Restless minds and tensed bodies are common experiences in the modern, fast-paced world. How can we slow down in the midst of the never-ending chaos? Try Forest Therapy.
Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which literally translates to forest bathing. The practice was introduced as a public health measure in the 1980s in recognition of the excessive levels of stress being experienced by the very hardworking Japanese population.
Biological and survey data collected before and after Shinrin-yoku sessions started to reveal health benefits for participants. More thorough scientific studies conducted since the 1990s have confirmed some significant health benefits of the practice, including:
Reduced stress hormones
Lower blood pressure and increased heart-rate variability
Strengthened immune system
In light of these health benefits, the practice of Shinrin-yoku is gradually being introduced in other parts of the world. In the western world, we are more likely to know it by the name of Forest Therapy.
The International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance (INFTA) defines Forest Therapy as:
“a research-based public health practice of guided immersion in forests with the aim of promoting mental and physical health whilst relaxing and enjoying the forest”.
In other words, it's a guided practice that is backed up by science. Its purpose is to promote our mental and physical wellbeing through immersion in natural environments.
I personally became interested in Forest Therapy after reading Dr Qing Li’s book, Shinrin-Yoku, which explores the science surrounding the practice. So when the opportunity arose to experience Forest Therapy for myself at Cranbourne Gardens, I had to give it a try.
It was a two-hour session that geographically covered only a small part of the Gardens. We were guided throughout as we consciously felt the warmth of the sun on our skin, observed the different shapes and textures of leaves and rocks, connected with a single tree, watched and listened to flowing water, and even felt ground beneath us as we walked. Phones were off or on “Do not disturb” mode for the 2 hours (no one seemed to be eager to check our phones after the session), and we were encouraged to be quiet for most of the practice.
At the end of the session, I felt super relaxed — I don’t think I’ve ever felt my mind as quiet as after my Forest Therapy session. I would really encourage everyone to try it for themselves, especially if you find yourself wrestling with a restless mind.
For this post, I chat to Marisa and Virginia — the two friendly INFTA certified guides who ran the Forest Therapy session at Cranbourne Gardens. I’ll let the experts explain the science, process and wisdom behind Forest Therapy.
When did you first experience Forest Therapy for yourselves and what led you to it?
Marisa: My first Forest Therapy experience was during my training back in November 2018. I was lucky enough to live in Warburton where the training retreat was being held. I discovered Forest Therapy through the INFTA website; As I was reading about it, I knew that it was something I had to get involved in. I practice holistic healing working with energies, essential oils and flower essences. I understand the healing that nature brings to us all and the thought of taking someone out in nature and allowing the process to just unfold was very appealing to me.
Virginia: I have experienced a form of Forest Therapy throughout my life when I have visited the Australian bush. In Forest Therapy one of the practices is “Sit Spot” where we sit quietly connecting to nature for a period of time. I practise “Sit Spot” often when walking in the bush. Focusing on the sounds around us in nature is another practice in Forest Therapy that I practise when in the bush. I have always known that being in the bush is very beneficial for my health but it wasn’t until I studied Forest Therapy that I learnt the Science behind the gift of the trees.
I found one of the striking things about Forest Therapy to be its really slow pace. We’re frequently encouraged to exercise and get our heart rates up, so why does Forest Therapy demand the opposite?
Marisa: Forest Therapy is a process of slowing down the physical and mental processes which our daily life demands from us. Slowing down allows the body to find its natural state of homeostasis and this is where we operate at our optimum. Returning to our natural state allows the body to heal and rejuvenate, and allows the mind to centre. This state of being allows us to be more creative, and more efficient in our work and home. It reduces our blood pressure and cortisol levels. High intensity exercise increases our cortisol levels — this is not a bad thing, but often our demanding lifestyles do not allow us to step out of this fight and flight response. If this response is constantly running, we could experience stress-related health issues.
Virginia: The purpose of Forest Therapy is not for physical exercise or training, but to provide the opportunity to slow down. When we slow down, we are in a more conducive place to use our five senses. We have more opportunities to notice things, to hear things, to be drawn to touch things. Slowing down physically allows us to potentially slow down mentally and relax.
Some people wonder about how Forest Therapy is different to bush walking. How are these two activities different?
Marisa: Bushwalking is a great activity and I encourage anything that takes you outside because it is good for your wellbeing. The difference is Forest Therapy is presented by a guide who walks you through several specific exercises that are designed to slow down the mind and body whilst awakening the five senses. A Forest Therapy course is generally a few kilometres in distance, whereas bushwalking can cover great distance and sometimes be physically challenging.
I live in Warburton so being in a bush environment is second nature to me. I regularly visit the Redwood Forest and believed I knew the forest well. When I was first taken to the Redwoods for a Forest Therapy session, I was completely amazed by how little my connection to this forest was. I would walk in out of the forest in 30 minutes thinking I had done myself a service — how wrong was I. This Forest Therapy session gave me the gift of connection through slowing down and being invited to really explore my surroundings through specific techniques. It was such a gift.
Virginia: Forest Therapy Walks and Bush Walking in the traditional sense are quite different. Although, for me, Bush Walking provides opportunities to practice Forest Therapy. Bush Walking is usually a walk in nature over a longer period of time often carrying a heavy pack and sleeping out. Bush Walking requires a certain level of fitness whereas Forest Therapy Walks can be tailored to suit almost any ability or mobility and are usually two or three hours in duration. During a Forest Therapy Walk partakers are invited by a trained guide to participate in a variety of activities that promote slowing down and engaging the five senses. There are core activities conducted on every Forest Therapy Walk, but also a variety of activities that are chosen to take advantage of what the forest has to offer at particular times of the year.
I did observe a lot of things during the two-hour Forest Therapy session that I hadn’t taken notice of in my numerous visits to the Cranbourne Gardens before. Is mindfulness incorporated within the practice of Forest Therapy?
Marisa: We like to relate to the practice of Forest Therapy as slowing down the body and mind. Although it is like mindfulness, we like to focus on awakening the senses through different activities which assist in engaging with your surroundings on a deeper level. For example, when we invite you to awaken your sense of smell, you are encouraged to rub the leaves of the plants to release their scent, we encourage you to smell the flowers, the bark the air and the earth. Often our feedback from people is how amazed they were by the process of awakening the senses and how it reconnects them to nature.
Virginia: When I checked the definition of mindfulness, I came across several variants. One definition of “moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, feeling, bodily sensations and surrounding environment” does not fit with the Forest Therapy Walk session. But another definition of mindfulness, being “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”, does fit in with our practice of Forest Therapy. During Tuning the Senses activity, the guide provides opportunities to heighten awareness of the five senses, and then provides a variety of activities throughout the walk that focus usually on individual senses.
I’ve always loved trees, but I was surprised at how relaxed and comforted I felt after spending a few quiet minutes with a single tree. What happens when we sit or stand in the presence of a tree?
Marisa: Meet a tree is one my favourite practices, and I love how easily everyone from different backgrounds, ages and beliefs just fall into this practice. It’s as if the minute someone is given an invitation to meet a tree, they let go off all resistance.
This is my personal experience; we cannot project what happens for others as it is different for everyone. When I practice meet a tree, I feel a great sense of peace within. I feel very grounded; it’s as if the tree begins to hold space for me so I can relax and just be. Each tree gives me a different experience. Interestingly, my internal process seems to guide me to a particular tree which seems to give me what I need at that time.
Virginia: As Marisa stated, it is amazing how relaxed people are when participating in Meet A Tree. Even before we have completed the Introduction, people are draping themselves, leaning on or hugging a tree. Why is it we feel awe and wonder when we stand amongst the trees? Is it the structure, the colour, the presence of fragrance, the life it provides to other creatures, the pharmacy of chemicals provided or the fact that it provides the oxygen we breathe?
There’s so much research now about the health benefits of nature and of Forest Therapy. Do you foresee Forest Therapy being incorporated in the delivery of our physical and mental health care?
Marisa: Oh, most definitely. Forest Therapy is a research-based therapy with proven health benefits. Studies have discovered a natural substance called phytoncides which is released from the leaves of the trees. These phytoncides play an important role in Forest Therapy, as they have shown to be antifungal, antibacterial, microbial, and antiviral. This research has been the catalyst in countries such as Japan, China, New Zealand, Scotland and Germany, with more emerging, to introduce designated Forest Therapy trails and centres throughout their country. It is so well acknowledged for its health benefits that it is actually prescribed to patients who are presenting stress-related health problems by their local doctor.
Virginia: I see Forest Therapy being incorporated in the delivery of our physical and mental health wellbeing in a variety of settings: in education, in particular preschools, kindergartens and outdoor education camps. In Aged Care, where many clients may not venture outside, modified Forest Therapy “walks” in a garden would be beneficial. Locally, I have guided a Forest Therapy Walk with a group of adults who had physical and/or intellectual challenges. With a little modification of the walk, everyone participated in the suggested activities; several took a little time but joined in after they observed their fellow colleagues participating. Forest Therapy is a very gentle practice that ongoing research reveals has great health benefits.
Is it necessary to go to a forest to engage in Forest Therapy?
Marisa: Forest Therapy can be practiced in any green space, a garden or green reserve; it can also be practiced at the beach. And some instances, Forest Therapy can be practiced on a virtual platform. The benefits of slowing down the body and mind are very present in these platforms, although some are missing the important phytoncides. Although its not necessary, it is such a treat to be guided by a trained professional as it really allows you to completely let go of time, thought and excessive movement.
Virginia: Marisa has answered this comprehensively. The only small comment I could add is that research reveals that even sitting looking at a picture or painting of nature has health benefits.
How often should we be experiencing Forest Therapy?
Marisa: The benefits of a 2-3 hour Forest Therapy session last up to 4 weeks, so ideally it would be beneficial to attend a session once a month. You are welcome to participate as many times as you like and we also encourage you to take some of the practices you learn home to practice in your garden or during your regular walks.
Is Forest Therapy easily accessible in Melbourne?
Marisa and Virginia: Forest Therapy is very accessible. Both of us practice in our local areas.
Marisa runs Forest Therapy sessions in Warburton. You can book a session with her at www.foresttherapywalksaustralia.com.
Virginia runs Forest Therapy sessions in the Gippsland area. To book, call Virginia on 0428 541 596 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find out more about Forest Therapy in Australia through the International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance website.