As fear about the state of our natural environment grows, many of us are feeling called to ‘get back to nature’. But how to you do that, beyond simply going for a walk with the dog or friends? I have researched and studied this topic extensively and am certain that the phrase ‘connecting to nature’ (with the emphasis on ‘to’) describes it well.
Some call it ‘mindfulness in nature’, but it’s more than that, it’s positive mindfulness rather than the non-judgemental approach used in mindfulness. When connecting to nature in Shrinrin-Yoku, you are encouraged to orient towards pleasure. And this practice nourishes both us and the environment we move through.
So, how do you do it?
Some invitations (mindfulness exercises) can be done alone and I’d love it if you had a go at one of my favourites. Before you set off, read the section at the end on practicalities – boring but necessary none the less!
Turn off your phone and walk into a quiet part of the woods, ideally an area that you are already somewhat familiar with so that you feel safe, relaxed and at ease. Remember, Shinrin-Yoku is designed to be a pleasurable experience so invite as much enjoyment into to your practice as you can.
Allow yourself at least 1 hour but ideally 2.
1. Settle in
Bring your focus to the breath. Begin inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly; breathe in for 3 and out for 4 or 5 – this will activate the parasympathetic nervous system which aids relaxation. Wander slowly around the area until you feel you’d like to stop and sit for a while. I’d suggest sitting by a tree. Put a mat down if you like, and I like to pull my hood up so when I lean back, I don’t worry about creepy crawlies getting into my hair. You want to maximise your comfort and minimise unhelpful distraction.
Spend some time becoming acquainted with the area and settling in. Breathe deeply. Look up to the sky and the canopy, spend some time really noticing the colour of the sky, the appearance (how big? What shape? Thick, fluffy or wispy? Grey or white?) of the clouds, how they move, are there different layers, do different layers move at different speeds? Notice the branches and leaves above.
We don’t often look up in this way, and it can be a very soothing experience. Looking at fractals (patterns that repeat smaller and smaller copies of themselves) such as branching trees are known to aid relaxation. And then slowly bring your gaze lower and lower, until you get to the forest floor. Look at the floor and really notice it, pay attention to what you see. Spend some time to feel your connection to the earth beneath you, feel grounded, feel supported.
“Taking in the small things on the forest floor has stayed with me the most – I use that memory to focus when things seem overwhelming.”
Kath Burton, Reading
2. Bring your focus to your sense of touch
Spend at least 20 minutes exploring your sense of touch with openness and curiosity. Feel the breeze on your bare skin, as it blows across your face, your hands, in your hair. Move your hands to face different directions and see how the experience changes for you. Feel free to remain seated or stand up and engage with your natural surroundings in this spot you’ve chosen. Touch the ground beneath you, the texture of the forest floor and the bark of the trunk you’re leaning on. Pay attention to how the different surfaces feel and notice whether it’s pleasant or not. Stay with it if it’s enjoyable. I am often amazed at how smooth to the touch tree roots are, and how utterly sumptuous and squishy the moss is. Feel how it is for you to be supported by the tree and the ground. Feel connected and grounded, and enjoy the sense of belonging.
If you feel compelled to sketch or journal, go ahead. I like to use the prompt, “Here in the natural world, I feel connected to…” and write, but sometimes I feel like doodling. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath and the present moment.
3. Take a very, very slow walk noticing “what’s in motion”
Wander through the forest at a snail’s pace engaging all your senses. Focus on the movement around you for this invitation. Align your rhythms with the rhythms of the forest and return to your natural way of being (instead of rushing about or juggling multiple tasks). When you become aware of a particular sensory experience, for example noticing a dangling leaf spinning in the breeze or the sounds of the breeze blowing through the leaves, stay with the experience and see if you can connect with it more deeply. When you feel ready continue wandering very, very slowly.
Aim to cover no more than 100 metres in a 20-minute period noticing what’s in motion and using all your senses.
“It’s such a pleasure to explore slowly and notice the small things that so often pass us by.”
Oonagh Harrison, Winchester
4. Connect with gratitude
Wander again slowly, breathing deeply, noticing your surroundings. Using your body radar, stop at a place where you’d like to spend some time. Using the natural materials around you (take only what will help you and try to do minimal damage to any living beings) build a gratitude altar/shrine/gift for someone or something in your life you feel thankful for. Feel into the feelings of gratitude as you create, and allow any emotions or sensations in the body to be felt. Leave this gift in place when you finish if you like. Go ahead if you’d like to journal or sketch at this point.
5. Walk of praise
As you leave the forest, walk slowly and stop each time you notice that another being has given you something. It could be a moment of visual beauty, a scent, the support of the earth beneath you…. whatever you are drawn to. When you stop, find a way to acknowledge the being through gratitude; some words, a touch, a bow or simply staying with that feeling of thanks for a while. When you are ready, continue walking until you connect with the next thing that captures your attention, repeating the steps until you reach the edge of the forest.
“Every sense is awakened, but the brain less chatty“.
Liberty Bollen, Reading
These are 5 simple invitations that you can practice alone, without joining a guided Shinrin-Yoku experience. You will need to be disciplined and limit the use of any electronic devices to maintain your focus on the present moment. The monkey mind might take a while to cease, so when the thoughts come, acknowledge them and let them go, as though they are a cloud floating away on a gentle breeze. Then bring your attention back to the breath and reconnect with the invitation you are on.
If you’d prefer to step off the merry-go-round and give yourself permission to completely switch off from all responsibilities, how about joining me on a group Shinrin-Yoku session in Hampshire or Berkshire?
On the guided experience you get to press pause and ‘just be’ for 2.5-3 hours. I am responsible for time keeping, and I facilitate all invitations and hold a safe space for everyone in the group reflection circles. We do group and solo invitations with pair shares that can be incredibly cathartic. You’ll definitely get a broader depth of experience, find it easier to fully unwind and leave with a deep sense of relaxation and clarity of mind.
“Working in a group is beneficial as everyone observes completely different things which is fascinating”.
Claudia Baillie, London
If you’d like to join me on a group Shinrin-Yoku session in Hampshire or Berkshire, check out the schedule of events.
Here’s a video showing the practice:
Before you go, some practicalities. I cannot overstate the importance of wrapping up warm. If you are cold, you won’t be able to relax into the experience. Wear comfortable clothes suitable for the weather and take 2 extra layers. Pack a sketch book/journal, a mat, a snack, some drinking water and some tissues.
Turn your phone to aeroplane mode so that you won’t receive notifications. Silent mode isn’t good enough in case you want to take photos (but see article on how photos change our memories here), and as you look at your phone you see messages and notifications waiting for you – you’ll be jolted back immediately in to the thinking mind – and the aim of Shinrin-Yoku is to quieten the mind and reconnect with the body, emotions and the breath.
You only have 1-2 hours. Make them count.
I’d love to hear how you go, with love, Sonya X