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What is Forest Therapy?

This is the question I had when a close friend and mentor of mine suggested that I sign up for a course to train as a Certified Forest Therapy Guide, run by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) this past January. "It seems to me that this would be a very good fit for you right now," she said.


After reviewing the website for approximately 10 minutes, I agreed and signed up.


After beginning the course on January 22nd, 2022 (four months ago), I started to gain a basic understanding of the objective and origin of Forest Therapy. This is summarized in the "Introduction for Participants," I wrote for the first assignment a few weeks into the course:

You may have heard of the term "forest bathing," which is a translation from the Japanese term, Shinrin-Yoku. This term originated in Japan when in the 1980's the government started to notice an increase in stress-related illness and suicide from "over-work." To combat this, investment, and research into health benefits from spending time in nature was accelerated. Scientific discoveries included the identification of chemicals produced by conifer trees, termed "phytoncides," which function not only to protect and heal the tree, but that also have statistically significant positive impacts on both human physical and mental health. The term "forest bathing," is therefore a literal reference to spending time "bathing" in the phytoncides produced by the forest - otherwise, described simply, as spending time in nature.
In practice of Forest Therapy, we are aware of the many associated health benefits of forest bathing. What we don't do as part of the practice, is quantify, or measure these. Also, helpful to know, is that we don't look at our time in nature as anything with a specific objective or outcome. We don't focus on any goals such as getting to a certain location in a certain time, as we might if we were hiking. Rather, time is spent connecting with one's senses, slowing down and noticing the More-Than-Human World (MTHW) around us, and incorporating this experience as further knowledge of ourselves and the natural world.

As a Registered Nurse by background and having worked in healthcare for over 15 years, the scientifically proven benefits of Forest Therapy are convincing. A meta-analysis of studies on the effects of forest bathing, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that,

A harmonizing effect of Nature, especially on physiological stress reactions, was found across all body systems.

Additionally, there are measurable mental health benefits, which I would imagine no one would argue are hugely beneficial these days.

Japanese researchers found that 20 minutes of Shinrin-Yoku (compared with 20 minutes in an urban setting) altered cerebral blood flow in a manner that indicated a state of relaxation. More specifically, the total hemoglobin (as found in red blood cells) was decreased in the area of the prefrontal cortex while in the forest setting. - Your Brain on Nature (2012)

What appeals to me about Forest Therapy is that both my mind and body feel good learning about, and participating in, the practice. Spending time in nature is something I have focused on for our family over the past four years, however, Forest Therapy is giving me additional, and specific tools, to connect with nature in a deeper, more beneficial way. As a fellow student in my cohort said, while debriefing a walk last week, "there is literally nothing bad about anything in Forest Therapy." It seems my body and mind both agree. The fact that I can not only experience the benefits myself, as well as share them with my family, makes me excited about becoming a certified guide and sharing the practice more broadly with people in and beyond our community.


Some of the specific benefits that I am noticing after four months of studying and practicing to become a Forest Therapy Guide include:


Body:

- A desire to live more naturally with my bodily senses, which looks like:

  • Opening doors and windows for fresh air often

  • Time outdoors during the day (and night) becoming the norm vs the exception

  • Reduction in non-natural products of all types in our home

  • Collection of natural objects inside the house such as wooden toys and organic textiles

  • Preference for natural fibre clothing

  • Shift towards a whole food, increasingly plant-based diet

- A deeper and stronger sense/awareness of my body including how it feels and what it wants

- A stronger calling with less inhibitions to give my body what it wants

- A deeper appreciation of my body


Mind:

- Increasing ease with, and ability to, practice mindfulness both intentionally and naturally

- Profound awareness of both flora and fauna beings living around me

- Comfort in normalizing relationships with MTHW beings, such as caring for the pregnant squirrels that live in our yard

- Increased consideration of how I can legitimately help support the natural world in terms of supporting natural environments, reducing waste, supporting local pollination and growth of native plants


Last week I guided my first walk with 8 participants. Going into the walk I felt some nerves. Five years since leaving the corporate world, my public speaking skills felt a bit rusty. With some focus I was able to remember that it was not about me, but about the connection to the forest. Spending time prior to the walk mindfully connecting to the land was very helpful and it went great.


Photo of walk #1 Tea Ceremony taken by a participant (who graciously offered to take one):



Stay tuned for more on Forest Therapy, and if you happen to be in Calgary, please join me for a walk!


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