Ashley Aarti Cooper is a storyteller, Yoga instructor, nature guide, and nonprofit unicorn. She resides in Truckee, CA, leads international yoga retreats, and co-hosts the Restorative Arts and Yoga Festival at Granlibakken Tahoe in Tahoe City, CA. She can be reached at www.sustainableearthyoga.com or on Instagram at @ashley_aarti.
I came back to the woods four and a half years ago after spending my
early adulthood amidst the rich, chaotic hum of big cities and the sweet, salty sunsets of easy beaches. I should have anticipated where I would eventually settle, for each visit home to Massachusetts would send me out to the woods of my childhood. And there I would stay for hours.
Sometimes I chased my dogs along the trails and swam in cold, refreshing reservoirs, pulling myself out to dry on sun-warmed boulders. Other times I slowly meandered along those peaceful forest floors that are alternatively spongy and resistant, blanketed in grass or the brilliant mosaics of autumn leaves. There, like all deciduous forests, each season pulses with its own distinct life, intoxicates you with the smell of muddy creek beds or spring flowers, chills the tip of your nose, or sits sticky on your skin. The woods welcomed me back with open arms upon each return. In my relationship with the wilderness I found a mutual respect and understanding that was more difficult to come by elsewhere.
I started Sustainable Earth Yoga Retreats (SEYR) in 2011 after moving from the madness of life in Buenos Aires to the peace of a jungle ecological project in Northern Argentina. SEYR is a yoga project built on passing forward the practices and healing of life attuned to nature, and living on this planet with more give and less take. I co-hosted my first retreat on that red-clay land to help participants connect with themselves and nature through Yoga, jungle immersion, and workshops on natural remedies and sustainability practices.
I brought SEYR with me when I returned to the United States in 2012. Soon, I discovered Truckee and Lake Tahoe, California, and I’ve been here ever since.
As a wilderness and mindfulness guide, someone drew my attention to shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing.” Developed in the early 1980s, shinrin-yoku means to “take in the forest atmosphere,” and since its inception, substantial resources have been invested in researching its psychological and physiological benefits.
From 2004 - 2012, Japanese officials and researchers did a deep-dive into the potential healing effects of shinrin-yoku. The benefits include:
• Boosted immune system functioning
• Reduced blood pressure
• Reduced stress
• Improved mood
• Increased ability to focus
• Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
• Increased energy level
• Improved sleep
The research echoes what we already know intuitively: nature speaks to us, and we respond. Trees emit essential oils called phytoncides that protect them from germs and insects, and they extend this immune-boosting magic to humans. Breathing in forest air increases the activity of Natural Killer cells, white blood cells that play a major role in the body’s rejection of tumors and virally infected cells. These effects can be measured for a month after exposure.
Studies, like those performed at Japan’s Chiba University, have also found that just thirty minutes in the forest lowers salivary cortisol levels. Cortisol is involved in blood pressure maintenance, anti-inflammatory function, and immune function, among many other regulatory processes. Researchers also found that forest visits lower blood pressure, increase heart rate variability, and have a a profound effect on the nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the fight-flight-freeze stress response, is typically in over-drive in modern life. Shinrin-yoku puts the sympathetic nervous system at ease, and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate our rest-and-digest response and restore the body to a state of calm and balance.
All of this has implications for our chronically stressed populace as well as those who experience acute stress such as people recovering from surgery, disease, or traumatic experiences. Shinrin-yoku inspired me to bring more structure and directed intention into my meditative nature walks.
I saw the effects most clearly when working with combat veterans. Simply being in Tahoe was healing for my clients who often suffered from post traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. As part of five day retreats, my co-guides and I led Sensory Hikes which combined principles of shinrin-yoku, Yoga, and sensory experiences. On top of the medicine the forest was already delivering, tuning into the present through our senses, breath work, and mindful awareness taught our clients how to begin controlling their minds’ fluctuations. After each retreat, clients consistently reported they would bring these tools home. They were also eager to return to the forest with their families.
To practice shinrin-yoku, or to truly immerse ourselves in a forest environment, we must approach the practice with intention. We draw our attention to the way the Earth feels beneath our feet, and may even sit, dig, or crawl in the dirt. We watch the subtle and drastic play of the wind in the grasses. We close our eyes to smell the sweet sap of a pine tree, and begin to decipher the subtle differences between a bird’s greeting and a cry of alarm. We may taste wild mint, or stick our bare feet into the shock of a spring creek. As a Yoga student and teacher, I often incorporate meditations on the five elements of Ayurveda and Yoga that are constantly at play in our external and internal landscapes: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether.
This deepening presence helps us recognize we are not merely passing through natural environments, nature recognizes us as one of her own. All the while, she whispers songs of ease and health to the cells of our body, the hormones in our saliva, and the chemistry in our brain. In our response to these songs, a mutual respect and reciprocity is discovered, and we begin to care more deeply for nature and her well-being as well. We begin to live with less take and more give.
Of course, like so many of our spiritual practices, none of this is any new secret discovered, only ancient wisdom remembered.
“May the sun bring you new energy by day, may the moon softly restore you by night, may the rain wash away your worries, may the breeze blow new strength into your being, may you walk gently through the world and know it's beauty all the days of your life.” - Apache Blessing
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