Practicing mindfulness outside—‘forest bathing,’ anyone?—brings multiple rewards
When Melissa Layfield is feeling overwhelmed, she takes a timeout. But not in the traditional face-the-corner meaning of that term. Instead, the busy mom of three ditches her shoes and socks and steps outside—no matter the weather.
“I stand in the dirt, grass or snow,” she says. “For a minute, I just look, listen, see and feel. I call it my ‘mindful minute.’ It’s a quick centering practice.” When she has more time, she and her children go on a hike in White Clay Creek Park, which adjoins her backyard.
Layfield and her kids aren’t the only ones marrying meditation and nature. More people are finding solace by taking a mindful stroll in a park, on their street or even in their driveway.
Look, Listen, Savor
Unless you’ve been living without TV, Internet or magazines, you’ve probably heard about mindfulness, which is a part of the self-care or wellness movement.
Layfield certainly knows a thing or two about it. She runs the Walnut Grove Coop, a nonprofit educational organization whose mindfulness programs include a nature camp, STEM camps and healing forest practices (for adults).
Mindfulness is a type of meditation. Traditional meditation, however, focuses on spiritual growth and transcending emotion. If you practice mindfulness, you acknowledge whatever emotion or thought you are having. You don’t judge it.
Essentially, mindfulness is being in the moment. “It’s a state of being fully present—whatever you’re doing,” says Sara Teixido. “Rather than cooking dinner in a distracted way, I’m present to the color of the vegetables, the aromas and the feeling of the vegetable under my knife. In our fast and confusing world, it’s nice to be able to just be present.”
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can help people manage stress, improve the quality of their sleep and even build immunity, which is why so many conventional healthcare providers recommend it.
“I’m always mindful that I need to be more mindful,” says Derrick Kelley, a wine representative who spends most of his day driving to see clients. He also wants to spend more time outside, particularly with his Lab, Delta. “I spend most of my day alone wishing I was on the other side of the windshield.”
Walking meditation or mindfulness can help busy people like Kelley practice mindfulness and get exercise at the same time.
A Walk in the Woods
A healer who offers reiki and meditation guidance, Teixido schedules her day so that she can walk her dog, Jasper, at least once between client appointments. “It helps me decompress,” she explains. “When you’re a healer, you give time to someone else. It’s important to reset and come back to be present for clients later in the day.”
She frequently walks in Delcastle Recreational Park near her home. She puts away her phone and lets Jasper take the lead. “If he wants to go explore the trees or a deer path, I’m right there with him. I get to see so much more because I see it from his perspective.”
Their off-the-trail wanderings once led her to a mossy area with minute mushrooms shaped like umbrellas.
In Japan, immersing yourself in the woods is known as a shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” The key is using your five senses while you’re outside. Longwood Gardens makes it easy to experiment. Its grounds include a Forest Walk that in summer has walls of green foliage and sun-dappled paths.
When Layfield takes her family into White Clay Creek State Park, she encourages the children to see as far as they can see, feel the weather and smell the earth, which has a different aroma depending on whether it’s wet or dry.
By opening her senses, forest bather Rose Giroso has had revelations. “Why did I not notice before that there are 100 colors of green, brown and taupe?” asks the interior designer. A self-professed “park adventurer,” she enjoys experiencing different state parks and arboretums.
Just Do It
If you’re going to take to the trails, however, Layfield recommends getting a map of the park or a GPS app. Many people shy away from large parks for fear that they’ll get lost. You can also walk or hike with someone.
Instead of a park, try one of the area’s many attractions with paths and trails, such as Mt. Cuba Center, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Hagley Museum & Library and Longwood Gardens.
While Nick Kluger of West Grove, Pa., enjoys walks in Ashland Nature Center, he can practice mindfulness by simply stepping outside his front door in the morning for his daily run. Kluger’s route takes him through the countryside. “I’m keen on paying attention to all of my surroundings—all of the smells, all of the animals, all of the cracks in the road,” he says.
For something more low-key, seek out a site with a labyrinth, a circular path that leads to a center. (See the note below.) The spiral pattern has been found in ancient cultures, and it began appearing on church properties during medieval times.
You can use the labyrinth however you wish, but many choose to view it as a prayerful experience. Teixido has led solstice walks on the Delaware Art Museum’s labyrinth.
“It’s a different kind of mindfulness,” she says. “Each twist and turn that you take is a metaphor for life. As I’m walking toward the center, I am present to those steps that I’ve walked thus far—it’s like a review. The center is a place of retrospection and reflection.” Leaving the labyrinth is an “unwinding,” she says. “It’s a process that helps you envision what is coming ahead.”
Giroso experienced a profound calmness after walking a labyrinth. “It was an elevated meditation,” she maintains.
Don’t have much time to travel? You only need a few minutes to benefit from an outdoor meditation. As Layfield proved with her “mindful minute,” make time wherever and whenever.
To do a walking meditation, find a place with room for 10 to 30 paces. Then:
1. Stand at one end of your “path,” with your feet firmly planted, your hands resting comfortably and your senses open.
2. After a minute, bring your attention to the body. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Be present.
3. Walk slowly. Be relaxed. Concentrate on the feeling of lifting your foot and placing it down.
4. At the end of the path, pause. Center yourself, turn and pause again. Return to the starting spot.
5. Your mind may wander. Acknowledge it by saying, “Thinking” or “Planning.” Then return to the walk. Do this for as long as you can, up to 20 minutes.
Aldersgate United Methodist Church
2313 Concord Pike, Wilmington, aldersgatede.org
Miller Road and Woodland Lane, Wilmington, facebook.com/ardenlabyrinth
Christ Church Christiana Hundred
505 E. Buck Rd., Wilmington, christchurchde.org
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Pkwy., Wilmington, delart.org
First & Central Presbyterian Church
1101 N. Market St., Wilmington, firstandcentral.org