I found mindfulness in one of the loudest cities in the country.
When I was invited to try "forest bathing," I had no clue what it was. It sounded to me like something Shailene Woodley would do right after basking her vagina in the sun. With a little Googling, I learned that forest bathing has nothing to do with water. The idea of forest bathing originated in Japan and involves taking a walk through nature while being mindful, using all five senses to take in everything around you. Sounds peaceful, right?!
I was eager to give it a go, hoping I'd finally found the thing that would inspire me to jump on the mindfulness bandwagon. I've always wanted to be that person who meditates daily and goes through life in a constant state of calm. But anytime I've tried to make meditation a habit, I've lasted a few days at the most.
Guiding my one-on-one session was Nina Smiley, Ph.D., the director of mindfulness at Mohonk Mountain House, a luxury resort sitting in 40,000 acres of pristine forest, which I suspect is probably better suited to forest bathing than Central Park was about to be. Interestingly, I found out that Mohonk was founded in 1869 and offered nature walks in its early days, long before the term "forest bathing" was even coined in the 1980s. In recent years, forest bathing has increased in popularity, with plenty of resorts offering a similar experience.
Smiley began the session by telling me a little about the benefits of forest bathing. Studies have associated the practice with lower cortisol levels and blood pressure. (Here's more on the benefits of forest bathing.) And you don't need to be experienced to gain something from nature: You can reap the benefits of forest bathing on your first try. (FYI one study found that even looking at photos of nature can lower stress levels.)
We walked slowly around the park for about 30 minutes, stopping sporadically to tune into one of the five senses. We'd pause and feel the texture of a leaf, listen to all the sounds around us, or look at shadow patterns on a tree. Smiley would tell me to feel the buoyancy of a thin branch or the groundedness of a tree. (Yeah, it seemed pretty wacky to me too.)
Did the zen vibes click for me all of a sudden? Sadly, no. The more I tried to let go of my thoughts, the more new ones would pop up, like how freaking hot it was outside, what I looked like to other people when I was sniffing leaves, how slow we were walking, and all the work I had waiting for me back at the office. Not to mention the fact that "appreciating the sounds around me" felt next to impossible since the birds chirping were no match for cars and construction.
But even though I couldn't silence my thoughts, I still felt extremely mellow by the end of the 30 minutes. (I guess nature really is therapeutic!) It was a post-massage kind of high. Smiley called it "spaciousness," and I did feel less compressed. Afterward, I walked back to work with no headphones in, wanting to hold on to the feeling as long as possible. And while it didn't last forever, I still felt laid-back once I got back to work, which is saying a lot.
Forest bathing didn't make a serial meditator out of me, but it did affirm for me that the restorative properties of nature are legit. After feeling so relaxed from a walk in Central Park, I'm ready to bathe in a full-on forest.