I had a favorite ritual when I lived in New York City, reserved for lazy Saturdays and long breaks between classes. Basically, it was just wandering—usually in the East Village, where small community gardens lie hidden between old tenement buildings and modern high-rises. I’d take a few minutes to explore each one I stumbled upon, marveling at the little oasis of greenery tucked away from the bustle beyond its gates. It was one of my favorite ways to clear my head; to find peace when I couldn’t separate my thoughts from the constant noise and sirens. At the time, I didn’t realize that this was my first introduction to meditation.
If it’s ironic that I love living in high-energy, urban environments, it’s only because I spent my formative years getting my hands dirty in nature. To be clear, I hardly grew up in the wilderness—more like suburban New Jersey—but I spent as much time as possible outside, exploring the woods that bordered my home, catching newts in my neighbor’s creek, and building forts from branches with my little brother. Summers were spent barefoot at my grandparents’ lake house, where we picked wild blueberries and played hide-and-seek, lodging ourselves in the giant rock formations that make up the small island. These are my happiest memories, but they’re also so much more than that—they’re at the core of who I am. Finding pleasure and solace outside might as well be coded into my DNA.
These days, I’m surrounded by more buildings than trees, and most of the time, I thrive off of the unflagging energy of the city—Los Angeles, these days. But when I take the time to travel past the concrete and into the soil and grass, it’s like breathing the deepest, most satisfying sigh. Someone else lives in my childhood home now; soon I’ll visit that beloved lake house for the last time, too. But through all the impermanence of growing up, I’ve learned that aside from the company of my immediate family, returning to nature—no matter where I am—offers the most comforting semblance of home.
I’ve also learned that it’s the easiest way to maintain my sanity.
I struggle to meditate just by sitting still. I’ve tried every trick in the book and read countless articles about hacks for beginners. Nada. If I’m sitting at home, my mind will wander to the point that I feel more stressed when I finally call it quits than I did when I sat down.
Now, I understand that “traditional” meditation is just one technique in a vast world of mindfulness strategies. But about a year ago, it was an amazing revelation and relief to learn about shirin-yoku, or forest bathing—a Japanese approach to meditation and wellness that was developed in the '80s, which simply involves walking around in nature and absorbing the peace and fresh air. Research shows that it even boosts immune function, and can significantly lower cortisol levels—the stress hormone that drives our flight or flight response. Suddenly, it all clicked: I had been wasting my time sitting still in my apartment when I already knew how much being outside cleared my mind, gave me perspective, and boosted my general well-being.
I’m lucky to have an expanse of hiking trails virtually in my backyard—I live about five minutes from L.A.’s Griffith Park. With its dusty paths and brush-dotted hills, the landscape is a far cry from the lush greenery I grew up with, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I bring a friend along to traverse the steep climbs with me, but most of the time, I set aside a couple of hours and allow myself to get lost, alone.
It’s my first stop after a stressful day of work; I make a beeline for it if I find myself spiraling into a toxic mess of thoughts. As soon as I breathe in the cedar and take in the sweeping views of the city sprawl, I realize without fail that most of the crap I’ve been shouldering simply doesn’t matter, and it all melts away—giving me the space and perspective to properly negotiate what does. That wisdom and levity leaves the park with me. It makes me a better person.
Of course, it’s not all mental. As I’ve made this ritual more of a habit, I’ve found it easier to hold my breath steady over the steepest hills; I’ve challenged my body to sprint the gentle slopes and climb pathways I wouldn’t have braved at first. To be perfectly frank, this is the first time in my life I’ve not only stuck with but actually enjoyed any form of cardio—and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m prioritizing my mental fitness over physical. I’m motivated to return to Griffith several times a week chiefly because of the solace it offers me. The fact that my legs have never been so strong is just a sweet bonus.
And anyway, isn't that how our priorities should lie? Isn't it kind of backward to torture our bodies on the treadmill in the hope that it'll make us feel better about ourselves? True wellness is about nurturing the body and mind, so why not engage in something that allows us to do both? I almost have to laugh at myself for being so blind to this—or really, for the fact that unbeknownst to me, forest bathing has been a ritual in my life since I danced barefoot with my cousins on those warm summer evenings by the lake, grasping for fireflies with my tiny hands.
Check out some of my hiking essentials below.
Aside from the obvious curb appeal, S'well's bottles are lightweight and insulated to keep water colder for longer—a godsend on a long hike.
I adore this backpack for its weightless feel and surprisingly impressive storage capacity—plus it's water-resistant, FWIW.
I prefer sneakers to hiking boots, but I still need sturdy soles to traverse the rugged terrain. These are up to the task but still feel light.
What's your favorite way to exercise your mind? Have you tried forest bathing? Sound off in the comments below.