How My Dog Taught Me the Practice of Forest Bathing
By Nadine Mazzola, Award-winning author, Certified Forest Therapy Guide and ANFT Senior Trainer
In this article Nadine Mazzola shares how she learned to forest bathe from her dog Juliet.
Juliet was truly masterful at both guiding me, and mentoring me, in the practice of forest bathing. Thank you Juliet!
“Follow me! Do you see what I see--smell --hear? Isn't it fabulous!”
My dog Juliet would say this to me with her joyful look and in the way she moved her entire body. Her unabashed delight and her ability to always be so present, drew me in and tugged at something deep inside me.
Often distracted and inside my own head as we walked, it was noticing Juliet's joy in what she was noticing that freed me from my own thoughts and rumination and invited me into the present moment with her.
There were many things to notice. Sounds in the distance caught my curiosity. Birds speaking to one another, calling back and forth. Water running in small streams through rocks and under fallen logs creating small waterfalls and pools. Breezes in the treetops that always sounded different depending on the type of tree and the shape of its leaves or needles.
The scents of pine needles and dirt that smelled somehow delicious and familiar. Sun warming dried leaves and grasses creating a toasty, inviting scent that stirred memories from my childhood. Fresh coolness from the smell of water as we drew close to wet areas in the forest.
The many things to see and touch each with their individual textures and patterns. And the mud, to feel that wonderful mud! The way in which Juliet and I each noticed and used our senses were both similar and yet unique. She mostly used her whiskers, tongue and nose to touch things and I used fingertips, hands and the side of my cheek occasionally.
Suddenly all my thoughts and ruminations, and the anxiety built by them, were somewhere else! We, Juliet and I, were alone and yet in the company of so many other living beings. Juliet and I belonged to each other and with all the living beings around us.
The name forest-bathing is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (森林浴) and means taking in, or bathing in, the atmosphere of the forest. Forest-bathing is a practice, with a research-based framework, taught by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT). It is a relational practice about wellbeing, health and healing and these benefits apply to both our dogs and people.
There are amazing health benefits that have been studied by the Japanese and researchers all over the world (Read more about the science on the ANFT website or in the book The Nature Fix) and many of these same benefits apply to our dogs as well. (You can read more about the benefits to our dogs in my book Forest Bathing with Your Dog)
Forest-bathing or Relational Forest-Therapy as it is taught by ANFT, is also about relationships and community: reconnecting to relationships with the natural world, and with ourselves and each other (and I’ll add our pets too). Forest bathing can be something you do one time and it can also be a practice that deepens with time as many mindfulness and movement practices do. Each of us has our own unique way of doing this and forest therapy supports everyone to find “our own way” that feels authentic for each of us. For me, the practice of forest bathing has brought me a remembering of what it feels like to be alive and really belong in the web of life of this planet.
For me, a sense of belonging with the natural world came flooding back into my body-mind-spirit, spontaneously and vividly, like remembering a moment from my childhood when I first experienced forest bathing. Now, whether I'm passing a tree on the street, a bird on a balcony, the plants in a nearby park or my own yard and garden, through the regular practice of forest bathing, and guiding, I feel an intrinsic sense of community even with the rocks, waters and wind. On a daily basis sweet Juliet was inviting me into all of this connection and community as she was immersed in the joy of noticing and interacting with everything around her.
"I invite you" Juliet would say in her wordless way of communicating with her entire body.
I didn't understand what Juliet was offering me until I became a Certified Forest Therapy Guide and trained with the ANFT in 2015. Years later, I am now a senior trainer and advisor for ANFT. Once I became a guide myself, I could see that Juliet was intuitively covering all the core principles of guiding forest therapy and being a good mentor. One of the important things I came to understand during the ANFT guide-training was this idea of ‘Invitations’ and how invitations arise. I had been wandering with Juliet in the woods and around our neighborhood for several years somewhat forest bathing before becoming a guide. The deepening shift that occurred for me was that I was now able to catch an invitation from Juliet. They didn’t pass me by. I was more attuned to notice what and how Juliet was drawn to, and that was heightening my ability to be me more attuned to noticing what I was drawn to and thus invited to into!
As I look back, I am astonished at what a master mentor Juliet was to me and how she was constantly inviting me into her world of "NOW". She brought me deep into a world of sweet, sensory experiences following my bliss and my curiosity. As Mary Oliver said, in her poem Wild Geese, "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
photo © Rachel Giese Brown – May Oliver and her dog Percy
As I became more proficient at catching Juliet's invitations something else occurred. Our dialogue and relationship evolved. We started to understand each other on more levels: Body-mind-spirit-intuition. We didn't just rely on my spoken words. We were communicating on more subtle terms and yet so much was passing back and forth between us. This is also how it felt for me when I opened to letting in what the trees and other-than-human beings had to share with me. There is an unspoken sense of knowing each other with all our ways of knowing, and of wisdom and insight being offered back and forth.
When I facilitate forest bathing workshops and team wellness retreats, it is very experiential. It is often hard to describe the depth of what can unfold because of this. Most of our time is spent outside and there is both time on our own and time in community together. We come together to share the experiences we had while wandering on our own. This is one of the important elements in forest bathing, sharing our experiences. Of course, folks are always welcome to pass if they wish. In weekend workshops like the ones, I teach at The Rowe Center for people with their dogs, we also spend time discussing the nuances of practicing forest bathing with our dogs. There are definitely things to learn and doing this together with others is both supportive and fun!
Through the years my practice and skill as a guide of other humans has grown because of the mentoring Juliet gave me. She has been one of my greatest teachers and guides. As I share in my book, "Forest Bathing with Your Dog", it is a matter of noticing and being present with each other's natural ways. It's not about training something but rather simply noticing each other and being present with. Building authentic relationship and reciprocity over time; noticing and experiencing each other's ways of being. I have found this to be true whether it is a dog and human interaction or any other being like birds and human or even tree and human.
Through the many experiences of forest bathing together the bond Juliet and I had and our ability to understand each other grew exponentially. Juliet offered the invitations but always let me explore in my own way. She taught me as I slowed down enough to listen and notice. We can all learn the language of the forest and the dogs that we are privileged to have accompany us. The ability is still inside all of us. It just needs a bit of waking up from its nap.
“Forget yourself and get down on all four paws and experience with me" Juliet would say.
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Nadine Mazzola (she/her) is author of the award-winning book “Forest Bathing with Your Dog”. She is the director of New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting (nenft.com) has been guiding Forest Therapy walks since 2015. She is a senior trainer and has been a part of the ANFT training staff, and an advisor to ANFT, since 2016, training guides and trainers around the world. Nadine has worked with leading conservation and educational and health organizations, speaking on forest bathing and conducting workshops in her home area of Massachusetts. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, and in The Boston Globe and Boston Magazine. She is also trained in Somatics and Expressive Arts. In addition to training new guides, Nadine teaches her own in-person and online training programs having to do with expressive arts, somatics and helping guides to develop their business skills. She does private coaching for individuals when requested, and for businesses she does team wellness programs and speaking.