Stop and Smell the Flowers with Youmin Yap

For much of her life, Youmin Yap adhered to a fairly typical trajectory: in school, she focused on getting good grades; after graduation, she secured a stable job, and in her career, she steadily climbed the ranks. Trained in life sciences, Youmin began her career as a biology and mathematics teacher in secondary schools — a job she loved dearly — before joining a statutory board to do policy work. In 2016, she and her husband climbed Mt Kenya. From there, something inside her began to change.

To mark the launch of our upcoming Sunday Made with Liberty Fabric collection, we connected with Youmin, whose days are no longer structured around a 9-5 in the confines of an office. Today, she is a Certified Forest Therapy Guide and Trainer (Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs), yoga nidra facilitator, mindfulness life coach, and the founder of Xiu Nature Connections, which offers immersive, nature-inspired experiences.

Youmin is wise and patient, but also forthright and curious. Between shots, she stops — literally — to smell the flowers. She excitedly points out a particular flower known as a pinwheel before offering a fallen one to us to smell. It may be wet and gusty all around, but Youmin has definitely brought her own sunshine.

Youmin at MacRitchie, one of her favourite spots in Singapore.

Youmin, tell us about that life-changing climb to Mt Kenya.

It was a 5-days, 4-nights climb. The weekends leading up to the climb, my husband and I would go to MacRitchie to hike and climb staircases. We were both go! go! go! We had to build stamina, build strength to carry our stuff.

Right from the start, the pace was slow, which I found irksome and frustrating. I just wanted to get there! It wasn’t an easy journey with the high altitude and the distance, and the preparation definitely helped, but each day we were paced so slowly. 

Once I “dropped in” though, that pace was beautiful. Everything changed. I could feel my heartbeat with each step, and that rhythm was the same as the nature around us. I started to see and feel a lot of things differently. If I had gone at my usual pace I would have missed all of this — the sights, smells, colours, everything.

Youmin with our Sunday Made With Liberty Fabric eye mask. Upon touching it, she exclaimed, “So soft!”

How would you explain forest bathing to someone who has never heard of it?

People tend to think that forest bathing is “just a walk in the park, lor”. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that, and just a walk is better than staying indoors forever. An analogy I would use is it’s like playing a piano piece note by note vs playing the piece with all the nuances and emotions. Similarly, forest bathing is more than just a walk.

Forest bathing is a gentle journey using our senses to immerse in nature. It is an effortless relating to nature, ourselves and others (if in a group) through our hearts and senses. Studies have demonstrated the benefits of forest bathing to include improvements in physical, mental and emotional health, amongst others.

After a guided forest therapy experience, many people often express wonderment of their senses and bodies. They feel extremely relaxed and notice they are more effortlessly connected to their hearts instead of minds.

Youmin stopping to (literally) smell and admire the many flowers around her.

What was your forest therapy training like?

It was a rigorous 6-month training but the best journey I have ever taken. Sure, I learned the nuts and bolts about forest therapy and guiding, but what I took away was much more – it was really a personal discovery and learning process with nature as the teacher.

 I encountered edges and personal challenges at every phase. For example, I had to unlearn this idea that learning has to be hard — that we have to put in a lot of effort to study or to complete assignments. We were given a choice when it came to our forest therapy assignments — we could approach it however we felt drawn to it, whether it was through writing, speaking, drawing, dancing etc. There wasn’t a “right” way to do an assignment. And coming from the education mould that I went through, it took me some time to connect with myself and understand how I really wanted to do the work. I began to remember the intelligence of my senses, my body, and my heart — types of intelligence which are much forgotten in our society.

In forest therapy, we have a process called “sharing circles”. We learn how to hold space for authentic and brave sharing to take place. I had to unlearn judging and internally deciding, oh this person’s sharing is better or worse. I had to learn how to hold equal value for everyone’s stories and to recognise that all our stories are valid, including mine.  

How do you balance your core philosophy of embracing rest while running Xiu Nature Connections?

Many of us in Singapore suffer from a time-and speed-sickness. It’s what we grew up with and hold on for dear life: more is good. So, to get more, we want to do everything more quickly. Walk more quickly. Eat more quickly. Talk more quickly. Sleep more quickly!

I think it is helpful to understand and appreciate that everything has seasons and cycles. This is a lesson from nature. There will be dormant periods and periods of growth. Both are natural.

I try to use these 3 questions to guide my decisions in life:

  • Is this something I want to do? While doing this, how do I feel?
  • Does this feel easeful or do I feel like I'm fighting against the flow?
  • Am I gently meeting some edges/personal challenges while doing this?

One misconception about rest is that it’s a time of just sleeping or doing nothing. But there are actually different pillars of rest. For example, my creative rest is when I’m blessed with opportunities to curate bespoke restful and nature-inspired experiences for brands and companies! I’m in a flow that feels restful; I’m soaking in beauty and creative work.

At the end of the day, I’m only human. There have been times I have taken on more than I can comfortably manage, where I want to drop everything and go to bed. I permit myself to acknowledge my current state, recognise my feelings, and allow myself to be fully human with my entire spectrum of needs and emotions. If I can, I drop everything first — to go for my walk; practice my yoga nidra; find comfort in petting my dog; indulge in little luxuries — before returning to my tasks.

Youmin’s tips on how you can stop and smell the flowers in your daily life

Ultimately, the “more is good” story is not absolute truth, and neither is the “less is good” one. Rest and work is a delicate see-saw — sometimes it will tip a bit more to the right, or a bit more to the left. With more awareness, we can find ways to regain balance, whether that’s finding the right community or cheer support leader, or taking experiences and classes that gently tip you to the other side.

  1. Permit yourself to be kind and gentle to yourself, no matter the situation you find yourself in. On days where you are tired, permit yourself to rest. On days where you are rushing around and cannot slow down, permit yourself to say that’s okay too.
  2. Spend time outside, no matter how short. Head downstairs to the void deck, the park connector, the little patch of green at the bus stop. Walk the dog outside. Things are always softer, more colourful, and rosier outdoors.
  3. Is there a pocket of time in your daily routine where you can do something for yourself? We always think we have to show up for others, but what about making a decision for your own wellbeing? For example, instead of eating lunch with your team, grab a sandwich and eat outside by yourself.
  4. Don’t hurry the process of rest. So many times, we think about rest as a point we want to get to — we read an article, listen to a podcast, so we can get there! But that defeats the purpose. Unlearn the hurrying and let things unfold naturally.
  5. Where possible, literally stop. And smell!

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