'Forest bathing' walks encourage deep connection to nature - GulfToday

'Forest bathing' walks encourage deep connection to nature

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Participants of shinrin-yoku, take a moment to notice their surroundings. TNS

Saundra McBrearty felt awkward, with her eyes closed and one hand touching a tree.

She was participating recently in the practice of “shinrin-yoku,” also known as “forest bathing,” a form of structured nature therapy.

The nine participants stood around a huge Osage orange tree in woods surrounding the McKnight Outdoor Recreation Center on the Northwest Side, and guide Elizabeth Olate had just instructed everyone to “fly like a leaf” away from the tree.

“I was like, ‘OK, am I going to do this?’ ” Said McBrearty, a Delaware resident. “But as soon as the moment hit, (and I decided), ‘Yeah, I’m going to let go of the tree and start to fly like a leaf,’ a leaf basically landed in my hand, and that was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in the right spot.’ ”

Shinrin-yoku, which originated in Japan in the 1980s, is one form of forest therapy, a growing practice nationwide.

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Participants of shinrin-yoku conclude the experience with a small tea ceremony, at Indian Village Outdoor Recreation Centre. TNS

In general, forest therapy is the idea that connecting with nature in an intentional way can be beneficial, both emotionally and physically. In some ways, it resembles yoga, with its focus on calming the mind and concentrating on one’s surroundings.

“It’s profoundly simple,” said Pamela Wirth, director of partnerships and community with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. “You don’t have to believe in anything, and it’s accessible to most levels of physical ability.

“It’s about inviting people to make a connection through the sensory body to really become fully present and connect with nature.”

Wirth’s group was founded in 2013. Based in Santa Rosa, California, it focuses on training and certifying people to lead forest walks. According to its website, more than 700 guides had been certified by the end of 2018.

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Cindy Lanese, take a moment to take in their surroundings through scent and sound. TNS

Olate and Scott Sheets were certified earlier this year and co-lead a number of outdoor experiences in central Ohio, including hiking, paddling (kayaking/canoeing), outdoor meditative walks, and shinrin-yoku.

Olate is a psychotherapist, and she said she sometimes incorporates outdoor experiences into her practice with some of her clients.

But she stressed that, “from a clinical perspective, forest bathing is completely not psychology.”

On a recent Sunday, the nine participants gathered in a parking lot outside the McKnight Outdoor Recreation Center, a Columbus Recreation and Parks facility on the west bank of the Scioto River. It was sunny and in the mid-40s as Olate introduced herself and Sheets as guides, adding, “but really, the forest is the guide.”

The group then strolled into the woods. Maybe 100 yards up a path, Olate and Sheets stopped.

Shinrin-yoku is not about walking for distance or physical exercise. It’s about immersion into nature.

The explanations included metaphors for life: old leaves that still had some life in them, for example, or one leaf tucked into another, providing protection.

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Participants of shinrin-yoku conclude the experience with a small tea ceremony. TNS

Next, Sheets led the group farther down the path, but he walked slowly. The idea was to force everyone to slow down and truly notice their surroundings.

Again, the group then shared their thoughts, although that is not mandatory — participants can choose not to speak.

“It’s hard to share at first,” Olate said, “and then I feel like slowly people start thawing, getting more comfortable with each other.”

The orange tree provided a base from which participants scattered into the nearby woods, then gathered to discuss what they had experienced.

They came together a final time for a tea ceremony. Olate served hot herbal tea from a thermos, and the first cup was poured onto the ground, “in gratitude for sharing the landscape with us.”

Afterward, the group slowly dispersed, though not before more discussion of their experience.

Cindy Lanese of Columbus, Ohio, has been involved in nature therapy for several years.

“It just moves me,” she said, pausing to control her emotions. “I feel connected and related and brought back to something original, an original way of being.”

Adam Wilson of Galloway was a first-time shinrin-yoku participant. He said being outdoors is not in his comfort zone, so it took time to “get calm and feel grounded.” He also was nervous about sharing his thoughts.

But he said he would do it again.

“It helps me notice other parts of my life that I can dwell on that aren’t as negative,” he said. “I have a stressful work life that I’m dealing with right now, and this is kind of a nice break from that.”

McBrearty went on several shinrin-yoku walks earlier in the year with Olate and Sheets. Despite occasionally feeling awkward, McBrearty said she is increasingly enjoying her experiences.

“It’s a journey,” she said. “It’s a beautiful way to connect with nature. They say it’s really good for you, and it feels really good for me, so it all seems to work out.”

Tribune News Service