Finding Your Footing in Uncertain Times with Forest Meditation

forest meditation
Forest Bathing and Mindful Movement took place at County Farm Park, and was co-led by Julie Woodward (pictured) and Washtenaw County Parks and Rec naturalist, Elle Bogle. Image courtesy of Julie Woodward.

Have you experienced the calm that comes when you walk among the trees? A boost in mood as you look at the colorful blooms in a garden, or the peace of gazing at the stars in the night sky? Although there is great diversity in the nature of people and we live in different circumstances, going outdoors can meet us as we are, calm and energize us, support us in relaxing our nervous systems, and coming into a balanced state. And it can help us find happiness. 

Forest Meditation Promotes Mental Health

As a yoga and meditation teacher and mental health professional, I am grateful to have learned the practices that I share with others through the classes and programs I teach. Today, I’d like to share how I practice when I find myself stressed, fearful about the uncertainties of life today. I rely on my earliest and most fundamental practice: I go outdoors. Whether I take a long hike through the woods or sit quietly in my garden, I find that I feel better. 

Whatever our current circumstances, spending time in nature can help us find an anchor in the current storm of events and support us in feeling centered in a way that is not dependent on external events. Going outdoors can help us know how we want to be going forward.

Inspired by the benefit I experience in my personal practice of walking in the woods near my home, I also co-lead groups of people on Meditation Hikes modeled after the Japanese practice of Forest Bathing. This meditative practice, introduced in the early ’80s, consists of walking in and connecting to nature through our senses. As we walk we place attention on sensation in our bodies, what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

Even short periods of time in nature can allow us to connect. According to the findings of studies completed by Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, professors of psychology at the University of Michigan specializing in environmental psychology, even short periods of time in nature can allow us to connect. The Kaplans are known for their research on the effect of nature on people’s relationships and health. They and other psychologists are exploring nature’s impact on people’s mental functioning, social relationships, and even physical wellbeing.

In his book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Dr. Qing Lee, states that going outdoors, or Forest Bathing, can improve sleep and mood, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, and improve immune system functioning. In his studies on the effect of forest bathing on immune system functioning, he found that a forest bathing trip once per month is sufficient to sustain enhanced immune function.

While walking meditatively in nature we experience the same benefits that we do in a yoga practice or a meditation practice. Physical effects we can experience include a relaxation of our muscles and our breathing as we shift our autonomic nervous system from fight-or-flight mode, sympathetic activation, and the cascade of stress hormone release into a rest-and-digest mode of parasympathetic activation and a corresponding reduction of cortisol, widely documented in yoga and meditation literature.

In addition to the physical benefits of walking in nature, we open ourselves to a wider experience of the consciousness of being, beauty, meaning, and connection.

Of course, attending to our connection with nature is not a new practice! Humans evolved in and as nature: being outdoors is our most natural way of being. This reverence for our connectedness to nature is reflected in the world’s mystical traditions. In the face of climate change events, social and political upheaval around the planet, and following in the wake of the worldwide pandemic, many of us are in the position of recognizing and coming to terms with deeply rooted cultural beliefs and ways of living that are no longer sustainable. Increasingly, western science provides evidence of our interconnectedness. 

I honor and acknowledge our Indigenous brothers and sisters worldwide who created sustainable ways of living in harmony with nature. Even following the horrendous genocide perpetrated upon the first people in North America by Europeans, indigenous elders share the wisdom of the indigenous cultures in the hope that we might all find a sustainable way forward together. Elder Dr. Dave Courchene, Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man), of the Anishinaabe Nation, founder of Turtle Lodge, and Chair of the National Turtle Lodge Council of Elders and Knowledge Keepers, shares Indigenous Knowledge for this critical time. He has created a special place for sharing ancient Indigenous knowledge — the Turtle Lodge. You may access this wisdom, so generously shared when you visit their website to read the stories of Indigenous Peoples in their own voices, in a format that is accessible for all.

A Mindfulness Practice: Walking in Nature

I find walking in nature to be the simplest, most accessible meditation and movement practice, and I love to share it with others. It is always myself I find when I go outdoors. I hope that you, too, may discover your connection with nature through the following practice. I hope that this simple practice helps you to become more of who you are, share your gifts in the community, and find your path forward. 

Whether you have five minutes, a half-hour, or more, I invite you to try this simple practice based on forest bathing or connecting to nature through our senses. 

Begin by standing, or modify for a seated practice. Feel yourself standing on the ground, your whole body standing on the ground. Feel the sensation in the soles of your feet, where you meet and touch the ground. What do you notice? Can you sense the texture of the ground beneath your feet? Can you feel a sensation in your legs, rising up from the ground? 

Start walking as you are ready, allowing your attention to remain focused on the sensation in the soles of your feet and your legs as you move slowly. Walk at a natural pace. If thoughts or distractions come up, simply direct your attention back to feeling your feet and legs as you walk. 

After a period of time, shift the focus of your attention to your sense of vision. What do you see? Focus your attention on color, shapes, patterns, movement in your visual field as you walk. 

When you are ready, let go of attention to vision and focus attention on sound. What do you hear? Allow sounds to be received by your sense of hearing. Observe. What do you notice? 

Next, shift your attention to your sense of smell. Walk for a period of time absorbed in the scents you notice. Then, perhaps you might notice the sense of taste in your mouth. 

Finally, locate a safe object such as a tree trunk or a stone, and explore it with your fingers and hands, your sense of touch. Finally, complete your practice by expanding your awareness outward to include all of your experience. Walk quietly or sit, and continue to observe your inner experience. Notice the benefit of your practice, how you feel after focusing your attention on your connection to your surroundings. As you are ready, allow your attention to come back to your day’s activities.

If you enjoy this practice, I invite you to explore my coming virtual class offerings at my website. Contact me to register for one of my virtual programs. 

I support people in connecting to all of life through coaching individuals and guiding students in Mindful Yoga Practice, Mindful Forest or Meadow Hikes, and through my new virtual program, Embodied Resilience in Uncertain Times.