This is the first in our special “12 Days of Giving” series running for the holiday season. It’s a little different from what you might think of as traditional presents or giving. We aren’t really talking about stuff you buy or a gift list. Rather, on these 12 days, we will be talking about different gifts that you can give to yourself, or others — gifts that have a deeper meaning, that can help you live with intention, be happier, be healthier. Soul gifts, you might even call them. Join us on the journey.

The Gift of Nature: Connecting with the Natural World Through the Japanese Art of Forest Bathing

It’s that moment when you step away from the man-made world and into the natural one, that your senses seem to heighten, your body’s stress levels lower, and your mind’s always-churning to-do list begins to quiet.

Whether it’s a five-minute walk through your local park or sitting in your own backyard, a miles-long hike in a forest, or a multi-day camping trip: there’s always that sense of peace. Relaxation. Of coming home.

This, my friends, is what we were born into — the natural world. This is where we originated from, and where we are meant to be. Our ancestors had no skyscrapers, cars, shopping malls, computers. They were fully engaged with nature for everything: their food, medicine, homes, livelihood and very existence. But for most of us living in today’s busy, modern society, that world seems all too far away most of the time.

And so we become more and more disconnected. More harried and stressed. More tied to technology, until we’re unsure if we own our devices or if they own us. There’s always something else to do, to think about, somewhere else to go, another mission to accomplish.

But sometimes, we need to just slow down.

Don’t get me wrong here — I’m no hard-core outdoors type of person. Don’t think I’m coming to you as one of those bad-asses who runs marathons or wild camps in the remote wilderness. My idea of camping firmly includes access to running water, a comfortable sleeping spot, and wine.

At the same time, I connect with nature at a primal level, and on a regular basis. We all do. But if you’re anything like me, it’s not nearly enough. You may sometimes wonder, like I do, how we can more easily disconnect for an hour, even, and let the healing, calming force of nature root us down again.

Welcome to shinrin-yoku, a Japanese tradition that is loosely defined as “forest bathing.” I was introduced to this concept a couple of weeks ago — I had never heard the term before. What is this forest bathing, I wondered. Is it some kind of weird ritual where I have to go in the woods and jump in a river or unclothe and roll around in the grass or something? It sounded a little hippy-dippy, to be honest — but I’m kind of a granola, hippy-dippy sort of woman and always interested to learn something new. So, I was intrigued.

Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, as it turns out is simply this: a full sensory immersion in the beauty and wonder of nature.

It’s experiencing nature with all your senses — not just seeing it, or touching it as you walk through it, but hearing it, smelling it, even tasting it. A raindrop on your tongue. The way a stream sounds as it gurgles over the rocks beside you. That hint of pine in the air as you enter a stand of conifer trees. It’s letting nature wash over you.

Rooted in the ancient Japanese reverence for nature, the practice of shinrin-yoku was started in Japan in the early 1980s, as a program to try and get the overworked citizens of Tokyo and other large cities to leave the urban areas for short periods, to spend some quiet, healing time in a nearby forest. Today, there are many designated shinrin-yoku forest and trails throughout Japan, and hundreds of thousands of people immerse themselves in them each year — taking advantage of the way nature restores mental equilibrium and physical health.

Melanie Choukas-Bradley

Melanie Choukas-Bradley

I learned all of this from Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide. Based out of Washington, D.C., Melanie has traveled throughout Japan participating in forest bathing walks led by shinrin-yoku guides; and she’s the author of The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect With Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life. I was invited on a forest bathing walk led by her, taking place at YMCA’s Camp Moody in Buda, Texas, just south of where I live in Austin.

I arrived at Camp Moody that morning with an eagerness to learn more about this practice, connect with nature and explore something new. Melanie, who had what she calls a “free-range childhood,” writes in her book that most of us have very early, strong memories of experiences with nature. For her, it was the first time she saw a perfect snowflake.

I was walking home from school on a path through the woods when a single snow crystal landed on a flat, dark rock in front of me. I knelt down and watched more snowflakes fall from the sky and land on the rock, each one perfect, each one unique, but perhaps none as perfect as the first. The dream-like quality of the snowflake memory is much like my other childhood memories of nature enchantment: finding the first woodland wildflowers just after snow melt in the spring; lying on a bed of moss and looking up into the leafy branches of a white birch tree; diving into a cold ocean wave and then burying myself in the warm sand. Childhood nature memories can easily be called up by a specific fragrance, a sound, a sight, or a general feeling of well-being.

Melanie was there to greet our small group of about eight at the main pavilion of the camp, which is pretty much undeveloped land right now — seeming to make it a perfect location for forest bathing. Camp Moody is an 85-acre multi-use site for day and overnight camps, group events, retreats and outdoor education. Nestled along Onion Creek and scenic limestone bluffs, the YMCA has big plans for some really cool development of the property that was donated by George Yonge in 1999, which includes cabins, dining and recreational facilities to fit in with the natural world around it.

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Moody

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Moody

Megan Arnold with the YMCA said that the goal of Camp Moody is to connect families to nature. “With kids being connected to technology about seven-and-a-half hours per day, we’re raising a generation that isn’t connected to nature,” she said. “They might not care about preservation, our national parks, etc. We want to change that.” In keeping with the Y mission, they are also making sure Camp Moody is accessible to all, financially, geographically and physical ability-wise.

Before we began the walk, Melanie set our expectations. “This isn’t going to be a vigorous, aerobic ‘hike,'” she said. “It isn’t goal-oriented; the point is to go slow, to take it all in, to be aware of the surroundings and discover the nature around us.” What she was saying reminded me of what John Muir said about hiking:

“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre — To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers, or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” ~John Muir

And so we set out on our “saunter” — or rather, our forest bathing, a notion that I suspect that John Muir would have liked a great deal. Melanie invited us to walk in silence, to just enjoy the peace of nature and use all our sense to take it in as we moved through it. After a few minutes we reached the banks of a gurgling creek and paused for the first of her invitations.

As we moved along our walk through nature, Melanie would issue an invitation for us to choose to take or leave. Listen to what you hear; notice what is moving around you; choose something that speaks to you. Every so often we would stop, and each person could share with the group if they so chose.

At one spot down by a small running stream, we took a longer pause to find our own little spot and spend silent time immersing ourselves in the forest. The water running over the rocks was so soothing, and already — after less than half an hour in nature — I was feeling gloriously, refreshingly disconnected from the outside world. It would all still be waiting for me when I got back to it, so there was no need to do anything except be fully present in this moment. To enjoy the feeling of being once again primally connected to the earth and where we came from, and away from the hustle-and-bustle of modern life. I listened to the water, breathed in the clear air deeply, and became intrigued with a fuzzy caterpillar making its way over leaf by leaf in the little stream.

Melanie had told us a little about the mountains of research that has shown what a real, measurable positive effect time spent in nature has on us. It’s been proven to lower our blood pressure, pulse rates and cortisol levels; increase heart rate variability (this is a good thing!); and improve mood. As her book on forest bathing says, plants generate compounds called phytoncides to protect themselves from pathogens, and when we are in nature, these same airborne phytoncides that we breath in may even help protect our human bodies in ways that could increase our immunity to things like cancer and other diseases. The physical, mental and emotional health benefits of time spent in nature have been corroborated by researchers in North America, the U.K., Europe, China and South Korea.

I believed it. I felt it.

As our walk came to an end, we gathered in a clearing to enjoy a tea ceremony, and one of our group read the very appropriate poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.

You can start your own forest bathing practice in your own adopted “wild home,” encompassed in three steps:

1. Disengagement from your daily routine
2. Deep breathing and nature connection through a series of quiet activities or “invitations”
3. Transitioning back to your daily life
This restorative activity can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities: children, teenagers, and even senior citizens with limited mobility and people recovering from illness and surgery. And you don’t need to travel to the Japanese alps to experience the benefits of forest bathing. All you need is a small patch of untouched (or lightly touched) nature to adopt as your “wild home.”