take the time to breathe and reconnect to things that are important: the earth, my family and the strength and power in my own body.  I always try to end my practice, with savasana.  As we lie on the ground, I look up and talk about the magic of the trees.  My daughter shares how the wind tickles her nose and my son usually comments on the sounds in the forest or the small insect that wanders by his hand.

I recently read about the Japanese practice “Shinrin-yoku” Forest bathing.  As I read the description, I realized that this is what I’ve been practicing with my children on a fairly regular basis.

But here’s what’s amazing, Japanese researchers found that immersing yourself in trees and plants in a forest setting can be an extremely powerful practice.  In fact, this month’s Yoga international reported that forest bathing can:

  • Boost immune function
  • Increase cancer battling proteins
  • lower the concentration of cortisol
  • Lower pulse rate
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Reduce anxiety, depression and even anger

Now if that’s not a reason for a walk in the forest, I’m not sure what is.  It’s funny when you read something that your body, mind and spirit know instinctively.  I’ve been walking in the forests to get reconnected with the earth and remember what’s important in my life.  Yes, it felt amazing. But who knew all the benefits that this practice could have.  It reminds me, that sometimes we just have to trust our instinct. Our body and mind knows what’s right for us. We just need to learn how to pay attention and listen.

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