NATURE & FOREST THERAPY
The forest is the therapist, the guide opens the door
What is Nature & Forest Therapy?
When was the last time you allowed yourself to just wander about in the woods with no destination? Do you remember what it was like to explore nature the way you did when you were a child? When was the last time you climbed a tree, waded in the stream, or really experienced the sensations of a rain shower?
Nature and forest therapy, inspired by the Japanese shinri-yoku or forest bathing, is a research-based practice designed to promote health and well being by getting you out of your overworked head and into a relaxed, mindful state where you can connect to the natural world through your senses. This practice has been shown to have a variety of health benefits such as boosting immunity, reducing stress, anxiety and depression, as well as fostering creativity.
The modern roots of nature and forest lie in 1980s Japan where, due to a large tech boom, many citizens were moving into urban areas and working long hours. In correlation with this transition of lifestyle, there was also a rise in depression and stress-related diseases. It was so bad that the Japanese even have a word for it, karoshi, which translates to “death from overworking”.
Inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices of letting nature enter through the senses, the Director of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries started an eco-tourism campaign in 1982 to get the population out of the cities and into the forests. His intuition was that just spending time in the forest would bring relaxation and improved health as well as stimulate the economy in rural areas. He coined the term shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing” as the name for this campaign.
In the subsequent 40 years, his idea has grown into a practice with designated trails, trained guides, and is considered a form of preventative medicine in Japan.
We live in a world of 24-7 stress inducers. In response to this, our bodies operate in an overabundance of cortisol and adrenaline. Studies have shown that spending time engaged in mindful activities, like nature therapy, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, reduce those stress hormones, and allow our bodies time to rest and reset.
Nature therapy has also been shown to improve our immunity in a couple of ways. We have a type of white blood cells, known as NK, or natural killer, cells. These cells patrol our bodies looking for virus and tumor infected cells and destroy them. When we are stressed, studies show there are fewer of these cells in our bloodstream. So by participating in nature therapy sessions we can reduce our stress hormones and boost our immune system.
Another interesting way that nature therapy may boost immunity is through exposure to aerosols emitted by trees called phytoncides. These phytoncides act as a deterrent to pests and fungus attacking trees as well as signaling other trees in the area to prepare their defenses. Researchers studied how the human body reacts when exposed to these phytoncides and discovered that we, like other trees, ready our defenses by producing more NK cells.
Research has also shown that participating in nature therapy boosts creativity. By allowing our minds to let go of the to-do list, never ending thoughts, and worry we are then able to engage our creative and reflective parts of our brain.
To take a deep dive into the research that has been done on nature and forest therapy, check out some of these links:
What to Expect
A typical forest therapy walk lasts between 2-3 hours, covers less than half a mile, is non-strenuous, and accessible by most abilities and fitness levels. This will not be a hike or a naturalist walk.
During the session, your guide will lead you through a sequence of activities, standardized by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, designed to engage your senses and connect you to the land. We will often come together to share our noticings with one another. The sharing is always optional. You will also have time to wander or sit and experience nature as you are being called to do.
Each session will end with a final gathering to talk and share refreshments before transitioning back into our everyday lives. I wonder what you might take back with you?
Why Do I Need a Guide?
You can certainly practice forest bathing on your own and I encourage you to do so as much as possible. But I believe having a guide enriches your experience in many ways. Guides have been trained to facilitate deep nature connection, hold a safe space to disconnect from the day to day where we don’t often allow ourselves permission to slow down, and help participants connect with nature in novel ways.
Our guides are certified in basic wilderness first aid and carry a first aid kit in the event that participants need assistance.