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Heath and Fitness Innovations: Walking through the practice of ‘Forest Bathing’

Walking in nature is certainly nothing new.

Writers as diverse as St. Francis of Assisi, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez have all described the emotionally, spiritually, and mentally healing power of spending time in nature.

What is new about Shinrin-Yoku – the Japanese practice of meditating in the presence of trees – is the somewhat hip and fashionable label “Forest Bathing.”

“?‘Forest Bathing’ is a trendy but slightly inaccurate translation of ‘Shinrin-Yoku,’” explains Michael Stusser, gardener, health pioneer, and founder of Osmosis Spa and Sanctuary in Freestone. “What the phrase Shinrin-Yoku is meant to describe,” he says, “is an attitude of being in nature, and of fully taking in the woods, fully taking in the nature experience.

“A number of organizations have seized the nomenclature to identify a growing trend in Japan, in the urban areas,” he continues. “And it’s now made its way here, largely due to the work of local innovators such as Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature Therapy Guides and Programs.”

That organization, headquartered in Santa Rosa, has been instrumental in training and promoting guides to lead folks through the Forest Bathing experience. The group’s website (NatureandForestTherapy.org) includes a map listing guides trained by the organization. Clifford, its founder, is the author of “A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku.” Last year, Stusser himself completed the six-month intensive Shinrin-Yoku training program, and became a certified Forest Bathing guide.

To become a guide, one must pass a rigorous wilderness first aid test, in addition to becoming adept at a number of skills required to keep practitioners safe while out in nature. In Stusser’s case, his training included a visit to Japan.

“We spent a couple of weeks there, making a pilgrimage to some of the places where Forest Bathing started,” says Stusser. “We went on several guided experiences, and reviewed some of the research being done there on the health values of Shinrin-Yoku. It’s huge, that research. I’m still processing a lot of what I learned, but there is scientific proof now that being around trees, being in the presence of the specific oils and terpenes they put into the air, has a measurable effect on the human psyche.”

Even in Japan, the phrase Shinrin-Yoku is a relatively recent invention.

The phrase was reportedly coined in 1982 by government officials at the Japanese Forest Agency, part of an effort to encourage people to set aside the trappings of modernity and spend time rambling in the woods, for mental as well as physical health. The practice caught on, and was soon followed by a flurry of scientific studies to measure the health values of spending time in nature, aside from the obvious benefits of exercise and fitness. Shinrin-Yoku is decidedly not about working up a sweat. It is, at its core, all about soaking up the peculiarly therapeutic effects of trees, plants, and other arboreal living organisms, which some studies have connected to reductions in levels of stress, diabetes, mental fatigue, and a host of other health related problems.

So what, exactly, is Forest Bathing?

“A Forest Bathing practice begins with simply walking through the woods,” says Stusser. “Trees are living beings, and they have a level of wisdom to impart when we are open to hearing it. That’s part of the story. The other part is about slowing down, calming our minds, giving up the internal dialogue we’ve always got running, and simply empty our minds and listen to the organisms of the forest.”

Humans have always known that meaning can be found in nature, of course, and that good things can happen when we go out into the woods to cleanse our minds of the clutter and noise and stress of modern life. What Shinrin-Yoku does is turn walking in nature into a kind of therapeutic or spiritual practice.

“It’s not like hiking, or going out to identify plants or have a talk with a friend,” says Stusser. “Those are good things to do, but the difference is that with Shinrin Yoku, you make a conscious effort to slow down, to become aware of your breath, to make a connection, internally, with all the senses.”

In other words, Shinrin-Yoku is the practice of allowing nature to wash over us, and leave us free of those things that are harming and distracting us. To Stusser, it’s much more than just a way to stay healthy. Forest Bathing, he suggests, may also be a way to save the world.

“I do. I think it’s important for the survival of civilization to reconnect with nature,” says Stusser. “It think that if we’re going to save our species from extinction, a reconnection with nature is not just useful and healing and calming. It’s absolutely necessary.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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