Forest bathing offers walkers quiet peace in forest

Close your eyes, turn, and find your spot. Look up. Open your eyes. What do you notice?
Posted:  Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - 8:00am
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A small cluster of people gathered at Porter Preserve in Trevett on a crisp Monday morning on Nov. 7 to share a new kind of walking experience sponsored by the Boothbay Region Land Trust (BRLT). Called Shinrin Yoku in Japanese, it translates as forest bathing in English. Part walk, part therapy, Shinrin Yoku blends short, sense-opening exercises with ritual, both within the natural environment of a forest.

“The practice began in Japan during the 1980s,” said guide Tracey Hall, the environmental educator for BRLT. “Japanese people were stressed out, and doctors began to search for ways to help them. Walks in the forest were not only recommended, they prescribed them for their patients. The forest was the therapist.”

That morning’s walk was Hall’s first time leading this type of walk. “I’ve been leading hikes for 20 years,” Hall said. “But this is different. It invites people to slow down.” Last summer, she traveled to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in northern California to receive Shinrin Yoku training.

A walk takes about an hour, and consists of a series of exercises about 10 minutes long, each of which begins with a polite invitation to join in. “The invitation gives participants a choice on whether they want to be part of it,” said Hall. “If not, they are invited to enjoy the forest in their own way. It’s understood that each person may have an edge, or something that makes them uncomfortable.”

Shortly after entering the preserve, the walkers formed a ring. Hall invited them to close their eyes and open their senses to the forest around them, to turn in a circle from where they stood and find a spot that felt like theirs. Then she invited participants to open their eyes and talk about their experience. She picked up a stick and said, “This is the talking stick. If you want to share, take the stick. If not, that’s okay.” One person remarked on the sharpness of the air. Another focused on finding the sunlight. All chose to speak out and, afterward, the group moved down the trail.

A rounded-tone bell was added during the rest of the exercises, meant to call back group members from places they had scattered along the trail. One of these exercises invited people to focus on an individual tree they felt drawn to. “Have a conversation with it,” suggested Hall. “Or not. Think about what’s special about the tree. What is it telling you?” When the bell dinged and the group reconvened, one person noted that a particularly large tree she had admired showed her how it was actually two trees, having split near the trunk and grown upward into the sky. A chipmunk joined another participant for an intense blinking contest.

The last exercise involved finding a sitting spot where each person was to remain for 10 minutes. “Studies have shown that after that amount of time, animals disturbed by your presence settle down,” Hall said. “Sit quietly and notice what’s happening around you.” Crows overhead stole the show during this particular exercise, apparently unperturbed by the visitors. Loud caws and cackles filled the tops of the pines as the birds called to one another, lending a note of humor to those watching them from the quiet forest floor.

A tea ceremony wrapped up the Shinrin Yoku walk. Hall poured tea with a tincture of wintergreen from crushed leaves taken directly from Porter Preserve into small, clear cups. A final talking stick was passed around. “I don’t want to go back,” one person said. Another person admitted that she normally didn’t share her thoughts, but that this experience had made her feel safe enough to do it.

The tea ceremony over, the group made the short hike back to the parking lot. One participant noted the vivid greens of the pines and the baby spruce, how quiet it was to walk along the pine-needled path, inhaling the sharpness of the wind and listening to the rattle of the few leaves left to spin themselves down at their own leisure. November is nothing if not patient.

Two more Shrinin Yoku walks will be held on Nov. 14 and Nov. 21 at 10 a.m. at the preserve on Barters Island. To find out more, contact Hall at thall@bbrit.org or call BRLT at 207-633-4818. Group size is limited, so reservations are recommended. Wear layers, and bring a hat and gloves.