I am a desert dweller but have always been drawn to trees. Tree time is important to me, whether spending time with the pine tree in my backyard or heading north to the Coconino Forest in Arizona. I always slow down to appreciate the way a leaf is lit by sunlight, breathe in the heady scent of pine needles under my feet or listen to the song of wind in the trees. I had no idea this was forest bathing.
I first heard about forest bathing from a student in my Tai Chi class, who found that forest bathing had a calming effect similar to my class. The discipline that I teach creates a unity of heaven, earth and humanity. In a similar way, spending mindful time in nature restores inner peace and a sense of harmony with the universe.
While giving a forest bathing presentation, I took a group of 30+ on a virtual forest bathing walk, engaging their five senses through visualization, sound cues and interacting with pine needles I’d harvested from my backyard. The comments I heard after this walk were “transformative,” “relaxing,” “I needed this so much” and “I felt my blood pressure get lower.”
My goal in teaching and writing is to connect everyone with nature. Following are ways to engage your five senses while forest bathing, out on a daily walk or even sitting on your porch.
Before beginning your immersion in nature, take a moment to center yourself. Breathe slowly in, pause a moment and then exhale slowly out. Repeat two more times.
Take in details as you walk slowly down the path or look around your porch. What kinds of trees or plants do you see? What do their leaves look like? Look at the path beneath your feet. Is it smooth, a dirt path, or uneven like shale?
Look closely at a flower or plant. Notice the details of the petals or leaves, the structure by which it transports nutrients. Then look out at the distance, letting your gaze soften. When you look out at the horizon, it relaxes your brain. Take in the colors you see. Slowly look up at the canopy, then at the path ahead and finally look down at the ground. Return to center.
Let your eyes wander until they find an interesting view. Spend time with that view. Look at the local details that make this scene special to where you are hiking or sitting.
One of my favorite views is at Sunset Point, 45 minutes north of Phoenix. The horizontal lines of the mountains repeat in such a way it seems you can see all the way to the coast. When I look out at this view, I feel all tension in my shoulders and brain melt away.
Close your eyes. Listen closely to what is around you. What do you hear? Can you identify the birds in your area? What is happening in the spaces between sounds? Take a few steps and listen to the texture of sound as you take each step. Is it crunchy, or soft?
Listen for the sound of water nearby. Is it moving rapidly or burbling quietly? What quality makes your location a really special place? When the wind moves the leaves in the trees, stop to listen. What message do you hear?
I know I’m near Oak Creek in Sedona by the sounds of what I call “the critters.” I never see them, but when I hear their distinct chirps and peeps I feel a strong connection with the unique energy of Sedona.
Carefully select a tree or other plant that is not poisonous to touch. Find something that speaks to you. Approach your tree or plant and place your hands on its surface. Close your eyes and focus on the feeling under your hands. Move your fingers to take in the details with your fingertips.
Find a pine needle or local flower (non toxic), if allowed. Closing your eyes again, feel the pine needle or flower in your hands. Use your fingers. Lightly roll it between your palms.
I collect pine cones that have fallen on the ground on my hikes or neighborhood walks. The ones in my backyard have a nice smooth feeling, but one day while out for a walk I picked up a different kind of pinecone. It wasn’t until I tried to transfer it to the other hand that I realized it was covered in sap!
Take in a slow deep breath through your nose, then exhale out your mouth. What do you smell? Close your eyes and breathe in the scent again. Repeat this several times, identifying what’s around you by smell alone.
Open your eyes and move to a sunny spot. Inhale the scent of the plants and earth there. Now move to a shady spot and do the same. Notice how each microclimate smells.
Hold your pine needle or flower in one hand. Scrape a bit from the surface with your fingernail. Closing your eyes again, sniff your found flora. Concentrate only on that scent in the present moment.
One of my favorite camp memories is a hike we took in Greer in the White Mountains. Our guide told us the trees smelled like either chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. We were skeptical but our guide encouraged us to go sniff. Sure enough, each tree had one of those flavors. We would run to a tree, sniff it and shout which flavor it was. My favorite is strawberry.
With your eyes still closed, take a small nibble of your found flora. Is it bitter? Sweet? Sour? Is it soft or is there a nice crunch to it?
On a hike around Flagstaff Arboretum, I learned that pine needles are loaded with vitamin C. You can brew pine needles in a tea, too. I did not have a teapot with me, but I nibbled on a pine needle. It had a pleasant, orange-like taste to it.
When we slow down and pay careful attention to what is right in front of us, it creates a mindful experience that enriches the soul. Enjoy these techniques to engage the senses and connect you with the beautiful harmony of nature.
Ambre Dawn Leffler enjoys helping people feel a connection to chi energy within themselves and in nature. Her writing focuses on nature, ways to connect with the environment, and seasonal living. She loves trees and cherishes time in their presence. Learn more about her work in harmonious living at her website ambredawnleffler.com and on twitter @AmbreDLeffler.