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Well Q&A: Mindfulness in Minutes at Mohonk Mountain House

There are certain people you meet in life who you know you’ll keep in your life no matter what—Nina Smiley is one of those people for me. 

She exudes calm and serenity, embodies her love of nature and is the perfect person to lead Mindfulness at Mohonk Mountain House. 

When I visited five years ago, Nina took me and my friend on a hike to the “summer houses.” She shared the rich history of these beautiful structures on the trails, first built in the 1800s, and I could feel the woods come alive surrounded by the majesty of the Shawangunk Mountains. 

It was a “forest bathing” experience I will long remember and call upon when I practice mindfulness.

As Director of Mindfulness Programming at Mohonk Mountain House and co-author of The Three Minute Meditator (now in its fifth edition and translated into seven languages), Nina delights in sharing simple and effective mindfulness meditation techniques that can be used by real people in real lives (when they really need it)—one moment at a time!

Nina leads programs and offers private classes in mindfulness at The Spa at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY, and on webinars worldwide. Her presentations are defined by simplicity and practicality, warmth and compassion, with a focus on building skills to use mindfulness in support of wellbeing and resilience.

Leading forest bathing walks on the spectacular trails surrounding Mohonk Mountain House, Nina uses mindfulness in nature to explore and deepen the ability to be fully present in the moment.

Nina received a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University, taught at the University of Maryland, worked in Washington, D.C., and then embraced life as Director of Marketing at Mohonk Mountain House. She has used mindfulness IRL / IRT (In Real Life / In Real Time) throughout!

Sallie: What motivates you to do what you do? What is your “Why?”   

Nina: I discovered mindfulness meditation in the 1980s. Developing a practice that has become integrated within my life, rather than “carved out from it,” was life-changing. I delight in sharing insights that make mindfulness available for real people in real lives when they really need it!

Sallie: Tell us three things most people do not know about Mohonk Mountain House.

Nina: The resort property itself is 1,200 acres of woodland, surrounded by 40,000 acres of pristine forest, offering 85 miles of connected trail hiking in a setting that inspired the Hudson River School artists to paint some of their finest works.   

Mohonk Mountain House is now in its fourth and fifth generation of family leadership. From the earliest days of Mohonk Mountain House, Smiley family members led guests on hikes to enjoy the spectacular natural setting.

Over 150 years later, this family tradition continues as I invite guests to join me outdoors to share Mindfulness in Nature, a gentle immersion in the moment, bringing awareness to each of the senses. This is also known as “forest bathing.” 

The United Nations traces its roots back to conferences convened at Mohonk Mountain House from 1895 – 1916 by Mohonk’s founder Albert Smiley to discuss international arbitration.

These early Mohonk conferences informed the Hague Conferences and the League of Nations prior to the founding of the United Nations.

Sallie: Who has had a deep, lasting influence on your life?

Nina: My late husband Bert continues to inspire me by how he lived his life—with kindness for all, focusing on what matters, and with a deep sense of curiosity about the world. 

Each morning, Bert and I would set our intention for the day by saying together, “May we live with compassion, with grace, with insight, with integrity, with love.”

Sallie: What can the wellness traveler expect to experience at Mohonk Mountain House?

Nina: When guests arrive, their entry experience begins with a “sense of discovery” as a gentle drive through the woods for two miles culminates in a magnificent view of our Victorian castle resort. 

From an award-winning spa to extensive outdoor activities, from farm-to-table culinary choices to local libations, a stay at Mohonk Mountain House is all about discovery and all about options. 

At Mohonk, we understand that it’s your wellness journey, and you can be as active or relaxed as you want to be! Our guests tell us that being surrounded by nature and breathing fresh mountain air brings a sense of spaciousness that enhances the quality of their relaxation.

Sallie: You’ve written a book called “The Three-Minute Meditator.” Is it genuinely possible to get a benefit from such a short meditation? How?

Nina: People sometimes avoid trying meditation because they believe it has to take a lot of time. The Three Minute Meditator is based on the science of “neuroplasticity”—understanding that any action done repeatedly, any new habit formed, will change the connections of neurons in your brain. 

Everyone has three minutes, or two minutes, or thirty seconds—and it’s the repetition of the meditation practice that leads to the benefits. 

I describe mindfulness meditation as learning to “clear the mind and calm the body, again and again.” You learn to use the breath as the object of meditation to practice being present in the moment in a gentle, nonjudgmental way. 

As you continue to practice, you become more and more able to understand that the calm and clarity that comes with meditation truly are only a breath away.

Sallie: So many of us are looking for tips to reduce our stress and boost our immunity. What are some of the most effective “stress reducers” you’ve learned?

Nina: Nature nurtures! Research has shown that being outdoors, gently/nonjudgmentally present in the moment while you open to experiencing your senses, can reduce stress and boost immunity. 

Step outdoors in a place where you feel safe, near trees or plants, if possible, and close your eyes. 

Find your breath and inhale/exhale gently and fully as you bring awareness to your sense of touch (is there a breeze on the skin?), of smell (is there a scent on the air?), of sound (is there a tapestry of near/far sound that surrounds you?), of sight (notice the colors, shapes and textures that become visible as you gently open your eyes) and see if you feel any different in body and/or mind. 

Being near trees and plants allows you to breathe in the natural volatile oils that they produce, enhancing the immune system. 

If you can’t step outdoors, having a plant indoors invites you to create a similar experience. Even a screensaver with a calm, beautiful image of nature can give you a sense of renewal as you take a few moments to gaze at it softly and take three mindful breaths.  

Sallie: Finally, as a very successful family business, what is the key to your longevity and sustainability?

Nina: Our ability to communicate as a family and the fact that we share a deep understanding of the “essence” of Mohonk Mountain House has been vital to our longevity. 

We use the concept of “stewardship” to evaluate our actions, understanding that our challenge is to change the details as needed while protecting the essence of Mohonk. 

A Quaker heritage has sustained our commitment to listening respectfully to each other and seeking consensus across individuals and generations.

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