Modern life can be exhausting and leave us feeling disconnected. For Chantal Garneau, one of the cures for isolation has always been found in the woods.
Today, a self-employed meditation instructor, Chantal takes her clients on guided treks into the forest where they breathe deep, relax, and reconnect.
Disarmingly vulnerable and grounded, Chantal has discovered that, for herself, it’s in the company of trees and other women that she finds the nourishment she needs to be a resilient mom. And she is passionate about helping the rest of us unlock the wellspring of energy available when our needs are met.
We talked to her at home in Georgetown, Ontario to find out why connecting to our breath is crucial to connecting to ourselves, our communities, and the energy within.
What makes mothers so attracted to coming into the woods with you?
Moms are responsible for the protection of their children, so their systems are always on alert looking for danger, but our culture doesn’t know how to come out of alert mode. We are like pack animals. There’s this YouTube video of antelopes: in the video, the lead animal perceives a threat, perks up, and a wave of antelope perk up in response. Then, when it sees there is no threat and relaxes, the rest relax too. But we’re always on alert, and our children pick up on it. Shallow breathing is contagious, our state of being is contagious. Kids read us easily, they know.
Also, the Bruce Trail goes right through our suburban area, and many have never been on it. I had never been, even growing up here, so it’s also about bringing people to the trail and giving them tools and strategies that connect them to themselves and the natural world.
Many of our readers don’t live in Georgetown and can’t come to one of your sessions, how can they experience the benefits of the forest on their own?
I would start by just going outside, even in your backyard. Then I would consider where the air I’m breathing is coming from. I would breathe in slowly through my nose and consider what plants around me have created the oxygen I’m using, and thank them. The plants I’m looking at have created the exact nourishment I need to be alive. It’s like those plants are saying, “You belong here. Here is what you need.”
And as I exhale a gentle, relaxed sigh, I would consider that the air I’m breathing out is going back into the atmosphere and will be nourishment for other life, for the plants that need the CO2. It’s a cycle. You’re contributing. You’re creating a cycle of belonging and contribution, which is the foundation of connection.
When my breath is constricted and tight, I don’t feel like I belong — or like I’m contributing. When depleted, I feel like everyone’s taking something from me, but when I get everything I need it’s easy to give back: I don’t have to try so hard to contribute to our family, community, or the earth.
You’ve likened this process to nursing, how is it similar?
When we breathe in, it’s like the universe is providing me with exactly what I need at that time, like a mother giving milk to her baby. There’s some evidence that without her knowing it, a mother’s milk changes according to the needs of her child. So we’re breathing in the perfect nourishment we need to be alive, like a baby, and when we exhale, we become the mother giving back, without really knowing what we’re doing. We make so much effort to express ourselves in the world and control stuff — that’s why I like the exhale to be soft and gentle: the mother who is nursing isn’t controlling what’s in the milk, but her baby gets precisely what it needs.
Without having to try at all, just by being ourselves, we belong and we contribute…
Yes. We all know what it’s like not to feel connected, it’s a feeling we’re all familiar with. If I was to die tomorrow, what I have learned that I would want to leave behind is that we belong, and contribute, to the web of life. No matter how alone we may feel at times, we can shift that feeling by spending time in an intact community (a community where everything and everyone belongs and contributes). Nature — the forest — is such a community. It’s a system that functions perfectly and can be our model for a healthy society.
How did you get into this, how did you figure it out?
In my late teens, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and found most of life overwhelming. That’s why I started meditating, and I noticed that when I was in the woods and surrounded by lush green with birds chirping and the wind blowing through the trees, I could finally relax. My experience in the woods was one of feeling safe, and not feeling confused. I felt like whenever I went to the woods I could feel the trees and plants and my inner guidance. Slowly I got a little more brave about sharing my private feeling of connection and process in the woods. At the same time, I saw a lot of research coming out about meditation and the benefits of being in nature and things like Japanese Forest Bathing and realized there was a name for everything I had been doing intuitively for years and that maybe I should start sharing this process more widely.
Why does this work?
One thing that messes us up is the celebration of independence. We’re not in any way, shape, or form independent. We’re interdependent. We need other life to survive. It’s the illusion of independence that celebrates being separate, rather than being connected. We can have this idea that finding our place in the world is about getting somewhere isolated like the peak of a mountain that you get to all by yourself, but if you look at intact peoples and communities, your belonging doesn’t come from isolation on a peak, it comes from a circle, from connection, and we’re missing that. As moms, there is so much pressure for us to do everything and not need or ask for help. We say, ‘look how strong she is, doing it all on her own’ — when that’s idealized, it’s toxic for us.
If we think of ourselves as native plants, we would have been thriving in the forest, but we’re living like office plants in separate little pots, drooping. When we have a droopy plant, we ask ourselves what it’s not getting enough, or too much of — what does it need? We don’t blame the plant,
Think of a pear tree. A pear tree will absorb what it needs and create pears. If the tree said, ‘No no, I don’t need sunlight or water,’ it wouldn’t be able to produce pears no matter how hard it tried. I don’t think people have the capacity to care about nature or other creatures, including family and friends, when they can’t first care about themselves. The root of many modern crises is the same: disconnection. If we can foster a connection to ourselves, our communities, and the earth, we’re more able to care for them.
You are part of the ecosystem, not separate. Inclusion and contribution are the foundation of belonging and community. It doesn’t have to be hard.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Got a story to share? Come chat with us on Facebook.