I Tried This Japanese Practice and Watched My Stress Melt Away

Photo: Stocksy/Michela Ravasio
"Mind the tree," says Nina Smiley, PhD, director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House, as I stand in the woods among twenty or so others in a peaceful silence. "Take a deep breath and feel the presence of nature around you. Notice the leaves and the dirt underneath your feet."

I'm in New York's Hudson Valley to learn about Jason's natural beauty products—which are derived from plants, hence the focus on them—and I'm trying forest bathing for the very first time. Contrary to what it sounds like, it doesn't involve a bathtub—it's simply the act of being mindful and engaging your senses as you're among nature. And the benefits are myriad: Studies show that it's known to do everything from decreasing cortisol to lowering blood pressure.

"The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku—AKA forest bathing—involves quietly immersing oneself in the sensory atmosphere of trees to restore well-being and soothe a harried mind," says Frank Lipman, MD,  integrative medicine guru. "Part physical activity, part natural therapy, it’s a powerful and low-cost intervention." In other words: It's a break from that bustling city life.

"Forest bathing involves quietly immersing oneself in the sensory atmosphere of trees to restore well-being and soothe a harried mind."

As I walk, I'm further instructed by Dr. Smiley to pay attention to the leaves crunching beneath my shoes and to take in the fresh air amidst the proliferation of trees—two things that as a New Yorker I'm not used to experiencing on the reg. But, though it sounds so basic, I am used to breathing in city pollution and dirty subway scents—so I'll admit it's nice to take special notice of pure earth smells for once.

"Doing nothing in nature but being present to the experience initiates a cascade of beneficial effects: The parasympathetic nervous system switches on, cortisol drops, and the brain’s prefrontal cortex—your hard-driving command center—takes a break as you drift into a soft-focus state of awareness," explains Dr. Lipman. "This allows you to shift from information overload to a state of pleasure, let go of negative thought cycles, rejuvenate your mental energy, and even access a wellspring of creativity and concentration." Yes, please.

The stress of my endless to-do list and that feeling of always being in a hurry (the New York hustle, if you will) slowly melt away, and are replaced by the peaceful sounds of birds chirping and wind ruffling leaves. And I'm not even someone that particularly enjoys the outdoors—to me, McCarren Park is nature (my local Brooklyn park that's small and totally surrounded by concrete and high rises). But it does feel refreshing to be appreciative of Mother Earth.

Don't have a forest near you? That's totally fine—you can still reap the benefits. "Rejuvenation can also be as simple as a lunch break on a bench in a botanic garden or lounging in a park looking at puffy clouds—two options for time-pressed urbanites," notes Dr. Lipman. Dr. Smiley also says that investing in a plant or a succulent and being mindful around it does the trick, too.

While upstate with Dr. Smiley, she instructs us to stop and notice things several more times during our meditative walk. I feel an amazing sense of calm in both my mind and body. When I get back to the office in Manhattan later that afternoon and sit down at my computer, it's as if I've been totally recharged—so I get right back to work with a fresh perspective. Since then, I've invested in a small succulent to adorn my desk; when I need a quick refresh, I notice it.

If you're going the plant route, here are 6 wall planters that'll breathe new life into your home. And this is how to grow plants in your home if you have zero light

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