How to Take Your Spa Routine Outside

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Wiped out from 8 days of New York Fashion Week and my annual end-of-summer malaise, I recently booked a one-night stay at the Mayflower Grace in western Connecticut–a boutique hotel with a big reputation for its insanely blissful spa. My goal, however, was not to lie facedown on a massage table for long. My goal was to immerse myself in nature via shinrin-yoku, the Japanese art of forest bathing.

Photo: Mayflower Grace

On a sunny, warm September afternoon, the Mayflower Grace’s full-time hiking guide and I hit the road to Steep Rock Nature Preserve, located just outside Washington, Connecticut. Matt grew up in the area and knows its trails and mountains like the back of his hand. When he first read about forest bathing’s therapeutic effects in the spring of 2015, he determined to bring it to the spa, where it quickly caught on. These days, he leads about 5 groups on forest bathing excursions every week. I was his first one-woman group.

We started on a wide, well-worn trail, where I was instructed to slow down, stand up straight and breathe in the fragrances of the forest. “Pay attention to the sound of the water [in the creek nearby],” Matt said. “Listen to the wind in the trees and your feet crunching on the ground. Concentrate on all the sounds and sensations around you.”

Photo: Steep Rock Association, Inc.

This, in short, is what forest bathing is all about: living entirely in the moment in an environment that has long been esteemed for its restorative qualities. Forest bathers are required before setting off to relinquish all electronics. On that sunny Tuesday afternoon—the middle of the workday—I was surprised to discover that I didn’t miss my iThings. The scenery grew prettier as we pushed into the forest, but I never grabbed for a camera that wasn’t there. I framed shots in my mind, relished each gorgeous vista and then moved on. My mind stayed on path in front of me, the activity around me and the crisp scent of a New England fall.

Matt and I hiked in almost total silence for two hours, stopping occasionally to talk about the flora and fauna in our path. (Turns out that you notice more details when you walk super-slow.) By the time we returned to the Mayflower Grace, I was in a dream-like state—the kind of relaxation I feel after an especially restorative yoga class, for instance, or a really long massage.

How to Forest Bath

Good news! You don’t need to visit a fancy spa or hire a guide to experience shinrin-yoku. Just follow these steps to reap all the benefits of forest bathing wherever, whenever.

  1. Don’t just silence your phone; leave it at home. Unburden yourself of your gadgets.
  2. Give yourself plenty of time. Two hours is ideal. Pack a bottle of water and a snack to enjoy on your hike.
  3. Slow down. Walk so slowly that it feels unnatural at first. This is the opposite of a fitness hike, so don’t pay any attention to speed, pace or distance.
  4. Look outward and Incorporate all your senses. Focus your mind on the environment around you, not on the tangle of thoughts that usually fill your brain.
  5. Be flexible with the word “forest”. You can practice shinrin-yoku almost anywhere outside, provided you have room to slow your pace. Tack it onto the end of your morning run or your walk home from work, whether your path takes you through a state park, a neighborhood park or Central Park.