Autumn might just be the perfect season – especially when you live in The Shenandoah Valley. It’s the quintessential time to explore the forests and trails that surround us and according to the Japanese, doing so on a regular basis, could save your life.
In Japan they call it Shinrin-Yoku and translated it means forest bathing. Forest bathing is making contact with and taking in the surroundings and atmosphere of the forest. Breathing in the natural oils and aromas of the woods and plants is said to have healing effects. What sets it apart is that you consciously stay present to the whole experience rather than allowing your mind to wander.
Research has shown that spending just a short amount of time there and walking at a leisurely pace, can reduce blood pressure, cortisol levels, stress levels, boost immunity and increase happiness. Such beneficial results are making forest bathing a legitimate healing practice.
Forest bathing is more the effect that follows from spending time in the environs and while there are no specific rules to follow there are some helpful guidelines:
- Set a specific intention to connect with nature in a healing way. You can do this just by becoming aware of your existing relationship. For example, if the trees didn’t breathe, neither could we. Taking in carbon dioxide through its leaves, they clean the air and then give off the oxygen we need to live.
- This shouldn’t be something you rush through. It’s a leisurely stroll, about a mile or less and shouldn’t be too physically demanding.
- Give generously of your attention to the forest by consciously staying present to your surroundings.
- It’s not a one-time event. Returning again and again throughout the seasons deepens your relationship with nature.
It’s not only about taking a walk in the forest. The walks are important but there are core routines you can practice to deepen your association and are said to be essential in the exchange of health benefits.
Sit Spot is choosing a place that you can visit regularly without too much effort preferably in a wild, natural area. Once there, your aim is to sit quietly and just observe. The birds and animals nearby will become more used to your presence as time goes by and what you get to see might surprise you.
Place Tending is choosing a place that needs tending and visiting frequently. Extending your company and caring for the area by picking up trash and tending to the surroundings is all that’s required.
Wandering is quite simple. You go to a park or natural area where there are trails that you can easily follow and wander around. Be relaxed, attentive and move slowly but stay safe and don’t get lost.
At any of these special places that you discover you can build small altars to express your gratitude. You can make them of sticks and small stones, flowers and feathers or any other natural things you might find. Practice maintaining the altars, always thinking (or speaking) of what you are grateful for as you rebuild and reshape each time you visit.
For the more popular, busier trails, you can still reap the benefits by practicing activities that open and engage your senses. To do this, be sure to leave your cell phones and other electronic devices at home or turned off. If you are walking with others, allow plenty of time for silence. Breathe deeply, smell the aromas of the forest, touch trees, streams and the soil. You can also taste the berries and herbs but only if you can positively identify them.
The forest is indeed calling. Head on out and get yourself some of its healing medicine. For more information about forest bathing, go to www.shinrin-yoku.org. Listed below are just a few of my favorite locations for trails in the area.
Raymond R. “Andy” Guest, Jr. State Park, Bentonville, Virginia. Open from 8am to dusk. $4 parking fee M-F / $5 on weekends and holidays. Check out the 1.4 mile Cottonwood Trail. For more information, go to www.virginiastateparks.gov or call (540) 622-6840.
Blandy Experimental Farm, Boyce, Virginia. Open from dawn to dusk. For more information, go to www.blandy.virginia.edu or call (540) 837-1758.
The Strasburg River Walk, Strasburg, Virginia. Open from dawn to dusk. For more information, go to www.strasburgva.com or call (540) 465-9197.
Sherando Park, Stephens City, Virginia. Open from 8am till dark. For more information, go to www.co.frederick.va.us/departments/o-z/parks-recreation/parks/sherando-park or call (540) 665-5600.
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Tammy Batcha is a life-long resident of the Shenandoah Valley. A long-time commuter, she seeks to reconnect to her community. A board certified, health and wellness coach, she continues to study integrative nutritional theory while guiding others on a path to wellness.