What is Forest Bathing?

Forest bathing, also referred to as Nature Therapy, is a simple practice that can offer profound benefits. It’s important for me to start by saying, to be human is to have bias and this article reflects my unique point of view of the practice as it continues to evolve and deepen.

I completed my training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy in 2019. The organization (ANFT) was founded by M. Amos Clifford in 2012. Amos combined elements of Shinrin-Yoku practices from Japan with his four decades of experience in wilderness guiding, Zen meditation, psychotherapy, educational consulting, and nature connection to create the framework of Forest Therapy. Amos trained many trainers, who went on to train other guides and trainers, so you see where I am going. The further from the direct source the more variation and diversity exists (but isn’t that a core truth of life?) I did not study directly under Amos but learned a lot from Ben Page who worked closely with him. Ben’s perception and embodiment of the practice was a major influence on my current understanding and I still have so much to learn! Ben shared with me a concept he refers to as “Earth dreaming” to describe the phenomena of Earth dreaming life through us, inspiring us to create something, a mission, an offering, or simply to share our unique life expression with humanity. This feels significant to share before I dive into what Forest Bathing means to me. If you would like to learn more about the history and influences that inspired the ANFT practice please see the video below from Amos.

Today as I sit here and attempt to describe this ever evolving practice from my current point of view, I recognize the challenge in crediting all influences, everything seems to intertwine and blend together. My version of this practice is likely influenced by esoteric spiritual principles, polyvagal theory, ecopsychology and divine feminine literature. I have found many shared principles through these separate, but related, studies and they have come together to deepen my connection to, and understanding of, this practice.

Forest bathing is a term used to describe intentional time spent in natural environments with heightened senses and embodied presence. It is like a mindfulness practice but also requests our bodyfullness too. We seek to clear the mind of thoughts and words, to become an open vessel, to receive information and wisdom from the outdoor space we dwell in. With all senses engaged, we bathe in the aromas, organic compounds, essences, as well as the archetypal energy (or subconscious associations of symbols), of the wild beings found within our immediate environment. When we walk in the forest, we strive to open up in a way that allows us to receive whatever medicine the forest has to offer us at this particular phase of our journey. We surrender our expectations and replace them with trust, that whatever we meet will be of value and importance. The key is to get out of the mind and go into the body, to let our intuition and heart lead us and release our minds’ need to know. When we begin a nature therapy practice, we choose to forego what we think we know, in order to discover what wisdom our teacher (the forest) has to share with us. We walk in wonder and curiosity with innocent eyes. There is scientific and anecdotal evidence that suggests that spending time in nature, in this way, can be supportive to various aspects of our health and wellbeing.

As a nature therapy guide, I am humble to the healing available within Nature. We believe that healing is found through the intimate relationship formed between each individual and Nature. We are not nature therapists (as some may accidentally refer to us as) but rather nature therapy guides. Many guides trained by ANFT will say “The forest is the therapist, the guide simply opens the door” to communicate this distinction to our participants. The role of the guide is to create a safe container for each individual to have their own authentic connection to Nature. We will start with a brief introduction to orient the group to the practice and set some boundaries before offering a series of simple nature connection activities referred to as invitations. We seek to offer gentle guidance and unique opportunities to expand the ways in which we relate and connect with nature, without controlling, predicting, or restricting the process.

The guide will visit the land prior to a planned walk to assess safety of the trail as well as pay respect to the land and listen for guidance. We will walk the path to harvest wisdom and inspiration to gift to our participants. On the day of the walk, our intention is to work in collaboration with the land and remain open for inspiration that may deter us from any pre determined plans as needed. The invitations offered should be simple, open ended, and sensory. Many participants of the western mind struggle with the open ended nature, which is totally normal and expected. We have been conditioned to follow orders and to abide by authorities desires and requests. We have been educated to respond to the teacher, or leader’s, point of view to ensure success and survival which has in turn silenced our authentic expression and creativity. This is a practice, meant to be revisited. Simple things are not always that simple to achieve. Although many will participate in a forest bathing experience as a fun social outing, the full benefits can be accessed through repeated participation and patience. Like most things, repetition is essential for change and integration of knowledge. Anything that can offer profound wisdom and true healing takes time but our culture is so conditioned to quick fixes and immediate gratification that we often give up before alternative medicine can offer us proof and/or provide lasting results. We can receive so much from these simple experiences if we show up with patience, trust, surrender and a willingness to listen and learn.

Forest bathing has been shown to provide many physiological health benefits, including but not limited to improved cardiac function (reduced blood pressure and reduced heart rate) and improved immune function. This practice can lower cortisol secretions in the body which can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and weight gain. A regular nature therapy practice has been shown to support improved focus, concentration, memory, and mood. Many of these benefits can be traced back to subsequent effects of stress reduction. Stress is the root cause of most modern disease, so anything that can help lower stress is a major contribution to our wellbeing. The immune boosting effects is likely influenced by reduced stress too, however, there is also an interesting relationship that exists between the forests immune system and our own that is significant. When we walk through a forest, the trees and plants will emit phytoncides into the air in response to any threat or sense of alert. When our body comes into contact with these phytoncides, our immune system responds by increasing the function and production of natural killer cells (NK cells) in our body. NK cells are a type of white blood cell responsible for clearing any virally infected cells or tumor cells from the body. This is just one example of how intricately connected we are to our mother, when her immune system is activated so is ours. Forest bathing is a widely used form of preventative medicine in Japan due to the anti-cancer and immune boosting benefits.

Besides the more obvious health benefits there are also many spiritual and relational, or ecological, health benefits available to us as well. When we spend time in nature, we gain deeper insight into our true nature. We re-connect to our authentic self, buried beneath societal conditioning and busyness. By relating to other beings of the forest we see ourself mirrored back. As we relate to diverse species, we remember we are not so different from our community members, no matter how different they initially appear. We can appreciate differences while admiring “strengths” in others that may complement our “weaknesses.” We experience what community really means when we spend time in nature and seek to find a deeper connection. There is so much information available to us from these simple experiences, if we slow down and pay attention. We begin to notice how we participate in certain invitations offered by the guide, what challenges us, what inspires joy, what themes seem to keep coming up for us and we get to choose what to do with this information. We gain insight into how we show up in our relationships and maybe where we can stand to make some changes to improve our collaborative nature and humanity.

Nature therapy is at it’s core, a relational practice. Those of us who are drawn to this practice likely have a desire to deepen our relationship with ourselves, nature, and all the beings we share life with. True intimacy is rare in our culture and seemingly reserved for romantic partnership when really we have so much more love available to give and receive. I have heard intimacy broken down into in-to-me-i-see which suggests that to see ourselves in another and to honor this connection and mirroring, is to be intimate. We are much healthier when we feel safe to have intimacy within various relationships, platonic, romantic and everything in between. Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when we feel seen heard and valued.” I see it as a feeling of belonging that can remove the illusion of separateness. When we engage in a nature connection experience we want to include these principles. An essential bi-product of this deepening of intimacy with nature is that we gain a larger capacity to show up and care for nature. As humans, we protect what we love. The more humans that exist in a conscious relationship with nature, the more likely we are to find our way towards living in a more harmonious world, where we take care of our planet and each other.

If I had to summarize the core principals of forest bathing, or nature therapy, it would include the following:

  • A slow mindful wander, with frequent pauses
  • Time spent disconnected from technology (when possible)
  • Integrating techniques that support a calm and centered state
  • Striving to enter the Parasympathetic or “rest and digest ” mode of the central nervous system
  • Deep listening, using all senses
  • Creating an intention for engaging with reciprocity rather than extractive or exploitative principals
  • Harnessing childlike wonder, curiosity, and beginner’s mind
  • Inviting play
  • Welcoming creative expression
  • Finding humility and reverence for Nature’s intelligence
  • Accepting and honoring diversity and all that is different from us
  • Surrendering our intellectual knowledge to discover ancient wisdom

If you are interested in beginning a nature therapy practice you can visit the ANFT guide map to find a certified guide in your area. You are welcome to reach out to me as well at biophiliawellness@gmail.com.

If you prefer to explore on your own, you can start by adopting a daily sit spot practice. Choose a spot in nature that is special and accessible to you. Commit to staying for at least 20 minutes at a minimum, disconnected from technology and verbal conversation. Visit this spot regularly, as often as possible and do nothing, just be fully present with the land and all that is available to you in this moment. When we visit the same spot, we learn that it is never truly the same spot, every time we come back it is slightly different, modified in someway. Subtle shapeshifting is inherent to life. We have to continuously meet the land with curiosity, an open heart and a desire to know. This recognition can be applied to how we approach our peers and our loved ones, that every encounter requests a desire to know and to see with a new set of eyes.

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