A small group gathered mid-morning in the car park at Cranham Woods to meet our guide Karan for a ‘Yoga in Nature Walk’. A trained Dru Yoga teacher, Karan has based the idea of her yoga walks on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, literally translated as ‘forest bathing’.
Scientific researchers in Japan have concluded that spending time in the forest has significant health benefits. Shinrin-yoku is prescribed in Japan for preventative health care. Its benefits reportedly include reduced blood pressure and stress levels; improved sleep and energy levels and a boosted immune system. I was keen to try it out and see what affect forest bathing had on me.
Dressed for the elements, we followed our guide in single file down a lane to the entrance of the woodland. Karan suggested, “You can leave any baggage here before we enter the forest. You can pick it up again at the end if you want to.” I realised it wasn’t our daypacks she was referring to, but any worries or mind baggage we were carrying with us.
We set off up a steep, narrow track, which forced us into single file and silence. While the earlier rain had made it muddy underfoot, the beech leaves were a particularly vibrant green. I made a mental note to take in my surroundings, not just to follow my footsteps.
At the top of the track, the woodland opened out before us and we stepped into a clearing. We stood in a semi circle and Karan told us to close our eyes and put our hands over our ears and drum our fingers over them. When I opened my eyes, they were flooded with the varied and vivid shades of green all around me. The sunlight dappled the ground through the leaves and the only sound I could hear was birdsong.
Karan took us through some Dru Yoga activations to warm up our muscles and bring our mind and body into balance before practicing any asanas. We then practiced the warrior pose, which activates the solar centre and encourages you to feel strong and courageous.
The warrior is one of my favourite yoga poses, but it felt even better al fresco gazing along my outstretched arm and right into the forest, inhaling the smell of warm earth and feeling soft leaves underfoot.
Practicing an ancient earth sequence next felt almost tribal as our fingers took on the shape of the deer mudra. We gently stamped the earth in unison and bathed our eyes with our fingertips that had touched the forest floor.
It was time to move on through the forest and we followed our guide through the wooded pathways. Karan urged us to travel in silence to enable us to fully tune into the sights and sounds around us.
Rain started to fall and I could hear it pattering on the leaf canopy above. We found ourselves amidst a sea of wild garlic. The delicate white flowers shone against the carpet of green leaves and the air was fragrant with earth and garlic.
As the shower passed, the sun came out and we wound our way up a wooded pathway, glimpsing drifts of bluebells on the way. This was a beautiful spot to practice the tree posture. I fixed my gaze on a tree in front of me to help me keep my balance as I stood on one leg. I found this posture helped completely clear my mind due to the concentration involved in balancing, while moving my arms in sequence.
Reaching another clearing, we sat down and Karan took us through the earth meditation. The focus was on breathing up and down the spine and into the earth in order to feel grounded. After a few rounds of this, we each went in search of our own tree.
I chose an upright looking beech tree and sat at its base, leaning against the sturdy trunk. I could see blue sky through the leaves above and was torn between keeping my eyes open to enjoy my surroundings, or closing them to carry on the meditation. One of the group laid on the ground and was so relaxed, she fell asleep.
Gathered together again, we regrouped to perform an empowerment breathing practice while walking onward through the woods. This involved taking four short in-breaths while keeping in time with each step, followed by four short breaths out.
The aim is to walk with purpose. It took a few goes to get the hang of it and I realised my mind was clearing of chatter. “You can use this empowerment practice to bring about change in your life by using positive intentions,” Karan told us.
We ended our morning with a salute to the four directions. As we were surrounded by beautiful swathes of bluebells, it seemed appropriate to choose the affirmation of gratitude to be thankful for the natural world around us.
As we walked back towards the car park, I was left feeling a sense of calm and appreciation for my surroundings. It had been an invaluable couple of hours to leave behind the white noise of the town and constant pull of the mobile phone.
As Karan had recommended to us at the start, I’d left my baggage at the entrance of the forest. Having come full circle, I definitely felt lighter and re-energized; my senses had been reinvigorated. And although I was somewhat reluctant to head back to reality, at least I could carry with me the positive effects of shinrin-yoku.
Have you tried shinrin-yoku or forest bathing? I’d love to hear how you feel it helped you.