The Japanese practice of forest bathing, shinrin-yoku, is a beautiful, simple means to deepen our connection with nature, reduce stress and increase gratitude. Using mindfulness techniques can help further expand its benefits.
Words and Photography by Andy Summons
Stepping into nature is a giant leap towards mindfulness. When we replace backlit screens, a cacophony of notifications, omnipresent noise, people, and meetings with nature, our brains sigh in relief. Simply hearing nature sounds through an app, let alone spending time in nature, has been shown to reduce blood pressure, cortisol (the stress hormone), and reduce brain activity in areas associated with overthinking.
The simple act of immersing ourselves in nature helps calm our mind and focus our awareness on the present moment. Yesterday and tomorrow melt into insignificance as our brains race to take in the details and sensations around us. Even Albert Einstein understood and touted the benefits of spending time in nature, saying: ‘Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.’
Shinrin-yoku is the act of taking in nature through the senses and allowing it to calm the mind. If you’d like to deepen your experience while forest bathing, or just sitting in nature, you can use these techniques to further enjoy your forest bath. Each one shifts your awareness to a different sense to expand your experience of nature.
1. Drishti: Singular Focus
Until a few hundred years ago, there was no plural of priority – we understood that our attention could only meaningfully rest on one thing. Now as multiple priorities jostle for our attention, consciously choosing where our focus rests is more important than ever.
Drishti is the Sanskrit word for sight and translates to focus. Mindfulness techniques use drishti to bring awareness into the present moment by focusing on different thoughts or sensations.
Find a comfortable place to sit and fix your gaze on an unmoving object. It could be a particular knot in a tree, a flower, a rock in a stream, choose one of nature’s beautiful details and hold it. The first thing you may notice is your own restlessness. You’re finally out in nature again and there’s so much to behold, staring at one point can feel challenging. Notice what thoughts and sensations arise. You may initially fidget and find your mind might be distracted by itches and small sensations – this is part of the adjustment of going from distracted to focused, from movement to stillness.
EXPAND YOUR AWARENESS
Without moving your eyes, take note of what else you can see in your field of view. Start close by your focal point, what can you see immediately around it? Notice the different shades of colour, the dancing light, shapes and shadows, hidden patterns in the forest’s canopy. Keep your eyes still, breathe and enjoy being surrounded by nature’s brilliant creativity. You can enjoy this exercise laying down beneath a tree, overlooking the sea, or even in your closest park.
“Yesterday and tomorrow melt into insignificance as our brains race to take in the details and sensations around us.”
2. Conscious breathing
Another easy mindfulness technique you can use anywhere you go, and one that works particularly well in the beautiful fresh air of the forest, is conscious breathing. Spiritual leader Amit Ray says, ‘If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.’ We can use conscious breathing to bring our awareness to the present moment and breathe in the calm of the forest.
FOLLOW YOUR NOSE
Breathing through your nose helps calm your nervous system and lets you enjoy the bouquet of forest smells. You can do this seated, standing or walking, simply shift your awareness to your breath. Notice each inhale and exhale. Don’t try to control it, just observe. Try to identify where each inhale starts – maybe the tip of your nose, the back of your throat, or the expansion of your chest or stomach. And do the same for your exhale – note where you feel the sensation of your exhale.
BREATHE IN EVEN TIDES
Now, try breathing down into your stomach. For each inhale, feel your stomach expand outward as your lungs fill with forest air. Try matching the length of your exhale with the length of your inhale. Inhale for a slow, silent count of three, pause with your lungs full for three, and then exhale for another slow count of three, pausing again with empty lungs.
FIND THE TINY INFINITY
As you find your rhythm with conscious breathing and it becomes more effortless, shift your awareness to the tiny space between breaths. Notice when your breath transitions from taking in the forest air to sharing your breath with the trees. Now that you’re conscious of this tiny infinity, play around with expanding it. Pause between breaths. Notice the sensation of holding a full breath and feelings it conjures, and the sensation of empty lungs and the feelings that arise. Keep your focus here, on this tiny infinity, for as long as you wish.
WANDER ON THE WIND
When you’re ready, start to explore the forest’s smells. Start close, can you smell your own familiar scent? Can you smell the dampness of last night’s dew, or the rain, or perhaps you’re lucky enough to smell the soil opening up to welcome a coming rainstorm. Can you smell flowers, or trees, bushes or perhaps a body of water nearby? Note how smells come and go, and enjoy the emotions they evoke.
“Notice when your breath transitions from taking in the forest air to sharing your breath with the trees.”
3. Wandering meditation
Moving your attention to consciously carry out something most of us do automatically every day can be profoundly calming – this is the foundation for walking meditation. Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.’ More than just a walk in the park, wandering meditation helps bring your busy mind into the present moment and help you revel in the forest’s beauty.
FOLLOW YOUR FEET
Continue taking in nature with your other senses but shift your awareness to your feet and the sensation of walking. Notice the different stages of each step. Notice the sensation as you lift your foot off the ground and swing it forward through the air, feel your heel strike the earth and your weight shift along your foot into your forefoot and toes. Then move your awareness into the other foot as it does the same.
FOCUS FROM THE GROUND UP
Once you’re focused on your feet and are consciously walking, start to notice the textures of the forest floor beneath your feet, the sound of each step – crunching leaves, snapping twigs, maybe it’s squelching mud or nearly-silently crinkling sand. Notice as the force from each step works its way up your legs. Notice how each step forward subtly changes your perspective of the surrounding forest both removing details behind you and revealing new delights ahead. If your mind wanders and you forget about your feet, that’s okay, allow your mind to meander. If it becomes distracted and wanders back to thoughts of stress, the past or the future, bring your awareness back to the different stages of each step and start again.
4. Auditory exploration
Find a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Concentrate on your breathing for ten breaths. Listen to the sounds of your breath. As your busy brain calms and your awareness comfortably rests with your breathing, let your ears wander further afield. Start close by and notice the closest sound to you. Sit with that sound for a few breaths before moving on to a sound further away.
“Enjoy the sensation of expanding beyond yourself and becoming part of nature.”
WANDER WITH YOUR EARS
Continue exploring your auditory landscape, start with the loudest sounds you can hear. Then move deeper into the forest and listen for the most distant sound. Linger as long as you like on particular sounds and indulge your curiosity by searching for new ones. Listen for sounds from the forest’s animals. Count how many different bird calls you can hear. And listen for noises from the trees and plants around you. Enjoy the feelings the forest’s sounds stir. When you are ready to come out of your auditory exploration, find a path back to your body by listening for noises incrementally closer to you, until you return to the sound of your breathing.
Bathe in the forest
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.’ Having used one or more of these techniques and with your awareness firmly rooted in the present moment, take your time and let your senses relax and wander through the forest. Meet your awareness as your focus meanders between your senses. Enjoy the sensation of expanding beyond yourself and becoming part of nature. Remember that you are part of nature and nature is part of you.
Andy Summons is a writer and photographer based in Byron Bay, Australia. He started taking photographs with his grandfather’s Pentax ES when he was a child, and continued exploring photography, and writing stories, as he travelled around Australia and the world. He cofounded Paper Sea Quarterly magazine and ran it as Editor-In-Chief for seven years before leaving to pursue personal projects, like this story.