Research shows therapeutic benefits of spending time immersed in nature
By Francesca Krempa
Chantelle Kite and her son Sage arrive at the hike barefoot. Her daughter Sophia, a stoic 9-yearold, stands at her side wearing boots, occasionally tugging at her mom’s hand as their guide describes the plans for the trip. Chantelle and Sage, 14, listen patiently, feet naked against the warm pavement as they wait to begin. All three of them know the drill. It’s their fourth or fifth “forest bathing” excursion with Adirondack Riverwalking.
“It’s just reframed our entire experience,” Chantelle explains when the group finally heads off into the woods at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretative Center, known to locals as the VIC. “We don’t do a formal circle or anything, but (forest bathing) is something we can do on our own, too. My kids and I spend hours outside.”
Since 2016, the Kite family and others eager for a dose of Mother Nature have gathered in the shady forests around the Tri-Lakes area for guided forest bathing sessions: immersive sensory journeys into nature and mindfulness. While it’s often mistaken as a walk in the woods, forest bathing is more deliberate. The practice originated in Japan during the 1980s as a way to get city dwellers outside, away from their busy, metropolitan lifestyles. Since then, it has been practiced and studied around the world for its healing benefits on the mind and body. A growing collection of science, published in peer-reviewed journals, suggests there are real stress-reduction and other benefits.
Today, Chantelle and her children are embarking on an intimate forest bathing session with Adirondack Riverwalking, a local guiding company. Co-founded by Helene Gibbens and Suzanne Weirich, Adirondack Riverwalking’s forest walks are designed to provide an outlet to the outdoors—a way to unplug and inspire connectivity to the earth, while stimulating all five senses with its flora and fauna.
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Check out a gallery of forest bathing photos by Explorer multimedia reporter Mike Lynch. (Shown here, guide Helene Gibbons.) SEE MORE
Heightening the senses
Gibbens leads a small group—Chantelle, her two children, and another woman—on a 2.5-hour excursion. Each session consists of group sensory activities as well as individual “invitations,” or solo mindfulness activities aimed to consciously connect the mind and body with the environment. These vary from trip to trip but include exercises like studying a tree for 15 minutes, or introspecting on the sights, sounds and textures of the woods. This is Adirondack Riverwalking’s first and only public session of the summer. Due to the novel coronavirus, Gibbens and her partner have agreed to only offer private trips for individuals and families who know each other. While shoes are optional, masks are not, and everyone is required to maintain social distancing etiquette during the trip.
After a brisk walk along a groomed trail, Gibbens corrals the group in front of a marsh to start the experience. Everyone stands 6 feet apart and turns to face their guide who suggests they close their eyes and breathe deeply, focusing on the lengths and depths of each inhalation. “We’re going to begin by opening up, or heightening, our senses,” she instructs, before leading them through a series of sensory warm-ups: turning the palms outwards to feel the breeze, opening the nose and lips to engage taste and smell, exaggerating the sound of the breath to actually hear it. The point is to be here, in the moment, away from distractions and one with nature.
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Then, she invites each person to share what they notice via “a circle”—a group feedback session facilitated by the passing of a “sharing piece,” (in this case, a twig Gibbens found on the forest floor.) One by one, each guest describes their most memorable sense, before separating for the first of several solo invitations.
“It’s about the intent. It’s not rigid, it’s not prescriptive,” Gibbens explains. “We invite
that there’s always a space for each person to adapt any particular sensory activity to what
feels right in the moment.”
More than a trend
While its quickening popularity throughout Western culture has given it the appearance of another trendy wellness fad, forest bathing is rooted in science.
The practice originated in the 1980s when the Japanese government began to notice the stress that city life was causing residents. In 1982, shinrin yoku—which directly translates to “forest bathing”—was officially introduced to the country’s national health program as a way to connect people to nature. Since then, the medical community has explored the impact forest bathing has on the brain and body, and the results are largely positive.
In a 2019 review published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, researchers found that forest therapy increased feelings of relaxation while minimizing feelings of tension and anxiety.
In their new book, “Forest Bathing: The Rejuvenating Practice of Shinrin Yoku,” co-authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles describe how phytoncides—airborne chemicals emitted from plants—affected human health. During forest bathing sessions, scientists observed that breathing in these substances from the trees greatly reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol while also improving other vital physiological functions, like heart rate variability and blood pressure. Even natural killer cells, which help fend off viruses and cancer, increased after study participants spent time in the forests.
“In Japan, shinrin yoku has been classified as a preventative therapy, to help protect against illnesses, as well as reinforcement from operations or disease,” write Garcia and Miralles. “Scientists now have irrevocable proof that trees are medicine, something different traditions had instinctively known for millennia.” Reduced stress and psychological well-being continue to be the biggest benefits a walk through the woods can offer. In a 2019 review published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, researchers found that forest therapy increased feelings of relaxation while minimizing feelings of tension and anxiety. Another recent study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine by Japanese researchers suggested day-long sessions of shinrin yoku could be used to improve the moods of people who struggled with depression.
Meredith Berry, an experimental psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Florida, says nature exposure generally reduces anxiety while increasing happiness and attention. “Taken together, spending time in nature, like green spaces, has a host of benefits for our cognitive, physiological and biological systems,” she says. “The additional focus on mindfulness may enhance the therapeutic benefits of this practice and nature (or) forest exposure, although more research is needed in this area.”
For Gibbens and Weirich, this nexus of nature and wellness has always been a priority.
Both are certified yoga instructors who had been exploring ways to bring yoga outside
in their home base of Saranac Lake. Originally, the pair had developed a mindful
river walking experience where people could savor the serenity of the Ausable River.
A year after they launched their in-river offering, they expanded their therapeutic nature
excursions onto land, certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.
Reduced stress and psychological well-being continue to be the biggest benefits a walk through the woods can offer.Click to tweet this
Gibbens recognizes that for most people, forest bathing doesn’t have the most serious
reputation. “The name creates misconceptions and discredits the practice, I think,” she says. “People don’t take it as seriously. They have it in their minds there’s going to be a bathtub
in the woods.” But she reiterates it is a serious practice— one that, when incorporated into one’s standard wellness regime just like yoga or healthful eating, elevates the benefits. Gibbens and Weirich encourage others, like the Kite family, to weave nature’s embrace into their daily routine.
“We give them little tools to take it home in easy ways. And it’s not difficult, you know— you can take 20 minutes and sit in the spot in your garden, and heighten up your senses, and therefore reap the benefits again,” she says.
In between invitations, Chantelle starts chatting with the fourth guest, Joan Collins, about the pandemic. Collins, a local birding guide who hopes to become a certified forest bathing therapist herself, explains that for all the tragedy coronavirus has caused, people are reconnecting with nature. She has been booked on back-to-back trips all summer as birding interest has spiked.
“Well if the quarantine is making people realize how much they need to be outdoors,” Chantelle says, “that’s like another silver lining, right?” The guides at Adirondack Riverwalking have found that the silver lining persists. Email and website contacts are up by about a quarter for the time of year, Gibbens says. For months, Americans were cooped up with nowhere to go. In some areas, like the Adirondacks, social distancing could still be achieved by going outside. In others, like New York City, even that was too risky. This drive to be outside could also stem directly from the therapeutic aspect nature offers. Megan Delaney, a professional counselor based in Middletown, New Jersey, knows nature is a powerful healer. As an ecotherapist, she uses it as the backbone of her service, Therapy Without Walls.
Unlike traditional therapists, Delaney’s sessions are held outside in a nearby park, where she and her clients walk and talk outdoors. While her offerings have always been popular, she says she has seen an uptick in people seeking therapy outside. This could be because an office isn’t conducive to social distancing guidelines, but people likely are feeling the stress of the virus.
“In the beginning, people were feeling so isolated,” Delaney says. A lot of her clients’ stress came from not being allowed to access nature, the free commodity they had taken for granted. “I know people freaked out about stores being closed, restaurants being closed, things like that, but people called me crying that they couldn’t go to the parks,” she says. “I think that was a real indicator of how people were using nature.”
“People are craving this human connection and are wanting nature. When I ask my clients, ‘What is it, why are you drawn to this?’ they’re like, ‘I just feel so much better when I’m out in nature.’ And there’s research that proves that.”— Christian Dymond, an ecotherapist in Milton, Vermont
Christian Dymond, an ecotherapist in Milton, Vermont, echoes Delaney’s sentiments. Dymond, who specializes in family and marriage therapy, takes his clients for walks on his 10-acre farm, where they’ll pause to dip their feet in a cool creek or hunt for wild mushrooms. He agrees that fear and uncertainty of the virus are all the more reason to get outside, particularly in a setting like forest bathing.
“People are craving this human connection and are wanting nature,” he says. “When I ask my clients, ‘What is it, why are you drawn to this?’ they’re like, ‘I just feel so much better when I’m out in nature.’ And there’s research that proves that.” This may be why Adirondack Riverwalking has seen a surge of interest in spite of the pandemic, Gibbens suggests.
“For many, many people, they tell us that they feel just a sense of belonging and a sense of place that they didn’t before,” she says.
The session concludes in front of the marsh where the group had performed their initial sharing circle. Here, Gibbens sets a ceramic teapot, stemless jade cups, and a Hydroflask on the forest floor before inviting everyone to sit around it. She has brewed a pot of wild tea—an earthy mixture of balsam and cedar needles that tastes like Christmas.
“While the tea continues to steep, let’s do one last circle,” she suggests. “And my question to you for this last circle is, ‘What stays with you from your experience of forest bathing this afternoon?’”
Sophia starts by picking up the talking piece from the center of circle. This time, it’s a bushy
evergreen sprig. “What stayed with me and will probably stay with me until my next forest bathing session was the little inchworm I saw,” the child says. Together, the group reflects on their time in the woods, their connection with the planet, and with each other. Like Sophia, some have specific memories from the trails: a woolly caterpillar, the babbling of the brook, the piney taste of tree sap.
‘Gift from the trees’
Others are more contemplative.
“On my sit, I was watching all the hikers racing through and I heard some people say, ‘Isn’t this a great trail?,’ and they were just practically running,” Collins says, laughing. “It’s nice to just kind of focus and just to slow down.”
“I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the time to be in the forest and be still,” says Chantelle, who is still barefoot. Gibbens and the group believe it’s a way to achieve presence and connectivity with the earth. And now, in a period of great uncertainty and flux, it’s a way to exhale and find peace—even if it’s only for a few hours in the Adirondack woods. “Every breath we take in,” Gibbens says, “it’s like a gift from the trees.”