The Ultimate Wellness Vacation: What It’s Like to Spend 5 Days Forest Bathing
If you don’t know what forest bathing is (you’re likely in the majority here), you've probably got a lot of questions. Do you literally get naked in a forest? Do you at least get to wear a bathing suit? Are there other people with you? These were the first I got when I told my family and friends I'd be spending a week in the Berkshires to delve into this trendy new wellness practice. But much to my relief—and theirs— forest bathing doesn’t involve any actual bathing—or water, even—just some good ol’ QT with mother nature. Here's everything I came to realize when I swapped Instagram for the great outdoors on a 5-day retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.
A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.
"What fruit have you added to your life basket this week?" was not a question I ever anticipated having to answer. But then again, I also didn’t see myself willingly communicating via wolf calls in the woods, or brushing the needles of a towering hemlock across my palm to absorb the "guardian" tree’s essence. How did I get here, you (and I) ask?
I haphazardly found an article on forest bathing a couple months ago when I was looking to book one of the trendy "wellness vacations" that I’d been hearing so much about. Falling further down the internet rabbit hole, I discovered that forest bathing—AKA shinrin-yoku—might be hitting wellness circles on the East and West coasts now, but it’s long been practiced in Japan. When it first hit the scene in the 80s, with more than a scientific leg to stand on (immediate benefits include: heart rate variability, increase immune function, attention and production, and decrease your anxiety and blood pressure), the practice quickly became a cornerstone of Japanese preventative care.
Curiosity effectively piqued following my research, I decided to give forest bathing a go and headed off for a 5-day retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts— just a scenic 3.5-hour bus ride from not-so-scenic Penn Station.
I arrive at Kripalu—an imposing brick building which sits on 300 wooded-lakefront-acres in the Berkshires— around 2pm on a Sunday. After checking in, I’m given a brief introduction and brochure in which I learn all about the place—the yoga and meditation studios, dorm-style accommodations, and cafeteria filled with house-made organic and vegan fare.
With the rest of the night to myself—my retreat officially begins the next morning— I wander around the grounds, checking out the meditation garden, tree labyrinth, and my favorite spot—the Sun Room, a silent, 24-hour reading room with cozy couches, a lending library, and beautiful views of the Stockbridge Bowl and Lake Mahkeenac. Post self-guided tour, I settle into my modern room in Kripalu’s new annex (think: concrete floors, white walls, a glassed-in shower), and prep myself for the greater part of a week spent sans technology by diving headfirst into a multi-hour, good-bye-for-now 13 Reasons Why binge.
At 8:30 am, I’m up and ready for my first silent breakfast. As I nab a table by the window, and start in on my organic ginger scone and vanilla soy milk, I find the requisite quiet (yes, it’s a mandatory silent breakfast) much more comforting than I’d imagined. No small talk required.
A half-hour later, I find my way to the Sunset Studio—a massive, light-filled yoga room on the main floor—and pick a pillow/blanket combo in a semi circle with fourteen additional forest bathers. "Science and Practice of Forest Bathing," "Bird Language Meditation," "Plant Connection," reads the week’s program itinerary that’s been left on my seat. Interesting…to say the least.
Our guides, Mark and Vandita (both long-serving Kripalu teachers), launch into introductions, and around the circle we all go, explaining how we ended up at Kripalu. I hear from microbiologists, internal medicine residents, brand consultants, and recent retirees.
Vandita leads us in some light meditation—something I’ve never had the patience to do. With a soothing voice, she instructs our breathing patterns and where to focus our energies, but as I try to calm my mind, I find myself thinking a thousand things like: What’s on today’s lunch menu? Will the Girls finale be as strong as the rest of the season (IM—retreat-delayed—O: no)?, and man, now would be a terrible time to get the hiccups. But just as I drift off, she pulls me back in with a saying from Swami Kripalu, the founder of the center: "The highest form of spirituality is self observation without judgement." And while I’m the farthest thing you could find from a spiritual person, I appreciate the sentiment and remind myself that learning these things takes time.
We move outdoors, to Gould Meadows and Bullard Woods, an old-growth forest on the periphery of the property. Before we begin forest bathing, Mark and Vandita acknowledge that while it’s totally natural to not feel comfortable or inclined to participate in everything, it’s important to “just be open to curiosity.” I keep repeating this to myself as they share a few words of additional wisdom, including: “Introduce yourself to the trees as if you were introducing yourself to another living being—because you are,” and “If you wish to pick a leaf off of something living, that’s ok, simply ask it for permission first.”
For our first task, we’re given 10 minutes to walk the perimeter of the forest collecting small tokens of the earth that our “internal radar” pulls us towards. The conclusion of our time is marked by an echoing owl call from Mark, and we reunite in a circle to share what spoke to us. One by one, we pass around a pine cone talking piece (a microphone so the forest can hear us, naturally) and everyone says a few words about what inspired them to pick up their leaf/pebble/fallen tree branch.
We later find trees whose energy speaks to us, and we spend some time sitting against them, feeling their bark and focusing on our breathing. Further down the trail, we collect small rocks, ones that we’ll infuse with our worries and set in the stream to be coursed over by the current and washed away. At the conclusion of the session, I’m still a little wary, but it was nice to be outside without a real agenda—or my cell phone.
Each following day is much like the first. Between organic meals of asparagus, fava bean, and chevre-stuffed empanadas, sautéed kale, fresh-baked bread (major yum), and dairy-free/raw-sugar-only chocolate cake, we cycle through sessions of yoga, qigong, tai chi, guided sleep meditations, and plenty of outdoor time whether it’s an aimless walk or journaling on the shore of the lake. Each session starts to feel a little more natural than the last, and while I still grapple with giving into the process entirely, I’m much more into it than day one.
Though I certainly didn’t master meditation or inter-species communication with the creatures of the old-growth forest, I do consider the week a success. I hit pause on my Netflix binging to read a book cover to cover, extensively journaled for the first time in years, and sent nary a Snapchat. I spent time outdoors just because, and I spent time alone, which I almost never do.
Now, back at my apartment in Brooklyn, I look out the window at the lone tree shading the sidewalk outside my building. While I don’t have any plans to feel its bark or collect its leaves, I’ll admire it from inside and remember that the positive effects of forest bathing require little effort; just occasionally stopping to feel the sun on your face and existing in the light of something other than your smartphone screen.
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