In a world where connectivity, digitisation and technology increasingly govern everything from our communications to our hoovering, more of us than ever are craving the need to switch off and get back to nature. Enter ‘forest bathing’ – where mindfulness and a seriously good walk combine to help you hear the sound of your own thoughts once again. Here, Helena Skoog who runs a forest bathing retreat at Spread Eagle Hotel and Spa in Sussex, explains…
I was born in Sweden, surrounded by the forests, spending my time horse riding and generally being in the countryside. So, for me, the forest is a natural place to be. I’ve lived in England for 15 years and over time I have gradually moved further and further south, moving out of cities and reconnecting with the natural environment.
Now I am out in the ancient woodlands in East Sussex. My partner and I live off grid and have done for five years. The longer I’m here, the more connected I feel to the natural world around me. For me, forest bathing is like a conversation or a relationship with the natural world. The longer I’m here the better and deeper that conversation gets.
It’s challenging at times. We wash outdoors every day, our kitchen is outdoors, but we have a log burner, gas cooker and solar panels so we function well and have mobile wifi. We’re not online as much as everyone else, but we aren’t totally cut off and we live very comfortably. Doing it has been a work in progress. I started moving out here in a caravan on my own out of choice before I met my partner. That was quite challenging.
I had a personal experience and when that happened it was as if I knew I had to change my life. I was almost scared that if I didn’t make a change, that experience would be something that would float into the past, and I wanted it to be something big that changed things for me. I needed to be on my own in nature for a while and when I made that effort it happened so easily for me. I was introduced to the farmer on the land where I live now, and the rest is history. Living this way makes me feel more alive.
At Spread Eagle we go out to the old castles of Midhurst and start the forest bathing there. We start with a sensory awareness meditation. I guide people to engage their senses with the surroundings – taste, touch, smell, sound and sight. It’s mindfulness, but in this case you’re very connected to nature.
We go out whatever the weather, so it’s really important that you dress for it. We do a two hour slow walk and I give people sensory engaging invitations throughout, for example, introducing yourself to trees and smelling the soil. It’s playful and can be strange for some people.
Historically you would have called us tree huggers, but people don’t approach it like that any more. People are willing to sit in and talk to nature and it is beautiful to see. We take the magical childlike mind with us.
After the walk, we come back to the hotel and have a beautiful lunch. We make a lovely mocktail (non-alcoholic cocktail) and share our experiences, discussing what was most beautiful and most challenging for us. Then there’s the option to have a yoga session as well. It’s a two hour guided yoga session, which people can be a bit daunted by, but it’s not a dynamic session, it’s very slow with a lot of sitting and laying down. It’s very nourishing.
It’s about finding calm and stillness in a chaotic world. People don’t stop and look very often, even when they walk the dog. So this really opens you up to that opportunity to find peace and calm. It’s helpful to have people guiding you through, but I am a great believer that nature does a lot of that for you.
What people appreciate the most is the ability to stop. Most can’t remember the last time they did that. It’s important for guests to know that I am not the therapist, nature is the therapist. Whatever things people are dealing with, I encourage them to talk to the trees and the wildlife, thinking about how much life is around us. For humans there is an innate trust in nature and if we have that then we can tell it our secrets. It’s like telling a friend without them saying anything back. It’s not about fixing necessarily, it’s about nature listening and supporting you in its own way. It’s very therapeutic and it’s a beautiful antidote for stress, depression and grief, let alone the physical benefits. But all of that is between you and Mother Earth.
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