Forest Wellness - Basking in the Environment
by Bill Rozday
I walked through the trees, at the crest of the last wild country in Pennsylvania, and came to the sound of running water, a muted sound far over the side of the crest and deep within the trunks. It sounded like a product of the watershed structure itself; in its faintness, as though originating above the earth in the tree branches or below the earth within rock.
The Japanese refer to my sensuous walk as Shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing," a basking in the environment of the forest: recent studies point to its significant psychological and physical benefits. It is poised to become the “next big thing” in nature-centered health practices.
From the Source
I spoke with Amos Clifford, foremost authority on Shinrin-yoku in America, in order to focus on its background and benefits and to gain an understanding of what goes on during these popular sessions. Forest basking is unusual in that it follows no prescribed format and draws a response that is highly individualized, as if asserting that the forest was created for each particular person.
The formalized existence of Shinrin-yoku dates to 1982, when the Forest Agency of Japan proposed it as an official movement. That country now maintains 48 “forest therapy bases” and the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine oversees much of the research in the field.
Shinrin-yoku derives from Zen Buddhism, and Amos Clifford learned the practice from mentors of Japanese lineage in California, where he now conducts walks near Sonoma, CA. The careful mentoring process he underwent taught him the necessity of a guided experience. As he explains, "A person could try to learn this herself but would only create obstacles that slow the process. One 30-40-minute guided session is worth 10 done alone."
Clifford’s Shinrin-yoku walks are planned on terrain with 60 to 70 percent forest cover, level ground, a water source and a restroom. He considers these elements essential for a comfortable interaction with nature.
His sessions could be described as casual foraging expeditions. Participants take several hours to cover a mere mile or two and share little objects they discover with each other, so that they open up to both nature and people. Clifford slows their pace when he notices the hurry that carries over from contemporary living.
Clifford draws a distinction between Shinrin-yoku and interpretive nature walks, which identify plants and animals by name. “When we name something, we tend to think we know it when we really don’t,” he says. He prescribes a simpler, child-like approach of discovery.
The trigger that releases stress on these walks varies, and invites diverse behaviors such as quiet contemplation and simply sitting on the ground, Clifford explains. There is a loose objective of brewing tea from herbs such as elderberry or from fir needles, but plenty of time to savor the fragrant oils from the plants while gathering them.
I asked Amos what particular stressor was most commonly cured by these sessions. “It’s the constant presence of media, I would say—emails, Internet, all of it. Just several hours away from it is beneficial.”
His clientele consists chiefly of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s drawn to the feminine quality of nature. As they escape their stress, “there are tears,” he says.
Studies point to the presence of numerous chemicals called phytoncides—120 of them in one study area—infusing forest atmosphere. These chemicals reduce blood pressure and blood sugar. Further, they enhance the immune system by activating white blood cells. Beyond such well-documented physical benefits, Clifford sees a new frontier of psychological study. “We know these physical reactions, but what about the connection of the mind to health?” he queries.
At Sharon Riegner’s Beauty Wellness Salon in Stowe, near Pottstown, PA, Sharon offers the healing benefits of Shinrin-yoku to mobility-challenged attendees of her workshops. She imports the walk to her living room by gathering the source materials of essential oils and giving her clients the chance to touch and smell them.
Riegner, who plans her next workshop in the spring of 2015, provides convincing proof of the healing power of essential oils found in the atmosphere. She has her attendees wear a pulse oximeter, a medical device that fits over a finger, and has them breathe the scents of these oils. She documents the increase in oxygen levels from the aroma of lavender, for example.
Amos Clifford’s organization intends to train 1,000 mentors within the next two years to disperse this forest wisdom across America. He stresses that the practice works as well beside a freeway as in the wilderness, so there is much Shinrin-yoku in the future. It’s a marriage of intuition and science that gives promise to us all.
Bill Rozday writes frequently about man-earth relations.
Amos Clifford - www.Shinrin-Yoku.org
Sharon Riegner - www.SharonRiegner.com
Last Child in the Woods, By Richard Louv
$14.95, Algonquin Books
Cutting edge studies point to direct exposure to nature as essential for a hcild’s healthy physical and emotional development. This new edition updates the growing body of evidence linking the lack of nature in children’s lives and the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression.
The Nature Principle, By Richard Louv
$14.95, Algonquin Books
The time has come for us all to reenvision a future that puts aside scenarios of environmental and social apocalypse and instead taps into the restorative powers of the natural world. Louv shows how nature can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; help us build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities and economies; and strengthen human bonds.