Saturday, August 11, 2018

Forest Bathing ...

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim
upon (our) hearts, as for that subtle something,
that quality of air, that emanation from old trees,
that so wonderfully changes and renews
a weary spirit.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Hello, Everyone!

I hope your summer's going well and that you're able to carve out time to rest and re-create.

A recent move to the head of Burrard Inlet has gifted me in many ways, but most especially with a new proximity to nature. I wake every day with an embarrassment of options for early morning walks and, armed with my camera and walking stick, I make my way into new-to-me local woods and forests.

I have loved being in the woods since early childhood. Something magical happens as soon as I walk beneath a canopy of leaves into the cool air and dimmer, dappled light. My pace slows, my eyes notice details I could have passed without a glance, my breathing deepens and slows and I'm held in the veriditas of nature. It is this quiet vital hum of green energy that has sustained me through many years of nursing, life as a grief and trauma therapist and seven years of caregiving for my husband. Walks in the woods literally saved my sanity during any number of in-sane days.

So, what is this mysterious power that forests hold over us and our well-being and why should we access it intentionally?

Recently, researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK reviewed 140 studies worldwide and determined that proximity to green space not only makes us feel better psychologically, but offers significant physical health benefits including reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death and preterm birth. It also reduces diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, pain perception and cortisol levels and increases immune function. Several Japanese studies suggest that phytoncides, chemicals released by trees, could explain some of this health-promotion. (Others suggest that the beautiful scenery, soothing sounds of running water, natural aromas of plants and even the experience of solitude may also make a difference.)

Since at least 1982, the Japanese have been practicing Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing, spending intentional time taking in a forest atmosphere for the purpose of relaxation, re-creation and healing. People sit, lie down or walk slowly through forests in silence, paying mindful attention to their surroundings and inner responses. It is a slow, contemplative immersion rather than a brisk, purposeful activity. Physical prowess is not necessary.

Today, all around the world, people are following the lead of the Japanese in establishing forest bathing programs. In Greater Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, where the surroundings are perfect for forest bathing, certified Forest Therapy guides offer 2-5 hour immersive forest experiences to the stressed and those yearning for reconnection with nature. They don't spend time teaching participants about flora and fauna, rather they act as guides to forest experience, holding space for whatever arises. As the website for Forest Guide Training in BC says, the forest is the therapist, the guides open the doors.

For many, the peace and quiet of the forest opens opportunities to grieve losses and release stressors  that have been buried in the busyness of everyday life. Just creating space and time in nature allows grief and relaxation to begin their healing work. More broadly, I believe that forest bathing could actually help us save our planet. We don't protect what we don't value and we don't value what we don't know. So immersion in the forest could lead not only to our personal health and wholeness but to that of our planet as well.

So, if you remember with weary longing early experiences of peace and rejuvenation in in the woods, why not try to spend a little time forest bathing this summer. Your body and spirit will likely thank you!

If you're interested in learning more about forest bathing, Japanese expert, Dr Qing Li has just written, Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing and M Amos Clifford has published Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature. Both should be available in local bookstores.

Let me close with one of Mary Oliver's lovely poems, appropriately titled, When I Am Among the Trees.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."

The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, "It's simple,"
they say, "and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine."

(From Thirst - 2006)

Enjoy your summer in the woods or under your local tree!