Still a Runner

A Blog by Mary Lou Harris

Archive for meditation

Forest Bathing (Shinrin-Yoku)

Have you noticed that recently fitness and health magazines and on-line sources have finally picked up on the concept that spending time outdoors can improve your health and well-being.

They are a little late in coming to the party. Since the 1980’s, the Japanese have been at the forefront of integrating outdoor experiences, particularly those in forest areas, with other health care protocols.

Well, forest bathing has even come to my little corner of the world. I became familiar with a practice called Shinrin-Yoku (or forest bathing) during a presentation offered by our wonderful county park. The Japanese and other eastern cultures have found that integration of forest bathing into health care plans helps with a number of maladies, particularly high blood pressure and other diseases that chase us down as we age.

No! No, not that kind of forest bathing

I find it intriguing that the rest of the world has now caught up with the knowledge that being in the woods can lift your spirits. Most trail runners and hikers have been aware of this. It’s a part of what draws us to the trail.

So, to find out how this more scientific version of a walk in the woods developed I did a bit of reading and wrote an article for Sixty and Me.

Later, I saw an announcement for an opportunity to participate in Shinrin-Yoku at Detweiler Park. Detweiler Park is the perfect setting for Shinrin-Yoku , a location that is bare bones carry-in, carry-out, trails only for pedestrians and an eco-friendly environment.

The session I attended was specifically for seniors (there were other sessions open to families with children and a session for adults not yet in our golden age).

My session was led by the certified forest therapy guide, Suzanne Schiemer, who had done the earlier presentation. She explained the process we would use to experience the forest. We would be proceeding very slowly and observing the forest through all senses.

Let the Forest Saturate Into Your Being

We began by closing our eyes and exploring our location through senses other that sight. What did we hear? Could we taste the forest in the air as we cupped our tongues? What did we smell? We went through this process, rotating, making a quarter turn and repeating the process until we had experienced the differences in our forest environment through our senses by simply slightly turning our bodies. And, to our surprise, our senses did identify differences in smell, sound and taste as our bodies moved ever so slightly.

We began our forest walk after our leader first offered that there are plants in the forest that can be harmful and they generally will tell us so if we pay attention. Her example was the hairy exterior of poison ivy vines. She then issued an invitation to walk very slowly and identify a vine that we are each individually drawn to. The vine that called to me had managed to wind itself into the shape of a dancer.

We stopped along a bridge crossing the brook and took time to each find our comfortable place and quietly contemplate the forest world around us.

After our quiet meditation, we walked another short distance to a forest path. We were asked to each find a tree to become familiar with. Could we feel energy from the tree when touching it? Yes, I was surprised but I could feel it. I will keep this in mind on my next lengthy trail run, maybe take a break leaning against a tree to reinvigorate my body.

Our session ended with a tea ceremony, sharing our experience around a picnic table under a beautiful pine.

This was an intentional slow moving process. During our 2-hour session, we moved less than a half mile.

Each exercise, or invitation, we participated in, I have since emulated prior to picking up my hiking or running pace on the trail. I am finding it a worthwhile, relaxing process.

I would love to hear whether you have experienced anything in the realm of forest bathing or forest therapy? Would you be willing to give it a try?

Hiking a 40-Mile Meditation

I’ve had a draft playing around in my head for a month or two, a sharing of my experience at the Hike Across Maryland (HAM). I’ve come to think of this experience as a walking meditation. This morning, a radio program gave me the impetus to move ahead and put those thoughts to keyboard.

Krista Tippett’s “On Being” was airing,  her topic being Running As Spiritual Practice.  A number of runners (including Olympian Billy Mills) share with her how running has taken them through dark times, lifted spirits, developed discipline and in many different ways become part of each runner’s spiritual practice.

I have felt many of those sentiments through my years of running. At the HAM, the closest I felt was the necessity to be mindful of every step I took as I ran and hiked the 40-mile distance on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a single day.

The HAM is an incredible opportunity for hikers to test their endurance and pacing. From the 5 a.m. start at the Mason-Dixon line where Pennsylvania meets Maryland to the arrival crossing the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, we were supported by volunteers and checkpoints providing refreshments and documenting our passage. While this event is not a race, we were required to reach specific locations by specific times or be asked to drop and accept transport to the finish.

Rain was heavy the previous day, making our May 6th passage on the trail muddy and slick. Temperatures at the start in the high 50’s would have been perfect if not for the cool rain. A love of nature and tests of endurance still brought out over 100 participants.

Off-and-on again sheets of rain came down as we ran a portion of an early mile. As water ran down her face, my friend said “Isn’t this great? We get to be in the woods all day.” She was serious and set a tone of optimism for me.

I realized early on that 40 miles of hiking, with running spurts where I was sure of my footing, would require concentration. I decided if I was to make it through with minimal injury, it would need to be a meditative endeavor.

I cleared my mind of any extraneous mumbo-jumbo thoughts that usually find their way into my thinking. Every step was a mindful step. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the rushing of the streams we crossed, the calf-deep mudholes, the occasional birdsong and the rustling of unseen critters in the woods. It’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the beautiful deep, deep green the rain was bringing out in an already lush area. And it’s also not to say that I didn’t listen to and acknowledge a number of fellow hikers talking through their love of the trail, concerns about and pride in their children, job and health challenges. Being on the trail is license to spew out to total strangers the things that really matter in life.

With any and all of that seeming to be on a separate track, my concentration was in each step of the trail, 40 miles of meditation. Even that concentration did not stop me from taking a face plant as we climbed  a rain-slick boulder. The bill of my cap and my glasses let me escape with nothing worse than a small goose egg on the forehead and a few scratches on the palms of my hands.

At our last major checkpoint, I turned over my headlamp and heavier raincoat to friends who volunteered support, exchanging that weight for a couple of quick chugs of Coke. Off then for the last few miles, still mindful in each step, my pace was quicker than the pace of my first few miles.

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Hello, West Virginia!

Although the towpath near the finish seemed unending, the stairs to the bridge a cruel trick and as we crossed to West Virginia the wild beauty of the rain-swollen Potomac breathtaking, I stayed mindful of each step on this wonderful earth.

 

There are no regrets I took up this challenge. Through this 40-mile hiking/jogging meditation, I treasured the company of good friends as well as strangers and the support of the organizers and personal hiking friends who made the day.

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Enjoy your weekend, dream of a new challenge and try taking a mindful approach. Gotta run.