Forest Bathing and Healthy Retreat at Canyon Ranch Woodside

Written by
Published on May 21, 2022 8:33:40 AM PDT May 21, 2022 8:33:40 AM PDTst, May 21, 2022 8:33:40 AM PDT


Three deep breaths are all you need to start every day feeling empowered, according to Breathe to Succeed author Sandy Abrams.

Abrams is a regular featured guest at Canyon Ranch Woodside, the newest location to the Canyon Ranch brand (in addition to locations in Tucson and Lenox, Massachusetts). This retreat property is located in a remote, redwood forest about 16 miles south of San Francisco. Often referred to as an escape from the tech rat race, I consider it nirvana.

Abrams, whose area of expertise is breathwork, appeared as a guest speaker at the ranch, and I was intrigued about her methods.

It sounds absurd to think humans would require a breathing coach, but once you’ve taken a breathing workshop, you’ll understand the variations on inhaling and exhaling, holding one’s breath for a short count in between, or breathing deeply in a rolling manner. Many of us could benefit from a primer on the proper way to breathe: inhale enough to expand the belly, and then release the breath upwards from the bottom of the belly in a l-o-n-g, slow exhale. Modifications include holding your left nostril closed and breathing out of your right nostril for a surge of energy, while the opposite movement can create a calming effect.

Breathing properly is a no-cost prescription for healing ourselves, and the act of mindful breathing can actually become a basic form of meditation. Canyon Ranch Woodside is the ideal place to take that first step even farther.

Yoga in the Redwoods, photo from

Gratitude builds awareness

Jennifer Clarke, the Mind-Body Practitioner at Woodside, sums up her take on meditation like this: “It’s narrowing the aperture, letting the mind quiet down enough to pay attention to just one thing, whether sound, sensation, walking, seeing,” with the ultimate goal to become self-aware and grateful. Throughout my visit, Clarke proved her point as she led a series of “forest bathing” meditations to guide us toward the possibilities of healing through immersion in nature, or eco-therapy.

My own immersion began the moment I entered the glass-clad treehouse in the redwoods, which was my guestroom and “place to disconnect to reconnect.” Once unpacked, I headed for a healthy lunch served in front of the fireplace in a dining room with doors open to the great outdoors.

Chef Isabelle Jackson Nunes cooked up a lunch of seasoned prawns with local-sourced squash, and I washed it down with a cup of strong, brewed ginger-turmeric tea before group orientation, the official start of a three or four-day stay here.

We met at the base of Sonoma sculptor Bruce Johnson’s oversized piece made of salvaged redwood, fittingly called The Void (available for a purchase price of $55,000), as we were about to empty our minds to relax. We were ushered down steps to an awe-inspiring hiking path, stopping frequently to be “in the moment.” During those breaks, as instructed, we breathed in the moist green of the forest after a few days of rain… admired the velvety, moss-covered tree trunks… and delighted in the sound of talkative birds overhead. Within this quiet space, we were feeling our bodies and mindfully observing sensations.

An afternoon workshop focused on tools to add gratitude to your life, mainly by journaling or taking a long walk. I was grateful to discuss options among the small group of women gathered in front of the loft fireplace, and even more grateful dinner was next on the itinerary.

Woodside’s locally-sourced dinner menu changes daily, and this evening’s selection included grass-fed beef from the Markegard Family Ranch on nearby Half Moon Bay. My side servings included a healthful lemon and parsley marinated broccolini and basmati rice. Once again, I perched by the dining room’s fireplace, this time with a bottle of Ghostwriter Pinot Noir from Santa Cruz that paired with both the flavorful steak and dessert of crème brulee. At Woodside, an amenity that’s verboten at the other Canyon Ranch properties is allowed here: a menu selection of wine, beer and hard cider.

In the morning, we headed to The Void for a group forest meditation. Down the hiking trail, we stopped at a “fairy ring” of redwood stumps (conveniently social-distanced). We sat, closed our eyes, and let Clarke guide our meditation with instruction to take a few deep breaths and “feel the sun on your skin, feel each inhale from beginning to end, and feel each exhale from beginning to end.”

She continued, “Smell the earth of the forest floor and when you open your eyes, look around you to take in this beautiful path lit by golden sun rays working their way through the branches of the trees high in the canopy.”

Upon opening my eyes, it seemed the uber-vibrant shades of green moss covering nearby boulders, and the shades of brown tree barks surrounding us appeared more vibrant than before the breathwork. Looking up, I better appreciated the beauty of the treetops reaching for a pool of radiant blue sky.

Morning Salutations on Desk, photo from

Other timely and enlightening workshops included tools for self-compassion and forgiveness. Our takeaways were discussed over dinner of free-range chicken, halved baked artichoke, and one sea scallop, all served under a bed of creamy grains. I washed it down with a glass of Ethic Ciders Golden Rule Sparkling Dry Cider of Sonoma County.

The next day, I geared up for a three-hour hike with a breakfast of grits with pork sausage and fried egg before we shuttled to the forest that surrounds the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. This unique private park is located on 500-plus acres on a former cattle ranch. Pre-pandemic, it offered free, monthlong residencies to artists in the fields of dance, creative writing, visual arts, and music.

We took in the distant shoreline and felt the brisk ocean breeze as we walked to the forest. Once off the path and in the depths of the redwoods, we began to spot various forms of rustic art embedded in the forest floor. Was that a witch in the trunk of a redwood? Perhaps.

More importantly, we were taught much about these majestic redwoods and the process by which they convert carbon dioxide into fresh oxygen, the better for breathing healthfully and with benefit to our lungs.

Nature-deficit disorder is real. Forest bathing is the solution.

Shinrin-Yoku, roughly translated as forest bathing, is a Japanese practice developed in the 1980s and thought to improve physical and mental wellbeing.

Ancient redwood trees, in particular, emit phytoncides (defined as exterminated by the plant), which are antimicrobial compounds known to reduce the production of stress hormones, lower heart rate and blood pressure, boost the immune system, speed up recovery from illness, and improve mental clarity.

Hugging a tree sounds funny, but the instinct to laugh at the practice is quelled once you realize it can be a path to increased happiness, given its ability to increase levels of the hormone oxytocin. Forest bathing means connecting to all things nature in order to gain feelings of calm and emotional bonding.

We gathered on our final morning on a deck tucked in the edge of the forest at Woodside, where Clarke guided us in meditation as we gently swayed in our egg-shaped hammocks. With eyes closed, she exhorted us to “feel our steps through the forest, hear our footsteps gently as we continue to walk along the path. Hear the sound of the birds singing and begin to hear the sound of a small creek nearby. Follow the trail to the edge of a small creek lined with big, beautiful stones covered with smooth, dark green and light green-yellow moss.”

calm rush over you and know that any time, any place you allow yourself to sit and stop and breathe, you can close your eyes and come back to finding that peace, serenity and calm. And then, when you’re ready to open your eyes again, you’ll see the world around you with fresh vision.”

About the Author:Charlene Peters is a travel writer located in the Boston area. Email

In the forest that surrounds the Djerassi Resident Artists Progam. Photo by Charlene Peters