You don’t need a swimsuit to go nature bathing. You don’t need soap, shampoo or a scrub brush, either.
You do, however, need some time to slow down, breathe deeply and focus on nothing but your surroundings, without the distraction of a smart phone or the demands of everyday life.
I dove into a grassy meadow, tiptoed through a cold creek and found hidden treasure outdoors late in 2018 when I joined naturalist and writer Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a trained nature therapy guide from Washington, D.C., for a stroll at YMCA of Austin’s Camp Moody, an 85-acre camp in Buda with the mission of introducing children to nature.
Choukas-Bradley grew up wandering the hills and fields of Vermont, during what she describes as her “free-range childhood.” As a young adult she wrote a book about trees, and a few years ago, after reading about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, loosely translated as forest bathing or nature bathing, she decided she wanted to become a nature bathing guide. She trained in California and now leads nature bathing walks around Washington, D.C.
The practice began in Japan in the 1980s, where a national public health program pointed to the physical and mental benefits of spending mindful time outdoors. Paying rapt attention to things like the sound of rustling leaves, the smell of spicy plants or the feel of moss-covered stones not only could improve one’s mood, advocates said, but lower cortisol levels and boost immunity. Charts posted along designated “forest therapy” trails in Japan point out such benefits, and stations along some even provide a place for people to check their blood pressure and pulse, which tend to slow during such strolls.
The concept has grown into a global wellness movement that encourages overstressed, mostly urban dwellers to retreat to parks and pockets of green space to commune with nature.
“It’s rooted in the ancient Japanese reverence for nature,” says Choukas-Bradley, author of "The Joys of Forest Bathing,” which provides tips on how to forest bathe (turn off your smart phone, move slowly and pay attention to all your senses), where to do it and how to enjoy it in all four seasons.
Our Camp Moody experience began with a silent walk down a gravel trail to a tree-dotted field. Choukas-Bradley rang a small bell, then invited our group of about 10 to look at our surroundings and concentrate on our connection to the earth. She asked us to close our eyes and, when we re-opened them, pretend we were seeing the world for the very first time.
We walked through the camp for the next hour, pausing periodically to focus on different things. We looked for treasure — a golden cottonwood leaf, a piece of a snake’s skin, a marble-sized seed pod. We clattered down to a creek, paying special attention to things in motion, from the water’s rippled surface to the clouds scuttling overhead. We discovered a fuzzy white caterpillar, a tiny frog and a fossil set in limestone.
“When you slow down, you start to notice things,” said Sean Doles, vice president of YMCA of Austin, pointing out a spider web the size of two tennis rackets.
At one point, we each picked up a rock of our own choosing. We pressed it to our cheek, turned it over and asked it to carry our troubles for us. We hugged trees, literally. We picked up softball-size bundles of ball moss and touched chunks of clay, which had hardened into what looked like stacks of lunch meat. Choukas-Bradley pulled a clump of wild onion, which we passed around and inhaled.
Finally, we formed a small circle in the grass, read a few poems and sipped maple-sweetened water from tiny wooden cups in a sort of nature-themed tea party. Choukas-Bradley read some quotes by conservationist and author John Muir, including this one: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
Think about that for a moment.
A few things to note about nature bathing — it doesn’t matter if you hear the hum of traffic in the background; that can become part of the palette you’re absorbing. You don’t have to travel far to nature bath. It works just fine in your own backyard, the park down the street or outside of the office where you work.
“Once you get in a groove, you might find yourself nature bathing while you walk to your car in the parking lot,” Choukas-Bradley said. “It’s all about awareness and connection. There’s no great mystery to it. It’s all about turning in, and it’s something people have been doing since time began.”
We may need it now more than ever, since many of us spend our working lives indoors, tethered to a desk.
“I think we’re all really stressed. We’re constantly bombarded by email, text messages and headlines that come across our phones. I think we’re also very disconnected with nature,” Choukas-Bradley said, and nature bathing can counter that. “It feels good, it feels healthy, it feels joyful."
Heather Kuhlken, founder of the Austin-based non-profit organization Families in Nature, who participated in the nature bathing experience, agreed. “Personally, the benefit is calming my own self,” she said. “I take others out to do this type of thing all the time, but rarely take the time to do it myself."
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