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Forest bathing is the latest health trend—but what exactly is it, anyways? Translated from the Japanese term shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is also known as forest therapy. It’s kind of like hiking through the forest. It’s kind of like meditating amongst the trees. Yet it’s not exactly either.
“I’ve been doing forest therapy all my life, and I didn’t know there was a term for it,” says Haida Bolton. From British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, Bolton describes how she grew up in BC and has always felt uplifted by taking contemplative walks through the rainforest. When she first heard of shinrin-yoku, she found the science behind it intriguing.
Based in Pender Harbour, Bolton runs nature day camps for children and offers both indoor and outdoor reflexology. In 2016, she was certified by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy as BC’s first Forest Therapy Guide. The organization, based in California, promotes the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or taking a slow walk in the woods and absorbing the surroundings with all your senses. Here’s how Bolton explains the practice.
While hiking involves moving purposefully across terrain, forest bathing isn’t about following a defined route. Bolton’s forest therapy walks, which last about 2-1/2 hours, may span only about one kilometre. “This experience is much slower,” she says. “The guide will really slow down the participants and get them to interact with the forest with all their senses.” Rather than the destination, the point is to focus on the details of the journey.
But unlike an interpretive nature walk, the guide’s role isn’t to explain the flora and fauna. Rather, the guide facilitates the contemplative experience, offering participants “invitations” to interact with the forest in a meaningful and healing way.
For example, participants will be invited to use their eyes, paying attention to what’s in motion. “Sometimes there are lots of birds flying, and that’s easy to see. Sometimes it’s the wind blowing—the slightest breeze is making one little leaf twirl in circles,” she explains.
Other times participants will focus on sound or touch. “How many of us really slow down and feel the different textures in the forest?” she asks. Even the sense of taste is stimulated. At the end of the session, there’s a tea ceremony that highlights the edible plants of the forest such as lemon balm, licorice root, or a hemlock tree’s citrusy new spring growth.
While some people liken forest bathing to meditation, it’s not necessarily a solitary experience. It is, however, a mindful one, with a similar experience of slowing down and really being in the moment.
But sharing is also part of the experience. Bolton guides people both one-on-one and in groups of up to 12. “You want a small enough group that there’s that feeling of intimacy,” she says. Participants have time to contemplate the forest on their own and with others. “It makes it a much richer experience,” she says. “You’re hearing and seeing things through what they share that you didn’t notice yourself. There’s a lot of connection and pleasure in sharing forest therapy with other people.”
Bolton acknowledges that you don’t need a guide to practise forest therapy; some people are quite effective in practising solo. But a guide can help to facilitate the process by controlling the pace and offering invitations to experience the forest in new ways. “People say that they are grateful that they had a guide to slow them down, because they never would have slowed themselves down enough to experience the detail.”
Some people benefit from a guide in the same way they might benefit from a personal trainer at the gym. “Sometimes we have to make a commitment to other people in order to make a commitment to ourselves,” she explains. “Sometimes when we have a coach or guide meeting us at a certain time, we are more likely to go out and do this thing we know is beneficial for us.”
Bolton emphasizes, however, that a forest therapy guide is not a therapist. “The forest itself is the therapist,” she says. “The forest does all the work. The guide simply opens the door to the forest to help connect the forest with the person.”
One of the benefits of paying close attention to your surroundings is you see new things that can inspire other areas of your life. “Whether you’re an architect or a painter or a writer, so much creative inspiration comes from slowing down in the forest and noticing the details with all our senses,” she says. For example, noticing an insect you’ve never seen before could inspire a new idea: “There’s this awe effect, this great joy and wonder and curiosity and excitement.”
The calming benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. A blog by Vancouver’s David Suzuki Foundation sums them up, including decreased anxiety and a strengthened immune system. Japanese studies have shown that people who spend time in the forest inhale beneficial bacteria, plant-based essential oils, and negatively charged ions. The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy lists myriad benefits including reduced blood pressure, increased energy, and increased ability to focus.
As the association acknowledges on its website, forest therapy isn’t a new concept, and “approaches such as Shinrin-yoku have roots in many cultures throughout history.” Like Bolton, many people know the benefits from their own experience. “I look at the forest and somehow it just calms me. It brings out the joy in me,” she reflects. ”I don’t know how it works, it just does.” Laughing, she adds, “I don’t know how a computer works, but it does, so I use it.”
Haida Bolton offers guided forest therapy walks on the Sunshine Coast. She also travels to Coombs on Vancouver Island to lead walks there; see Nature With Haida.
From their base in Parksville on Vancouver Island, Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours take guests on a gentle walk through an off-the-beaten-track forest with old-growth trees and native plants. In conjunction with Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours, Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort & Conference Centre offers a Reconnect Package that includes accommodation and a forest bathing tour, plus mineral pool access at the resort’s Grotto Spa.
For those who lean towards hiking, the Sunshine Coast Trail was designed to be hiked in a contemplative manner. The 180-kilometre (112-mile) backcountry trail, which stretches from Sarah Point in Desolation Sound to Saltery Bay, is Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking experience.
According to Eagle Walz, one of the founders of the trail, the route was designed, marked, and signposted primarily in a north-south direction to provide a greater solitude than if people started from both ends and crossed paths. “Even though people are out there, you don’t necessarily see them,” he notes. “Seeing markers frequently makes it easy to stay on the trail so you can relax in the forest and enjoy breathing in the atmosphere amongst the plants.”
With close to 25% of the world’s temperate rainforest in British Columbia, there are plenty of places to be one with the trees. For more ideas on where to go, see Top 5 Places to Experience the Rainforest in BC.
Updated from original publication April 21, 2017.
Opening image: Moss covered trees and ferns in a forest in Kyuquot Sound in Tahsish-Kwois Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. Photo: Adrian Dorst
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