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Forest bathing with Annette Bernjus

{nature conversations}


In my last post I already wrote about forest bathing. Why it fascinates me, what it is, how it works. And today it's my great pleasure and honor to speak with Annette Bernjus, who is the author of one of the first books about forest bathing in German.


In this conversation with Annette Bernjus we'll cover...

...what forest bathing is and what the difference is to a walk.

...which effects a bath in the forest has, especially on people with dementia.

...how to integrate forest bathing into your daily life.

...why it's worth visiting a forest bathing course.


Lots of joy, inspiration and green power to you! =)


nature conversations

Welcome, Annette, to the nature conversations. I think most who read this conversation don’t know you yet. So: Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

 

I’m Annette Bernjus and I live in the Taunus region in Germany. Here I was born and here I stayed and here I got in touch with the forest early on, because we own a little forest here. I

Annette Bernjus
© Annette Bernjus

have always enjoyed being outside, with my parents and grandparents, too. But firstly I became a bank clerk. When my children were born I seeked a new career direction and I fulfilled a big dream of mine to become a Taijiquan instructor. It was around 2015 that forest bathing followed and ever since then I organize courses for Taijiquan and Qigong, but also for forest bathing. I also offer trainings in forest bathing and I specialized in forest bathing during grief and for people with dementia.

I’m 62, that’s perhaps interesting, too. That’s why I have done quite a lot already. (laughs)

 

Let us expand on that: You work with people with dementia and you go with them into the forest?

 

Yes, exactly, I do that as a volunteer. I offer courses for people who are already forest bathing instructors and who want to start working with the topic of “dementia”. But I also guide people who want to incorporate forest bathing into their work with people with dementia. That’s very interesting, because many nursing homes go to the park with their patients, but it’s actually the wild nature, which we will for sure be talking about today, who benefits the people the most, to leave the safe and comfortable spaces for once. Of course with the protection of someone who accompanies them, but to really walk over natural paths and feel the wind, that’s what we need. It’s important to really go outside once in a while and to not wrap the people in cotton.

 

How interesting! Could you describe what it does to those people? I can imagine that it must have a great positive effect to leave the four walls you’re so used to.

 

Yes, it’s exactly that. But there are always people who don’t like the forest so much. Often they have experienced the second World War and had to escape through the woods. Therefore they are scared of the forest and don’t like going there. With them I seek out a meadow with a few trees. It’s important to take it slow.

What I notice is that the communication of people who haven’t really talked anymore before or who didn’t want to communicate with the outside world because of their limitations, becomes different relatively quickly. Being in the forest with them that’s the first thing I notice. That the communication changes, that people start telling stories because it reminds them of their childhood. We sing and sometimes they are even able to recite a poem. They truly come alive, suddenly they are filled with life again. And this is also confirmed by the nurses and the relatives. When people have spent time in the forest, they are quieter afterwards and they don’t have this wandering around in the evening, that many people with dementia get.

A tipp in case anyone who reads this is taking care of a person with dementia: It’s very good to go outside in the mornings in order to take in the morning light. There are studies that show that the restlessness in the evenings decreases when you go outside in the mornings for just one hour. The time we give this person in the morning, we can save in the evening. And it also benefits the caring relative of course. Their day gets better when they go outside in the morning. But it’s always a question of taking the time.


Waldbaden
© Annette Bernjus

I think the topic of taking time is gigantic for all of us. It would do all of us good to go outside daily. Spending time ouside has an effect on our day to day, our health, our sleep, hasn’t it?

 

Yes, that’s right. Going outside isn’t lost time. People who are stuck in busyness often say: What? Now I should take an hour-long walk in the woods on top of it all?! They consider it a waste of time and need a while until they realise that it isn’t.

 

Could you explain for the readers who don’t know it yet: What is forest bathing?

 

Essentially forest bathing is going outside into the forest and perceiving it through all of our senses. To rediscover the forest and to become very slow, without having a certain goal. For me it’s arriving in the forest.

Often forest bathing gets mistaken for taking a walk. When taking a walk I have a goal, I walk from A to B. Forest bathing is without a goal, without an intention.

 

The difference between forest bathing and taking a walk is an important point, isn’t it? There are probably many people, who say: I go into the woods every day, I don’t need forest bathing. But often they are taking a walk together with someone and are absorbed by a conversation. Or what I often see are people taking a walk in nature with headphones on or talking to someone on the phone. Or many have a dog and are walking very goal-oriented. What would you say to the people who think they don’t need forest bathing?

 

Yes, that’s something I also observe. Here in my village I’m often approached with exactly that. People who think that what I do is great, but that they don’t need it. To that I respond: If you joined me in the forest, you would notice the difference. I try to explain that during a bath in the forest we are very mindful. Although we can describe forest bathing with words, in the end people have to experience it for themselves. I can talk as much as I want, they won’t understand it that way. But it’s always interesting when they actually do join me. When they are honest to themselves they realize that forest bathing actually is very different. They suddenly see it from a different perspective. I often make the experience that people say they have never before seen the forest in that way.


Waldbaden
© Annette Bernjus

I find it very important to make this experience yourself. Naturally you can communicate many things with words and images, but in the end you have to experience it yourself. In my opinion it’s also about realizing that you belong when you’re in the forest. That you are a part of nature. And when you realize that – and you can only realize it by going into the woods and being mindful and spending many hours there – then you notice that what we do to nature, we do to ourselves, because there’s no separation between us. I believe that forest bathing can be a beautiful tool to get to this realization.

 

Yes, that’s beautifully put. Forest bathing isn’t about scolding, but about showing people through an experience: Wow, that’s so precious and we need this. They then start to ask themselves: What can I do for the forest? It doesn’t even have to be a lot, but even just collecting garbage that they find is a first step. Those small steps are so important. We show people that they are part of it all and that’s something I can’t completely explain with words. I have spoken to many people who work in nature, like forest rangers, who all told me: We have spoken about this topic at many events, told the participants the significance of the forest and that we have to protect it, but we can’t reach them. Now we want to try with forest bathing. As I said, with words we reach a limit here. But what we can do with words, is to pass on our passion.

 

What I like so much about forest bathing is that it forces you to slow down. We live in a very fast-paced world where everything is about goals and being as quick and as efficient as possible. And to find a counter-pole in the forest, without a goal and slowing down, is so important to me.

 

That is very great and often it’s the most difficult part. To slow people down. I let my participants just walk for about 5 minutes at the beginning, because it shows me how they are doing at the moment. Then we meet again and I tell them: Very well, now we walk really slowly and we stop from time to time. That’s the first step and it’s a difficult one for many. But I notice that it’s exactly that which benefits all of them as soon as they have adapted to the slow pace. And on the way back, when everyone has become truly slow, it’s often that which they give as a feedback: It was so relaxing not having to do anything and not having any pressure. People are often surprised how quickly they adapt. You can already notice a calmness after 1.5 hours and it’s always nice when they highlight the slowness at the end.

 

And hopefully they take that with them into their daily lives. A following question would be: Forest bathing is about mindfulness in nature, about slowness, it’s also a kind of meditation, I find. Can you tell me what effects your participants feel in their day-to-day through forest bathing?

 

Very often participants come again. We often are in the same forest at different events and nevertheless they come again, because they also like the community. From the regulars I do hear fairly often that they take something with them for their day-to-day. I like to give permission to take a picture of the mandala that we create at the end in order for them to take something home as a souvenir. It serves as a reminder to perhaps sit down for a few minutes and to meditate with that photo they have taken.

Or a friend of mine who likes to jog in the forest, hast told me that she now incorporates some breathing exercises she learned during a bath in the forest. She doesn’t run anymore with the aim of running her best time, but she sometimes stays put at a beautiful place and practices her breathing, for example with the exercise "breathing in the terpenes". And my friend notices that in the end she returns from her run more relaxed. She has found her own combination in jogging and forest bathing. She says that she builds her little relaxation islands even when she is working out in the forest. Many people like the slow pace of forest bathing.


Waldbaden
© Annette Bernjus

I think by experiencing it for yourself it becomes very sustainable and something you take with you. I would like to mention your book about forest bathing (which is unfortunately only available in German), where you describe many easy exercises to start with forest bathing. But perhaps it’s easier to start when there is someone who guides you and gives you impulses from the outside, which you can take with you or use as inspiration.

 

I remember one of my participant who said so beautifully: I finally got out of my own soup. (laughs) I found that so funny, because it’s what forest bathing with others does, it brings you out of your own routines. One of the feedbacks I get most is that the shared experience with others is so nice. Because we don’t only walk through the forest without speaking, but we share our thoughts and feelings about the beauty of nature and what we discovered in the forest with like-minded people, which is so nice. And that’s again something you can only experience during a guided bath. Of course you can also do it with a friend, but I find that you get distracted quickly like that.

 

The forest is wonderful and healing.

Talking to a friend has of course also its place, but often that's not forest bathing anymore.

 

It’s important to say that I like hiking for example very much and that I find it absolutely ok when you go jogging in the woods. All these sports have of course not decreased in value just because forest bathing exists now too. Of course I can hike and I can have a clear goal and that gives me a lot as well. That is very welcome to stand next to forest bathing, either like my friend who practices forest bathing combined with jogging, or you say hiking is one thing and forest bathing is another practice. For me forest bathing has also the advantage that you don’t necessarily have to combine it with movement. I have another friend who has a muscle illness and who mostly sits in a wheelchair. With her I drive to the edge of the forest. We walk a few steps and then we sit on a bench. For her it was an important thing to say: When I go to the forest and I sit down here because I can’t go further, it’s relaxation, beneficial for my immune system and a connection to nature nonetheless. You don’t have to walk 10 kilometres, a few steps are plenty enough. And then you sit down and you breathe and inhale the good substances of the forest. That’s an important aspect that came with forest bathing. The forest ist wonderful and healing.

 

Yes the forest doesn’t discriminate. And also one doesn’t eliminate the other.

For the end of our conversation I have a few questions I ask all of my guests. The first one is a good continuation of what we just talked about. When you, Annette the private person, not the forest bathing instructor, go into the woods or into nature, is there an exercise, a practice, a ritual you often use?

 

Barfuss waldbaden
© Annette Bernjus

Yes I have a little ritual when I go to the forest. At the entrance to the forest the first thing I do is to stop and to take in the air. I just observe my breathing. This staying still is very important to me in order to tell myself: I now leave behind the day-to-day, the road and from now onwards I am mindfully present in the forest. This is an important ritual I also repeat at the end, in combination with gratitude. Sometimes I create a litte piece of art in the end, because it’s so important to say thank you.

 

I do that as well. Either I just say thank you or I put my hand on my heart. Or I create a mandala. Sometimes I like to sing a song for the river. This appreciation is so important in order to not only take from nature, but to also give something from myself, even if it’s “just” gratitude. It’s very powerful.

My next question is: Do you have a favourite plant at the moment? And if yes, which one and why?

 

I’m studying to become a herbalist and one plant I have always liked is the dandelion. Simply because it blooms so long and so beautifully, because it gives so much pleasure to everyone with its flower like a sun and because it’s such a strong plant. I find it fantastic that it grows through concrete and it says: I just try it. (laughs) And additionally it’s a very healthy plant!

 

Aw the dandelion, how beautiful!

What do you wish for nature and the relationship between us humans and her?

 

I wish that we recognize again that we are part of nature and that we start being here more for nature. I believe that protecting nature comes automatically when we realize we are part of it. It’s perhaps like with your own family. I’m part of my family and therefore I want to protect it. Maybe you can understand what I mean with that comparison. That’s what I wish for.

 

I would like to give you the space to talk about your offerings. How does one find you?

 

My website is quite extensive: waldbaden.com

You already mentioned my book. There’s also a deck of cards “Waldbaden to go”, which is nice to take with you into the forest.

If you want to know more about forest bathing, you can just contact me over my website.

 

Go out into nature, as often as possible.

Is there something else you would like to mention?

 

We have talked about many things, but if I had to summarize everything, I would say: Go out into nature, as often as possible, even if it’s just the park in front of your house. Look for trees and plants and sit with them and just wait for what they have to tell you.

 

Those are beautiful closing words. I thank you so much for this conversation.

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