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Finding Bliss, Connection, and Healing Amidst Nature: Inspiration from Two Forest Therapy Guides

Meet Carlos and Emma — bringing more presence and nature into others’ lives — one forest bathing experience at a time

As the blazing July sun started setting below the green peaks of Corfu’s hilly terrain, I was preparing to enter through a portal. Two mighty olive trees marked the official entry point into the enchanting olive grove up above the cozy village of Magoulades on the Northwest side of this vibrant Greek island.

My friends Carlos and Emma were guiding me and a group of 16 others through a forest bathing — or in this case olive grove bathing — experience. The concept of forest bathing is relatively new for many in the West. But in Japan, this practice has been part of the culture since the 1980s.

The Japanese term shinrin-yoku literally means forest bathing. But you don’t need your swimsuit to participate in this form of bathing.

Forest bathing refers to the practice of immersing yourself in the forest environment while mindfully paying attention to the present moment. This experience helps us connect with the natural elements through all our senses. The practice of forest bathing brings many physiological health benefits — reducing stress and regulating blood pressure amongst many others. As a result of the latest scientific findings supporting these benefits, the practice has grown more popular as a form of preventative medicine. A vast majority of physical and mental ailments have been shown to be stress-related. By reducing stress and strengthening our immune system, forest bathing reduces the risk of these diseases. If you wish to learn more about the health benefits of forest bathing along with a brief history and a how-to guide, see the related Forest Bathing 101 article here.

The olive grove in Magoulades (by Simona Ondrejkova)

Drawn to a mindfulness center in Bavaria

For over three years, Carlos and Emma have been offering forest bathing sessions as an Airbnb experience near their home in the Bavarian countryside. This is how I initially met them. It was the summer of 2019. I was looking for the next place to do a work exchange — preferably in the mountains of Germany or Austria. Carlos and Emma’s Workaway profile immediately caught my eye. As I read about how they help people reduce stress through mindfulness and forest therapy, I was hooked. Both nature and the practice of mindfulness (using the skill of conscious attention to be more fully present in the moment) have always been near and dear to my heart. I felt this was the perfect opportunity to expand my knowledge while being in the presence of like-minded individuals who are also not afraid to identify themselves as proud tree huggers. I arrived at Carlos and Emma’s lovely home in the Bavarian countryside as a Workawayer — ready to help out around the house and garden. But I left as much more than that. The three of us now consider each other as family. Carlos and Emma lovingly refer to me as their “adopted” daughter while I also view them as my “adopted” parents. The day before I left to catch the train to Munich and then onward to my next destination, we even had a mock Christmas dinner in early September — simply to bask in our mutual appreciation of one another’s presence.

Carlos and Emma — founders of Universe Mindfulness (by Simona Ondrejkova)

A deep love of nature runs through our veins..

Our strong bond is fueled by our mutual love of nature and humanity. The three of us share a deep desire to help bring more joy, presence, and peace to others by helping them reconnect with the beauty of the present moment and with nature. It is through understanding our fundamental interconnectedness and mutual interdependence with all of life that we can keep moving closer to a kinder and more compassionate world. Amidst a world of so many people who are afraid to take a chance on themselves, Carlos and Emma continue to inspire me with their courage to follow their hearts in the pursuit of their passions. Through this, they have touched hundreds of lives and are positioned to impact many more in the future. The day before they left the island of Corfu to fly back to the Bavarian countryside, the three of us enjoyed a proper Greek dinner overlooking the sparkling blue waters of the Ionian sea from the top of the village of Afionas. I used this time as a chance to ask them a few questions about life, following their bliss, and their upcoming plans.

“The forest and humans were designed to complement one another.” — Carlos Ponte

Holiday retreats with mindfulness in nature…and other exciting future plans

Simona: Given everything that you’ve done so far in helping bring people closer to nature — and with everything that’s going on in the world right now — what are some plans you have in the pipeline for the future? Carlos: We definitely want to continue doing our nature retreats a few times a year. It doesn’t matter where — whether Bavaria, Scotland, Corfu, Tuscany, Japan, or elsewhere. The main thing is to continue to convey the message of re-connecting people with nature. This could be done as an Airbnb experience or some other form, perhaps by building a community. We also want to offer more resources online. This will allow us to reach those that aren’t able to attend our forest bathing experiences in person. Emma: I feel what we’re already working on now — helping people connect with nature — will deepen as we offer more services and our own experience broadens. The olive grove bathing session was a big step in helping us see the benefit of connecting not just with the forest, but with any aspect of nature in a broader sense. I am also thinking about the legacy I eventually want to leave behind. Whether it’s a series of guided meditations on mindfulness, awareness, self-compassion — or a book. We’d love to write a book about mindfulness in nature. Carlos: Even before we first met in person, we said were going to write a book together. As part of leaving a legacy, it would also be great to train somebody that would continue our work. Simona’s note: Carlos and Emma met online — not through a dating service as you may think — but through a meditation app. At the time, Carlos lived in Canada and worked in the IT industry. Emma lived in Germany, running her own mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy practice. They both used the same meditation app which showed who else around the world was meditating in that moment. When they consistently kept seeing each other’s profiles pop up, they started a conversation. That eventually led them to meeting up in person — and starting their dream lives together.

Sharing the message of nature’s healing benefits

Simona: Reconnecting with nature is so important for many reasons. What are some of the main ones you wish more people were aware of? Carlos: We’re built and wired to live in nature. It’s how we’ve lived for millions of years. It’s not anything new. It’s more just reminding people to reconnect with our true home. There are so many benefits from a health standpoint — mentally and physically. But it’s not just because it reduces stress and is therapeutic that we should be in nature. If we are disconnected from it, we’re simply not whole. We’re like a fish out of water.

“Not only is nature our home, we are part of it — and it is part of us.” — Carlos Ponte

Spending more time in nature doesn’t have to stop people from living their “regular life” either. Even connecting with nature once a week for 2 hours brings benefits that are still measurable 3 or 4 weeks afterward. While forest therapy is not a panacea or a solution for everything, it helps the body function more in line with how it was meant to function. Most research in this field so far has been done on forests specifically. There are physical components like the phytoncides that are the main reason for the benefits. The forest breathes opposite to us. That in itself tells you how specifically it was designed to complement humans -just as we were designed to complement it. Emma: And spending more time in nature is so timely now (during the pandemic). It helps bring us back to our true home — one that is always available to us. My hope is that the more people discover nature as more of their home, the more consciously they will be living. I’ve also been thinking about how we could share our message with even more people and organizations. Simona’s note: In addition to the weekend and week-long retreats they’ve been organizing throughout Europe, Carlos and Emma have brought forest bathing to nearly 200 people through their Airbnb experience over the past three years. Carlos: I have met a few people in England that are doing something similar to what we’re doing. Helping people reconnect with nature in different fields, some to help children in grade school age, some to assist people with mental health issues, or who suffered traumatic experiences. One of these groups, is helping all of us by creating a virtual community and sharing our websites and messages on their platform. It’s really about creating and fomenting a community of likeminded people. We’re not in competition with anyone. Ultimately, we all have the same mission.

Carlos, Emma, and Simona enjoying a lovely Corfu sunset (by Carlos Ponte)

Rekindling the love of nature in younger generations

Simona: It’s a beautiful mission indeed — one that helps both humanity and nature. You’re basically helping life get back together with life itself. I feel like a lot of people in my generation have an interest in the message you’re sharing. It’s just that they may not know that anything like this exists. There’s not yet enough awareness of the scientifically proven benefits of forest bathing and the therapeutic effects of nature in general. Carlos: We were pleasantly surprised about this age group. Out of the nearly 200 Airbnb forest bathing participants we’ve had, most were in their mid-20s to mid-30s. That blew my mind! These folks picked coming to the Bavarian forest over partying in Munich! They were hooked into it from the beginning. Simona’s note: And not only did so many young people participate but they also ended up rating this as the best-selling and best rated experience on Airbnb in the Munich area in 2018.This continues to be the case with 100%, 5-stars reviews until today! Slow down and enjoy the smell of the pine sap.. Simona: I think we all intuitively feel our connection to nature. It’s just that as we grow up, society influences out to gravitate towards other things. In many cultures the focus becomes more on consumerism and material comforts than on enjoying all the abundance that life already offers through nature. When some people realize that what they really crave is to see more of the world and all of its beautiful landscapes, they start asking themselves how to do that. So when they see opportunities to reconnect with nature through experiences like what you offer, they find that it resonates with their heart. Carlos: Most people think of spending time in nature as a vacation thing. They think about it as something they can only do two or three weeks out of the year. But it is so beneficial to do it more often. Canadians by nature go out a lot — but it also depends on what you do when you are in nature. If you’re there doing a crazy-hard workout, biking, jogging, or listening to music — you’re not as fully connected. You get the benefit of the fresh air but that’s about it. There is a science behind the pace that we did during our olive grove bathing experience yesterday. Even the thought of exercising generates adrenaline. Adrenaline generates stress. It’s just as simple as that. So shinrin-yoku is the opposite. That’s why the slow pace — it’s almost like a walking meditation. It’s a great complement to doing a workout outdoors. You can either do cardio exercise before or after a session of forest bathing, but I recommend doing the shinrin-yoku at the end, as part of the wind down phase.

Carlos and Emma enjoying the beaches of Corfu (by Simona Ondrejkova)

Don’t be afraid to follow your bliss

Simona: You’ve chosen to pursue your dreams despite the potential risks and challenges that often come with such a decision. What advice would you give to young people so they can do the same without letting “life” get in the way? What does following your bliss mean to you? Carlos: Well in my case it took almost sixty years to get there. I think what stopped me from reaching that goal earlier was just that — life. But “life” as in the influence of other people. I have to say the best thing I ever did was getting away from the influence of my family — their traditional, fixed thought patterns about how things “should” be. Growing up in Argentina, the culture there is that everything’s like a clan. You’re almost pushed into thinking one way or the other. Even with politics or religion, there’s usually one or two choices. And if you go the “wrong” way, you become the black sheep of the family. In Argentina, many kids live with their parents almost until they’re married. And then when they’re on their own they don’t know what to do. So I think the idea is to be on your own — that’s when you grow up most. You find yourself. You find your self-confidence. And that opens up so many other doors because you realize you already have all the tools you need…you just weren’t aware of that before. Emma: When I think back on my life, there were these forks in the road. I could go either way, but I could only pick on of the paths. I found that, sometimes, the road you pick ends up leading you back on to the other road, but later in life — as if you first had to experience other things to prepare you for the “main” road. Really if I think about it… just trust. Trust that the right thing will come to you. It’s not as much about thinking “what am I going to do” and “what makes me happy” but about trusting that the right thing will come regardless of the decision you make. Maybe the soul has a purpose…I don’t really know. Sometimes I think it does and perhaps it will not stop talking to you. So even if you go astray somewhere, you will somehow come back automatically… but you need to listen to it. Simona: What would you define as your bliss? Carlos: My idea of bliss is evolving all the time. But I think it’s about being aware of others no matter what you do. Being aware of when other people need you — that’s the bliss. Because if you think of others all the time then others think of you all the time. It’s a win-win. It’s not about a specific thing to do but about how we treat one another. It would be heaven on earth if we could all do that. I think certain cultures such as the Canadians and the Japanese are close to that. Such societies are a blessing because you feel like part of a big family. It doesn’t matter who you are — there’s always someone there to help you. Emma: One of my deepest prayers is: may I be able to benefit as many people as possible. And that is really what brings a lot of peace and satisfaction to me. Like yesterday when we did the olive grove bathing sessions…you know that just felt wonderful. That’s bliss. I think we all need more of that on this planet.

“I also think bliss is very much related to listening to our bodies. The body tells you if something is right or not.” — Emma Wisser

If there’s a tension when you’re considering something — think twice. If it feels light or exciting, listen to that. I just try go by that harmonious feeling in my body if I can.

Carlos and Emma in the olive groves of Magoulades (by Simona Ondrejkova)

Nature’s collaboration as an inspiration for humanity

Carlos: I think about the large influence society has on our idea of bliss. There’s a lot of different ideas of what the goal is for everyone. There was a shirt that somebody wore the other day on a show that I watched. It said “Stress is man-made.” And that is so true! Then there is the conditioning we get about competition. If you look at nature, there really isn’t any competition. We think there is. We pull weeds because we think they’re competing with plants that are “good.” But all plants are good.

“You go to a forest and there is no competition. There’s collaboration.” — Carlos Ponte

It goes right back to connecting with everybody and being empathic and aware of their presence and sensitive to their needs. If we could all do that, it would be the perfect combination. Emma: The way our olive grove session came together so spontaneously and within just a couple of days…with almost 20 people joining and contributing and the beautiful energy we all experienced as a group was great evidence of the connection between all of us and the old olive trees. We are not separate. There’s always an exchange, a connectedness. That’s also finding bliss in a way. You are not separate. You are not alone. It’s not all on you. To the contrary. Most of what I learned in life was because of other people. Because they came and had questions. That’s how I had learned — by going deeper within myself.

“Like the Dalai Lama says, if you want to be selfish, let’s be wisely selfish and take care of others. Then you will be taken care of simultaneously. It’s so simple — but it’s deep and it’s true.” — Emma Wisser

Want to be the first to know about Carlos and Emma’s upcoming holiday nature retreats throughout the world once they resume? Or simply wish to stay in touch and be updated on the latest happenings in their work with nature and mindfulness? Visit their website here.


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