The trail can be as short as a quarter of a mile but take three hours to cover. Earthy undertones are strong. Some participants have been moved to hug a tree in the process. They’re not climbing a mountain or traversing treacherous territory.
They’re partaking of what the Japanese call Shinrin-yoku, or immersing oneself in the forest, and opting to rekindle their connection with the natural world, leaving behind the ever-constant pings of their smartphones, toxicity of Twitter threads and demands by others for their time and energy.
“We move very slowly along those trails, using all of our senses to just bring us into the moment,” says Brenda Spitzer, a certified forest therapy guide and mentor who guides forest bathing experiences at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. “A forest therapy walk gives participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly,” she adds. “The key to forest therapy is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just take it all in.”
Walking With Intention
Forest therapy, sometimes called forest bathing, is a slow and mindful way of walking that almost forces us (in a good way) to engage the senses and allows for reflection. We cannot overdose on forest therapy and it’s an easy and low-cost way to train ourselves to be more fully present in the moment.
“It opens up your eyes to what is out there and what is around you,” says Lillian Potter. The 75-year-old loves the outdoors, so when the opportunity to participate in this new experience not far from her Chicagoland home presented itself, she was willing to try it with Spitzer.
“The key to forest therapy is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just take it all in.”
Potter was surprised by the short distance and with how much time Spitzer spent at each stop. What she didn’t expect was that the reflection time reminded her of other things she loved doing, such as sketching.
“As we move along the trail, I offer my participants a series of invitations, which are simple suggestions of ways to use their senses to connect with nature,” Spitzer explains.
She’s noticed that the first 20 minutes might be hard for some people to unplug. “This is because most of us are used to moving at a fast pace and multitasking during our daily lives,” Spitzer says. “After twenty to thirty minutes, I can actually notice a general slowing down among participants.” She encourages everyone to turn off their phones or silence them, but doesn’t object to them using their phones for photography, if they wish.
When Spitzer encouraged participants to bring a notepad to write or draw, Potter didn’t hesitate to carry her sketchpad the next time she took a walk with Spitzer.
“I did some sketching while I was there,” Potter adds. “I have enjoyed that. And I haven’t really had time lately to do that.”
Create Your Own Forest Therapy Walk: A DIY Version
What if you don’t live near a forest or are stuck in the concrete jungle of the city and can’t take advantage of a certified guide-led forest therapy walk? Any green space will work, according to M. Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.
Just head to the nearest green area, whether it’s a city park or a backyard.
If the opportunity to participate in a guided walk presents itself, though, he highly recommends it. Clifford compares the experience to yoga because you can practice the poses by watching a YouTube session. But it’s another thing to take a class with a certified yoga instructor. “The guide will slow you down and introduce you to the methods that really lead to the kinds of benefits that people report,” Clifford explains.
Potter also recommends heading to the library to find a book about Shinrin-yoku to learn more about the practice and its history and how to create your own experience.
Clifford’s book on the subject, Your Guide to Forest Bathing, can serve as a starting point. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs features a map to help find one closest to you. Currently, there are 700 guides in 44 countries.
Regardless where these walks occur, the benefits — whether physical, mental or both — cannot be discounted. They include becoming calmer, your head becoming clear to think more creatively or experiencing less depression or lower blood pressure. More importantly, though, Clifford says people who’ve participated in guided walks tell him they feel more connected to themselves, to the world and others.
“One of the principles we teach is that this is a practice,” adds Clifford. “It’s much more about getting here than it is about getting there. And one thing that always enters us here, to this place in this moment, is paying attention to our senses.”
Take a Step Towards Leadership
It sounds so simple and yet many people find it hard to slow down. Many of us can go through entire days feeling really busy and never noticing feelings beyond anger or loneliness or disconnection, according to Clifford. “When we do this practice and we start showing up, a lot of other feelings come forward, like feelings of appreciation and of gratitude,” he adds.
Since she’s been leading certified forest therapy walks, Spitzer has inspired at least a dozen participants to secure their own certifications.
“To become certified, one must attend an intensive eight-day training program,” says Spitzer. “After this intensive, each trainee returns home to complete a six-month mentored practicum. During their practicum, they guide four walks that they review with their mentor. They earn a certification in Wilderness First Aid, and they complete a number of research assignments.”
Spitzer insists hugging a tree isn’t a requirement to become certified or during their walks. But she has had participants hug one and they’re always welcome to do so.
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