I remember the first time I saw magic in nature. It was the summer of 1993 and I was on a mid-week camping trip with my mom at our summer residence; the campgrounds at the New York Renaissance Faire. While it's easy to see why weekends may have been filled with costumes and bawdy wench songs (endlessly amusing to a 10-year-old), playing in the dirt and mischievously giving slightly askew directions to the restrooms (also endlessly amusing), what you'd only know if you're in the know one way or another, there's a seasonal city behind the scenes. Vendors like my mom crafted their wares in workshops either on their campsite or in The Dome, a former circus tent (at least that is what I was always told it was), live in everything from tents tucked into the forest to comfortable campers and Sunday mornings, at least during my 12 years residency, had a pancake breakfast. What is even less known - even to the residents of this summer hamlet - is that just past our Sunday morning institution was a trail up one of the many mountains we lived between and at the top were stone prayer circles.
Who created them, I couldn't tell you; maybe it was an ancient site carefully maintained by local residents or maybe it was a remnant from a more recent mother nature and meditation centered culture - I'll probably never know. What I can tell you was that sleeping at that mountain summit surrounded by trees, rocks and sheltered by a starry sky - there was something alive about the forest, more than just the animals that called it home and although it's been many years since my night sleeping under the stars I have no doubts as to the healing properties of nature and I've nursed a pretty healthy desire to return to those carefree days since I signed on the dotted line for my first car loan. So when my friend Helene of Adirondack Riverwalking told me about adding shinrin-yoku, literally translated "taking in the forest atmosphere" and commonly called "forest bathing" to their menu of guided mindfulness experiences, I didn't pause for a moment. Who couldn't benefit from a midsummer morning's mindfulness to straighten out my mind after a busy summer? Who can balance - football games, and weekend BBQs, and family coming for a surprise visit? Not I! And after riverwalking with Helene last summer I knew that with something as precious as peace in mind it's best to trust the professionals.
Growing out of the Akazawa Natural Recreation Forest in Japan in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku was developed in response to the alarming increase in stress-related death from illness and self-harm and a dramatic decrease in quality of life. Taking inspiration from Buddhist and Shinto practices, shinrin-yoku has become a cornerstone of preventative medicine, both for its psychological benefits and also its physiological ones. Research on the topic is young but promising; studies have shown that not only are forests relaxing but pine trees in particular (like the ones that blanket the Adirondack mountains) give off phytoncides - natural chemicals in the air emanating from evergreen forests that have been linked to improved immune response.
With over 3,000 acres of trails, bog, pond, and forest, I've always found the Paul Smiths VIC to be the perfect place for the unknown. No matter the age or the activity level or even the time of year, whether you want to meander through the woods or get your heart rate up - if you don't know what specifically you want to do, the VIC has never disappointed (that said, if you've been reading long, you know I stay active but I'm not climbing the 46 High Peaks anytime soon). The VIC is also perfect for forest bathing.
Moving through the forest, Helene guided us through a series of exercises designed to help us open our senses to the forest. As we walked, taking note of everything that was moving or listening to the babbling Barnum Brook Symphony and quietly, mindfully, experiencing aspects of the forest I can't remember ever noticing before it occurred to me; in this fast-paced world where we are in a state of constant stimulation, we shield ourselves from the barrage by shutting down the very senses that make life worth living. Morning forest bathing at the VIC allowed me to open up my senses to the natural world more deftly than I have otherwise; in a sense, the disconnection from stimulation and focused mindfulness gave my senses themselves a spa treatment. Even my sense of taste was renewed; the freshness of the air, the taste of forest tea - foraged and brewed by Helene that morning - all seemed heightened and better prepared for the rest of the day.
If there is anything a country with the famously infamous occupation of Oshiya or "subway pusher" must know, it's the value of relaxation. And if there is one thing we all need more of, it's relaxation on a scale that rivals the high wire, plate spinning routine we've all become so adept at. Take it from this former straphanger; get off the F Train, book your stay, get out of the city and indulge in Adirondack forest bathing. Regularly. The F Train will still be there when you get back. Probably in the same place you left it. Your body and soul will thank you.