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5enses • 8

Befriending Winter, with a Forest Bath by EdMickens

I am not a winter person. It’s not so much the cold (although ifyou add damp, my whining joints make me cranky). It’s the dark: the late sunrise and the ever-earlier sunset,

sometimes complicated by dark, cloudy days. Sometimes I think the bears have the right idea, hibernating in a snug cave. But there are meetings to attend, dinners that need to get on the table, publications that must make it to the printer. “I spend a lot oftime in nature,” says Felipe Guerrero, education director at the Highlands Center for Natural History, “but there’s something special about the forest in winter. Maybe it’s the light. Heat can be oppressive, but when you’re bundled up in winter, you pay attention. The forest can be very still, almost serene, then a microburst ofchickadees or warblers surprises you.” The core concept behind “Befriending Winter” is shinrin yoku, a Japanese practice usually translated as “forest bathing.” Some studies have shown forest bathing to boost immune strength, reduce stress and improve cognitive functioning. But there’s more. By slowing down and carefully observing with all our senses, there’s an opportunity to really notice the world. Stepping away from the rapid pace ofdaily routines allows all ofus to observe the beauty ofthe moment. It’s calm. I had heard about the idea from friends on the coast — spiritual seekers, alternative health advocates — and so had the board at the Highlands Center. They were contemplating how to introduce forest bathing to their incomparable “tub” within the Prescott National Forest when they were contacted by Jackie Kuang, a certified nature and forest-therapy guide, who had recently moved to Prescott.

Winter?“It’s a great way to get people outside, exposed to the sun andexperiencing the specialquality of winter,”Kuang states simply. “The mind, body and spirit allget a lift.”

Jackie Kuang Kuang had helped develop the popular forest-bathing program at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, and had trained other guides around the world. She and the board found a synchronicity, and a year-round program was sketched out — to be introduced just in time for winter.

We chatted about seasonal affective disorder. She gets it, having grown up in the north ofChina and the American Midwest. But she laughed off my questions about the climate differences between Prescott and Southern California. “I’ve co-guided these winter programs in Stockholm,” she explains. “There are tricks to keep warm and comfortable. But don’t forget that, even in LA, it can get chilly in the canyons. Always carry layers.” The upcoming forest-bathing walks at the Highlands Center will be about two hours long, and cover maybe a mile or mile and a half, on mostly level paths. What sets them apart is a sequence of“invitations” presented by the guide. These aren’t exercises, more “suggestions that give (the bather) freedom to interpret, and tap into their inner wisdom,” explains Kuang.

Jackie Kuang will be leading “Befriending Winter” programs on a monthly basis, along with her co-guide, Michelle Balfe-Keefer. The next scheduled dates are December 21, January 18 and February 15. Each group is limited to twelve participants, so reservations are highly recommended. Cost is $30. The Highlands Center is at 1375 S. Walker Road in Prescott, (928) 776-9550, Ed Mickens is managing editor of5enses.

These might be taking time to look at the undersides ofleaves, or dead wood and the organisms within. Smelling a pine cone. To notice what moves. It might mean feeling the wind, pondering what other beings feel the same wind, comparing it to breath. Sometimes Kuang will suggest reciprocity, like offering the wind something to carry. The idea is to assist embodiment, to feel grounded. Forest bathing encourages using all five senses, as a direct link to the heart. “When you take a hike from point A to point B, that’s just good exercise. You see the light only when you’re still.”

Connecting with the earth


Initially Kuang wondered what kind ofeffect her forest-bathing walks were having. “Then I got a call from a participant, months later,” she recalls. “She was calling from LAX (yes, an airport!) to tell me how calm she felt. How amazed she was that everything looks so different.” Kuang soon found out that she had a Yelp! page full of compliments from reviewers about how calm and relaxed they felt, and had a new perspective on nature. She was also surprised how her audience, originally comprised ofseniors, kept getting younger and younger. Millennials are finding the benefits of stillness, too. “Nature is the therapist,” she reminds me. “Not me.”

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