Samantha Kanofksy does some of her best thinking — and not thinking — in nature. (Kai)
Samantha Kanofksy does some of her best thinking — and not thinking — in nature. (Kai)

This Tu B’Shevat, cleanse the mind through ‘forest bathing’

When she faces a big life or career decision, Samantha Kanofsky seeks advice from the trees.

For example, after graduating from Pomona College with a degree in environmental studies in 2009, Kanofsky moved back to her hometown of Berkeley. The financial crisis had hit, and she felt lost. So she began wandering around the Berkeley Hills.

“I would spend hours just praying, singing, crying, thinking about my life,” she told J. in an interview. “I had some really powerful experiences out there.”

Those experiences reinforced her desire to work outside in nature and not in a climate-controlled office. Today, the 32-year-old runs her own company called SoulLight Counseling and Communications, which she describes as “communication coaching and nature immersion for fast-paced individuals and organizations.”

One of the services that Kanofsky offers is leading workshops based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates to “soaking in the forest atmosphere.” On Feb. 9, she will lead a forest bathing workshop as part of Wilderness Torah’s “Tu B’Shvat in the Forest” program in Redwood Regional Park. Feb. 10 is Tu Bishvat, a minor Jewish holiday concerning trees.

According to Kanofsky, her workshops provide participants with an opportunity to bring a question or challenge in their lives to a tree and “open themselves to the counsel of the tree, as if the tree is a rabbi,” she said.

“I’m not the first Jew to do this,” Kanofsky explained, noting that forest bathing is similar to hitbodedut, a style of self-secluded meditation practiced by Hasidic Jews, often outdoors.

The key to the experience is to sit quietly and notice the thoughts and feelings that arise organically, she said. She tells first-timers and skeptics: “Don’t pressure yourself to have some revelation. Just be open and listen in a new way.”

Research has shown that spending time in nature has measurable health benefits, Kanofsky said. She cited a recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter that found that people who spent at least two hours a week in natural environments like parks reported better physical and mental well-being. Kanofsky sees ecotherapy as an antidote to the goal-oriented, screen-addicted lives that so many lead.

“I think in this day and age, people are so busy and so inundated with information and communication that the chance to sit silently without a mission, without a task to be done, to just like sit and receive the beauty of forest atmosphere and to really connect with your soul and to hear from your higher self is in and of itself transformative for people,” she said.

Born in Berkeley and raised in Pleasant Hill, Kanofsky comes from a family of healers; her mother, who is half Korean American, half Jewish, is an acupuncturist, while her Jewish father is a psychologist. Her younger sister is also a therapist.

Don’t pressure yourself to have some revelation. Just be open and listen in a new way.

When she was a child, her parents were early participants in a Jewish Renewal havurah with other families called Shir Neshamah, and Kanofsky fondly remembers taking camping trips with the group. At Pomona, she was involved in climate change activism. She also spent a semester abroad at the Arava Institute in Israel, where she learned about permaculture and greywater reuse techniques.

That semester was the first time she lived “in really close contact with the Earth.” Upon returning to the United States, she vowed to “do something with my hands in the dirt.”

She also credits her Korean grandmother with inspiring her ecotherapy practice. “My grandmother, who I was very close to, would talk often about food as medicine,” she said. “She was a critic of Western health care and how overprescribed we are.” (She said her grandmother survived lymphoma after refusing chemotherapy and changing her diet.)

Kanofsky said she did not set out to cater specifically to the needs of Bay Area Jews, but she sees the population as a launching pad for her practice because “that’s my community.”

Since August, Kanofsky has partnered with the Oakland (Temescal) Moishe House to lead hikes on Shabbat. Dee Granberg, 29, a resident of the house, said she appreciates how Kanofsky “really fully embraces the woo, but also doesn’t take it too seriously. She does a great job of weaving together secular mindfulness as well as this specific Japanese practice with Jewish mystical practice.”

Granberg had a mystical experience on a recent Shabbat hike at Strawberry Canyon. She said she saw “patterns on trees and the texture of leaves on the trees in a way I hadn’t really done before. It was super powerful.”

Another participant, Courtney Fuller, said that the hike helped her begin to process her grief over the loss of her grandmother and best friend the previous month.

“I approached the giant tree, closed my eyes, and hugged my Grandy through it as tight as I possibly could — and in that moment, I felt a giant sense of relief, and an even greater sense of release,” she said. Of Kanofsky, she added: “Her calm voice and mindful direction helped inspire everyone on the hike to lead with their hearts, which made me feel safe as I was experiencing something extremely raw in their presence.”

Moving forward, Kanofsky said she is excited to lead her first teen night hike on Feb. 22. Where did that idea come from? From the trees, of course.

Kanofsky explained: “I’m sitting with this big old oak tree and thinking, God, what am I going to do next with SoulLight? And I got this really clear message. You’re gonna lead a night hike for teenagers.”

Working with teens feels especially important, she said, because “that’s a generation that in particular has grown up with screens and a lot of social media and it feels like a really potent chance to introduce them to another way of connecting with each other and with themselves.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.