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

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HEALTH & FITNESS INNOVATORS

This feature story is the final installment of the Argus-Courier’s four-part series on individuals and organizations in our community who are using creativity and invention to utilize older health, nutrition, and fitness practices in bold new ways.

Want to try Forest Bathing yourself?

Here are just a few excellent locations, within driving distance of downtown Petaluma, that are perfectly suited to Forest Bathing

Helen Putnam Regional Park (411 Chileno Valley Rd., Petaluma) – Though much of this park’s 211 acres is open trail, there are a number of moderately wooded areas, mostly near the top of hills, that are perfect for forest bathing. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 5.5 miles.

Olompali State Historical Park (8901 Redwood Hwy., Novato) – 700 acres of heavily wooded trails with views of the Petaluma River from some of its highest locations. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 10.3 miles

Jack London State Park (2400 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen) – Many wooded trails wind through the rural former home of the late writer, who did his own version of Forest Bathing in this very place. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 19.5 miles

Spring Lake Regional Park (5585 Newanga Ave., Santa Rosa) – Plenty of trees here to bond with, and wander among. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 17.4 miles

Armstrong Woods (17020 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville) – 805 acres of Coast Redwoods, with some heavily traveled trails, and a number of more remote paths designed by nature for solitude, silence and Shinrin Yoku. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 35.5 miles

Walking in nature is 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 inspiring, mentally and emotionally healing power of spending time in the presence of nature. What is new about Shinrin-Yoku – the Japanese practice of meditating and rejuvenating 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. 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-Yokum training program to become 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 the 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.”

HEALTH & FITNESS INNOVATORS

This feature story is the final installment of the Argus-Courier’s four-part series on individuals and organizations in our community who are using creativity and invention to utilize older health, nutrition, and fitness practices in bold new ways.

Want to try Forest Bathing yourself?

Here are just a few excellent locations, within driving distance of downtown Petaluma, that are perfectly suited to Forest Bathing

Helen Putnam Regional Park (411 Chileno Valley Rd., Petaluma) – Though much of this park’s 211 acres is open trail, there are a number of moderately wooded areas, mostly near the top of hills, that are perfect for forest bathing. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 5.5 miles.

Olompali State Historical Park (8901 Redwood Hwy., Novato) – 700 acres of heavily wooded trails with views of the Petaluma River from some of its highest locations. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 10.3 miles

Jack London State Park (2400 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen) – Many wooded trails wind through the rural former home of the late writer, who did his own version of Forest Bathing in this very place. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 19.5 miles

Spring Lake Regional Park (5585 Newanga Ave., Santa Rosa) – Plenty of trees here to bond with, and wander among. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 17.4 miles

Armstrong Woods (17020 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville) – 805 acres of Coast Redwoods, with some heavily traveled trails, and a number of more remote paths designed by nature for solitude, silence and Shinrin Yoku. Distance from downtown Petaluma: 35.5 miles

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)