The Woodland Cure

Why a good walk may just be the answer to all that ails you

 
The Woodland Cure

Photography by Finn Beales

For a city person, the pace of life out here can take some getting used to. I’ve come several states to explore the tangle of trails at Blackberry Farm resort, which abuts Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and minutes into my first trek I nearly rear-end my guide, Hope Parks, who has paused to study a neon-striped millipede. We stand and sniff the wintergreen scent of a teaberry leaf and listen to the song of cicadas that fills the air on this cool summer morning. 

This is how it goes on a walk with Parks, who grew up around here and can barely take a couple of steps without stopping to point out a sourwood tree or wild yams, or the twin dots on a partridge berry (hence the colloquial name “snake eyes”).  “When I was a girl, I thought it was strange that my gramma had to name every plant that we walked by,” she says. “Now, I’m that woman.”

The journey we’re on this morning is referred to as “forest bathing,” meaning a slow, watchful walk whose benefits are said to range from clarity of mind to lowered blood pressure. “It’s an active form of meditation,” says Parks, a way to “focus on our senses and how nature awakens them.”

Forest bathing derives from the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” This is not as straightforward as it sounds. More and more, forest bathing relies on scientific research for legitimacy, to elevate it above a mere walk in the woods.

Ben Page, founder of the forest bathing organization Shinrin Yoku in Los Angeles, is one of the practice’s more fervent believers, and not only because of its perceived health benefits. “When people come to realize that the forest can improve their immunological functions and their psychological wellbeing,” he says, “that appreciation will lead to a better relationship between humans and the natural world, which is something we need as we move into the 21st century and beyond.” 

A CURE FOR WHAT AILS

Forest bathing emerged as a health regimen in the early 1980s, when the Forest Agency of Japan began promoting shinrin-yoku as an activity whose benefits extend beyond exercise. The idea is that phytoncides, antimicrobial oils emitted by trees, stimulate natural killer cells, thus bolstering the immune system. One study found that the stress hormone cortisol dropped significantly after a walk in the forest, while blood pressure and pulse rates also fell. Today, 25 percent of the Japanese population participates in forest bathing, and the country has about 100 designated trails.

“It’s a practice that doesn’t require a lot of exercise and is highly accessible,” says Amos Clifford, a psychotherapist and former wilderness guide who founded the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs in 2012. “Because of efforts to integrate it into the healthcare system in Japan, the thing that inspired me was the possibility of creating new types of partnerships.”

The hope among proponents of forest bathing is that doctors might one day order up a stroll among trees, in the way they write a prescription for other forms of treatment — within reason.

“I’d never say, ‘You don’t need those blood pressure meds, you need a walk in the woods every day.’ That’s ridiculous,” says Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, an ob-gyn who oversees integrative medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “But on the other hand, a whole approach that encompasses nutrition, exercise, stress relief, looking at the mind-body connection and incorporating nature is, I think, realistic. The beautiful thing about forest bathing is it kills a few different birds with one stone. We’re getting all the benefits of phytoncides and cancer-fighting properties, and the benefits of mood and increased cognition, and then also the practice of mindfulness.”

To understand forest bathing, you must understand mindfulness, or focusing on the present moment, usually during meditation but also via other means, such as self-discipline (for example, practitioners might point out that a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a stressful day is mindless, rather than mindful). A 2015 review by researchers from Harvard University, among others, surveyed 187 scientific studies and confirmed that mindfulness-based practices significantly reduced depression, stress and anxiety, and improved quality of life.

“Forest bathing is really mindfulness meets nature. It’s not a walk to get the miles in for exercise. It’s a walk to see with new eyes,” says Nina Smiley, who leads walks on her family’s 1,200-acre forested property, Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley. “The most amazing things start to happen as you’re breathing slowly and gently, and noticing things: the bark of a tree, the color of the leaves, the pattern of light and shadow on the trail. We like to say it’s an outdoor experience that creates inner space.”

SEEING THE FOREST AND THE TREES

Considering the veneration of nature in ancient Shinto practices to the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection, one could argue that Japanese culture has a more instinctive affinity for shinrin-yoku. But American proponents are no less enthusiastic, and are driving a rapid growth in the practice. “Our number-one strategy is to develop a network of trained, certified, competent guides,” says Clifford.  “Another strategy is places, and spas are early adopters in integrating forest therapy into their programs.”

A handful of resorts, from Blackberry Farm in Tennessee to Six Senses Douro Valley in Portugal, now offer forest therapy. At L’Auberge de Sedona in Arizona, a certified forest therapist leads guests on a one-hour excursion along a creek that runs through the property. “It’s a guided meditation with a focus on sensory awareness,” says Catherine Powers, spa director at the resort. “Some meditation is about not paying attention to anything around you, but this is about paying attention to the environment.”



As with yoga, forest bathers can opt for a DIY approach. But certified guides come with benefits: They ensure the experience is consistent, for instance, and are adept at helping walkers to focus on their senses as well as the sights and sounds and smells that stimulate them. “Using a metaphor of food as medicine, it is the food that is healthy, but a chef — in this metaphor, the guide — can craft the food into an experience that makes accessing the food simple and pleasurable,” says Page.

Not any forest will do. Dense forests can be too gloomy, and the best areas have very specific features. They should be easy to reach, but also peaceful, so walkers can hear the chirp of the crickets and the crunch of leaves underfoot. They should have an easy grade, a shallow stream, an adjacent meadow and generally be safe, which rules out mountain climbs and cliff walks.

There’s also a social aspect to forest bathing that distinguishes it from other forms of meditation.

At L’Auberge de Sedona, guests freely share observations during forest bathing sessions and commonly make friends. “Social connectedness with people extends to a social connection with the forest, feeling a greater degree of relatedness to plants, animals, birds, steams and stones,” says Clifford.

Ultimately, the most meaningful communion will be with the forests themselves, and this may ultimately prove to be the most profound benefit of the forest bathing movement. 

As Jacques Cousteau once put it: “People protect what they love.” Love requires intimacy, yet today, around 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas and, according to the National Recreation and Park Association, just 12 percent of adults spend time outdoors daily. 

“I’m trying to help people connect the dots at a time when it’s absolutely essential for our species and many other species,” says Clifford. “The whole idea behind forest bathing is nothing more than a conservation strategy.”
 

Into the Green

Get into the heart of the forest at one of these resorts and spas

Blackberry Farm
Near Knoxville, Tennessee, Blackberry Farm runs its Deep Healing Woods program, which includes trail running, endurance hikes, outdoor yoga and outdoor meditation, out of its Wellhouse spa. blackberryfarm.com

L’Auberge de Sedona
L’Auberge de Sedona in Arizona’s Red Rock Canyon country employs certified forest bathing facilitators who guide complimentary excursions among the sycamores banking Oak Creek. lauberge.com

Mohonk Mountain House
At the 1869-vintage Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley, Nina Smiley offers “mindfulness in motion” outdoor walks on a private basis, while other guides offer hikes. mohonk.com

Trout Point Lodge
Trout Point Lodge in southwest Nova Scotia neighbors the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, and two rivers, the Tusket and Napier. From mid-May to mid-October, the lodge offers guided forest bathing. troutpoint.com