A personal story on immersion into nature and Forest Therapy.
As I drove east, away from California, I found myself enveloped in a new sense of connectedness and a rediscovered sense of purpose. For a little over a week I’d had the opportunity to live wall-free in the forests of Sonoma County, California. We ate, learned, conversed and slept under the protection of the bay laurel trees. Often times allowing ourselves to go barefoot and really take our rediscovered connection to a new level.
Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku, as it’s called in Japan) is the ancient practice of spending time mindfully immersed in nature. Shinrin-yoku translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.” It became a cornerstone of preventative health care in Japan in the 1980s and has scientifically been shown to reduce blood pressure, help to reduce and even eliminate anxiety and depression, boost mood, and increase the activity of natural killer cells, your body’s defense against cancer cells and tumors.
An article from Quartz Media by Ephrat Livni describes the practice well: “Forest bathing works [like this]: Just be with trees. No hiking, no counting steps on a Fitbit. You can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything.”
Time In Nature
After losing my father at age 15, I had to do a lot of growing and figuring out. The thing I kept going back to, over and over again, was time in nature. The trees were my safe place. The woods behind my mom’s house have trails for miles and I would consistently find myself walking, running, cross country skiing, even just sitting, among those trails. I always felt comforted and grounded and at peace when I would emerge from my time in those woods.
After high school I went on to get a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources Biology. This led me to Colorado where I became a naturalist for a science center and got paid to spend my time being outside. My second summer as a naturalist my world changed again. We had lost my brother to an overdose. He spent eight years trying to figure out how to numb the pain of losing our father. Ultimately, he lost his battle with grief. Spending so many of my waking hours among the more-than-human-world is one big way that I was able to cope with this second earth shattering loss.
I knew that mindful time in nature was powerful, but it wasn’t until I found the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy that I was able to dig deeper into why. I had the opportunity to spend a very powerful week in Sonoma for an immersion training during the summer of 2017. After the training, we were sent directly into our six-month practicum, which has been full of gaining knowledge about our region, diving deeper into our practice as guides, leading practice walks for the community, and really developing ourselves as the door-openers for others’ connection to the more than human world.
As a part of the practicum, I’ve led some of the Forest Walks in my mountain community near Vail, Colorado. After a two-hour afternoon session in December, one participant said she “really enjoyed the calm yet structured format of the nature therapy walk,” and “found it to be a nice balance of interesting and interactive material, paired with some quiet and introspective personal time away from the group.”
“I was rushing to get to the walk on time, so it was really nice to arrive and listen to Kayla talk about the practice for a few minutes,” shared the participant. “It all felt very intentional and helped me be present. Physically and emotionally after the walk, I felt much more grounded and peaceful than I did before I arrived. I would recommend this to individuals, as well as families, to help press pause on our busy world and connect with a powerful source like nature.”
Over the course of these last six months I’ve really been able to see the healing powers that are held in our connection to the world around us. It holds answers to questions we ask, support when we are feeling lost, and sanctuary when we need to escape the fast pace of our daily lives. The natural world holds knowledge, guidance and space for us. It is in our connection with it that we are granted all of this.
In the future I have big aspirations for this work. I would love to introduce it to my community in the form of workshops, partnerships with yoga studios and hotels, programs offered to patients and survivors at Shaw Cancer Center, with more opportunities popping up all the time. My biggest hope for this practice is that I can incorporate it into the healing works of Strength for the Journey. SFTJ is an in-the-works non-profit that I am putting together that will introduce “unconventional” modes of emotional coping for those experiencing grief.
My connection experience was only one part of why I thought Shinrin-yoku was obviously an essential part of my plans for Strength for the Journey. This practice has immense health benefits that are even backed by science.
“The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improves overall feelings of well-being,” according to the Quartz Media article.
My journey into Shinrin-yoku is just beginning, but I am so excited to see what the future holds for the healing powers of this practice.
Kayla Weber earned her Bachelor’s of Science from Central Michigan University and immediately following graduation moved west from Michigan to Colorado to pursue an internship with Walking Mountains Science Center. She is currently a preschool teacher in Vail, Colorado, and has recently been certified in Nature and Forest Therapy through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. She is also working on building the foundation for a non-profit organization called Strength for the Journey, which will focus on grief support and laying the groundwork for healthy emotional coping.
Photo by Kim Fuller