When I went to Sonoma this past summer, I expected to drink lots of good wine, eat lots of good food, and visit a lot of vineyards (where I would... drink good wine and eat good food). What I didn't expect was to go forest bathing. Yet, that's what I found myself doing when I decided to stay at the Gaige House + Ryokan. It was already an unorthodox choice to stay in a Japanese-inspired accommodation—one of two ryokans in California; the other is Nobu Ryokan in Malibu—in Wine Country, a destination better known for its luxury boutique hotels and quaint B&Bs than Zen hideaways. Yet, as I made my way through the bamboo-lined walkway to my room—a suite complete with giant bathroom featuring a deep granite soaking tub overlooking the private karesansui Zen rock garden—I couldn't help but notice the serenity of the property, and how organically the Japanese-inspired architecture fit into the woodsy Glen Ellen landscape.
Yukata kimonos, geta and zōri slippers, and meditative music welcomed me inside the suite; following the five-hour drive from Sequoia National Park, I poured myself a much-needed cup of sake, took out a mochi from the freezer, and sank into the plush couch, also facing the garden, before my eye landed on a book, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature by Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. Intrigued, I picked it up. Forest bathing, the book told me, is the practice of immersing the "senses in the special qualities of the fluid, oceanic ambience of the woodlands."
Inspired from the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is a way to reconnect with the natural world, by spending several hours completely absorbed in its surroundings, as a way to heal and find inner peace in the human world. In practice, it feels like a combination of meditation and hiking—except in the typical three-hour experience, you might not walk more than 300 yards. If words like "bathing," "fluid," and "oceanic," conjure images of bodies of water, dismiss those ideas; the bathing part, as I would go on to learn, refers to immersing yourself metaphorically into the surroundings around you, not physically in the pool outside of my room that was ironically surrounded by towering trees and woodlands. As Clifford explains in his book, "The air through which we walk is in many ways similar to water. It moves in currents, it flows in waves; you can see this in the myriad patterns of clouds floating in the ocean of the sky. It is inhabited by living ecosystems... The atmosphere is much like the ocean."
As I talk to the concierge at the hotel about attempting the practice, they tell me that I can begin to do so by leaving my phone and other electronic devices behind and offer recommendations for several woodland locations close to the property. While, as the name suggests, a forest is the ideal setting, according to Clifford, with whom I get on the phone following my stay to learn more, the practice can take place anywhere—he once did it in a mall parking lot—though, "the more natural the environment, and the less intrusion from the human-built world, the better." He suggests avoiding trails with lots of people or ones known to be noisy (think: overhead airplanes, chainsaws...), and adds that a gentle, flat terrain and diverse area, that includes trees, streams, and meadows, is also preferable. I set out into the woodland area outside of my private patio.
"[While in Japan,] everywhere I traveled, I was amazed at the simplicity of the experience and focus on nature," says Michael Mohr, principal of MetWest Ventures and mastermind behind the relaunched Gaige House that includes the ryokan experience, when I reached out to him to inquire how forest bathing became part of the stay. "The care and thoughtfulness given to support and highlight the green spaces stuck with me as I returned to the United States, and I was able to see the original Gaige House and our surrounding area with a new lens. The Japanese traditions inspired me to appreciate what we have around us, and to enhance them and use their energy rather than try to create some new attraction." While right now the property suggests locations where guests should go for self-guided practice and offer Clifford's book as a guide, following the interest expressed by guests like me, soon it will introduce a package which will include a three-hour private guide forest bathing session alongside on-property meditation and yoga classes.
While anyone can forest bathe on their own, especially if they meditate regularly, Clifford suggests first-timers go with a guide for the most beneficial experience. "It's very difficult to do without a guide until you really learn the practice. The reason it's difficult is because most of us don't know how to slow down and pay attention," he says. "A guide will do at least two things for you: slow you down and help you pay attention." He compares it to someone wanting to build their body strength or become more limber. "You can do that on your own, but if you go to a workout with a yoga instructor, a pilates instructor, you're gonna do a lot more a lot more quickly and avoid a lot of mistakes."
Once on location with a group, Clifford says, "We spend a lot of time just noticing where we are, and how our bodies feel in that location and as we're moving through the forest, and really paying attention to the senses—the ways the forest touches us through our skin and the sounds that come to our ears and the different scents and aromas that we smell as we're going through the forest." In addition to engaging with all five senses, "We're also paying attention to this additional sense... of presence. What is like to be here in this place, now? And, how that shifts over time. So, for example, if we're approaching a stream, we often draw attention to just this question, 'What is it like to be approaching this stream?' We're not asking for answers on that, we're just asking people to pay attention to how it feels in their body from moment to moment." That, according to Clifford, allows the mind to slow down and engage with the sensory experiences—like noticing the textures and the smells of a handful of dirt picked up—which, in turn, can become sensual experiences—noticing the enjoyment you feel lingering in the simple joys of being able to observe the handful of dirt in your hand.
While the most obvious benefit of the practice is escaping the daily stresses of life by unplugging from the real-world and reconnecting with nature, Clifford says that forest bathing can also be incredibly healing emotionally, especially in this day and age. "Right now, in human culture, there's an incredible amount of discord and anger and hatred. We're in a very, very confused time right now. And a lot of that is because people are not connected [to each other], and not connected to nature." As part of his sessions, he has the participants stand in a circle and pass around a talking piece, like a stone picked up from the forest floor, and share what they're noticing. "This is another one of our core principles, which is nature connection and culture repair arise together. We're on a quest to really be connected to nature in this deep, emotional way, but we have to also be connected to other human beings," he says. "When we connect to other human beings in a kind of specific way—and that specific way is where we know that our experience is being witnessed without judgment or arguing—we're able to move more deeply into our relationship with the world of nature. And because I'm becoming more [in tune with the natural world], I'm able to come back into this human world in a better way."
Even if you elect to engage in the practice on your own, you will notice the benefit of simply breathing in the air surrounding the trees, smelling the grass following a rainstorm, as you wander aimlessly taking in everything around you without outside distractions. Listen to the sound of the bird overhead, touch a leaf on a tree, and take time to notice the things around you, like the exact shades of blue that a stream contains. It is when you notice things you haven't before that you will begin healing, according to Clifford. "For guides, most of this stuff [that people begin to see] is pretty ordinary because we do this all the time. But, one of the things we realize is that what is actually very ordinary is experienced by most people as extraordinary because of our disconnection from nature," he says. "It's also because of this phenomenon that we have culturally, which is walking in and around in a kind of an 'anesthesia'; the pain of being opened to what's going on in our world is so intense that we dumb our senses down. [While forest bathing,] within a half hour or so, peoples' senses start really breaking up and are forced to start seeing again, hearing again, and it's an enlightening experience." As with any practice, to reap most benefits, you should practice forest bathing regularly, though getting away for even 30 minutes from a phones should feel relaxing.
As I find myself sitting on the meditation deck of Gaige House + Ryokan early morning on the last day, I find myself calmer than I can last remember outside of a yoga or meditation class. I find myself more absorbed and aware of my surroundings. I close my eyes and hear the leaves of the nearby trees rustling in the wind; as I open my eyes, I notice the remains of a large tree trunk that I haven't when I was in the exact same spot 24 hours before (I later learn that tragically, just weeks prior, inclement weather tore down a beloved on the property).
"When bringing the Ryokan concept to Sonoma Valley, we wanted to capture the complete essence of the Ryokans that I stayed in across Japan," says Mohr. "Many of these Ryokans are family-owned and -run with the inns being part of their heritage for decades; they have a deep love and appreciation for the trees, rocks, and streams on their properties. With our lush surroundings along Calabazas Creek, the connection to nature is in our DNA, and so by providing the education and opportunity for guests to experience forest bathing within the property or out among the surrounding hills of Sonoma, we hope to encourage our guests to use the Gaige House + Ryokan as a platform for disconnecting from the world and reconnecting with nature, their friends, their partner, or themselves."
As I get up from Sukhasana pose, I am excited for the day to come, with lots of good wine, good food, and vineyards. And while the thing I find most surprising following the practice is how prepared I am to re-enter the real world, through this experience, I've come to prepare for the unexpected—which may be the most important lesson of all.