Humans love their crazes! Since our creativity and imagination know no limits, there are always food, dance, fashion and health crazes popping up every day. No matter where you look in the news, there is a new ‘craze’ happening.
Here’s where I draw the line. I draw the line at reading about the newest health craze called Forest Therapy. Forest Therapy isn’t one of those crazes and, calling it such, makes me, well, a bit crazy. You see, I’m a certified Forest Therapy Guide and I believe Forest Therapy is here to stay.
Let’s define a craze. A craze is a “short-lived” trend, or “a wild or exaggerated enthusiasm for”. A craze is deep-fried watermelon and lava lamps; it’s push-pops and ring pops; it’s boy bands, revealing your bra-color-of-the-day and swallowing goldfish; it’s pet rocks and hula hoops … well, maybe not hula hoops. They seem to be here to stay, too. Dashboard hula girls, then … now that was a craze.
Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy, although identified by some as the latest health craze, is, in fact, not a craze at all.
When it comes to Forest Bathing, Forest Therapy, or Shinrin Yoku, nothing summed it up more than a recent article I read stating that Forest Therapy is “spurring an evolution in the understanding of links between personal, communal, and ecological wellbeing*.”
I can understand why some might call it a craze. It seems to have sprung up from nowhere. From that perspective, it’s hardly recognizable from deep-fried watermelon. Suddenly, everyone is talking about it, like an actor, who’s spent the last 25 years building his or her career, only to be called ‘an overnight success.’ Uh, no.
Knowing more about Forest Therapy helps to dispel the myth of ‘a craze’ or ‘overnight’ anything.
From Shinrin-Yoku.org, Shinrin-Yoku is a term that means "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing." It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. Now their research is helping to establish Shinrin-Yoku and forest therapy throughout the world.
John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” John Muir, born 1838, died 1924. Muir is one of many people who we must include when we think about the origins of the practice of Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy. I wonder what he’d think of us now, if he thought we were tired and nerve-shaken in the early 1900’s?
So, that establishes some history. What about the research being done to support the benefits of Forest Therapy?
While we know intuitively that we feel better when we are outside and around nature, in the past several decades, many scientific studies are corroborating this knowing we have about being in nature by studying the healing effects of wild and natural areas. For example, certain trees share their immune systems with us by emitting phytoncides, their essential oils. When you smell pine, for example, you’re receiving the benefits of those phytoncides. Phytoncides support our “NK” or natural killer cells; the cells that are key components of our immune systems and a way that our bodies fight cancer. Show me a craze that can do that.
And the list of benefits goes on. From the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs,
spending time in nature can:
Here’s what I’ve noticed as a certified Forest Therapy Guide:
· We are constantly seeking a deeper connection and community. Even though our technology connects us in ways we’ve never been connected before, I often hear people say that something is missing in their lives.
· We’re stressed; we’re in overwhelm; technology gives us the ability to take in more information about what’s going on in the world; that includes the good things as well as the disturbing things.
· Many long to connect with nature and are hesitant, even fearful, about taking a walk in the woods alone. I hear expressions of gratitude all the time for my Forest Therapy walks or even one-on-one coaching in nature.
· We often shut down our senses to move through the day with one outcome or goal in mind, our list of things to do. Opening our senses on a Forest Therapy walk reminds us to stay open to the journey even if we’ve got a ‘to do’ list.
· Slowing down and noticing what’s in motion when it isn’t us can create an awareness and appreciation of how much we miss when we are moving so quickly through our lives. Noticing all the worlds within worlds in the forest helps us notice worlds within worlds in our daily lives, too.
· Making Nature personal again; Nature was once very personal. In the words of philosopher Alan Watts:
"You didn't come into this world.
You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.
You are not a stranger here."
As a Forest Therapy Guide, my purpose is to make Nature personal again. When something is personal, we care more about it; we protect it. The only way Forest Therapy might be considered a craze is if we lose our forests, national parks and other natural resources; if we forget that we belong to each other and we let them slip away into extinction. The only way Forest Therapy will be called a craze is if there are no more forests in which to walk or national parks to learn about Earth’s history or wonder at the majesty of mountains or endless rivers flowing to a distant sea. You may not ever feel the loss of deep-fried watermelon or dancing the Electric Slide at a wedding – except those of you who might. You will certainly feel the loss of the forest. It will impact the air you breathe, the foods you eat, the material goods that progress gives us so we can live our 21st Century lives. Nature impacts everything. Tell me that Pet Rocks can do that, or your dashboard Hula dancer - come on, you know who you are.
Forest Therapy is “spurring an evolution in the understanding of links between personal, communal, and ecological wellbeing*.”
We are at the tipping point of remembering that we are connected to Nature. Let’s stay awake and reconnect. Our personal, communal and ecological wellbeing depends on it. Synchronously, so does the natural world. The next time you see or hear Forest Therapy called a craze, remember that, unlike deep-fried watermelon, lava lamps and push-pops, Forest Therapy is an evolution and it’s here to stay.
Certified Forest Therapy Guide
Yesterday, I led an invitation as part of a forest walk for the forest therapy guide intensive I’m attending this week. I chose to lead “holding hands”; spending 15 minutes holding the hand of a tree or shrub or fern … whatever felt safe and comfortable.
The invitation began:
“As Humans we crave connection and relationship. It’s something we have in common with the forest.” I found my reference material here: http://www.integrativescience.ca/Principles/TreesHoldingHands/
I chose the words of the late Mi’kmaw Spiritual Leader, Healer, and Chief Charles Labrador of Acadia First Nation, Nova Scotia, who said, “Go into the forest, you see the birch, maple, pine. Look underground and all those trees are holding hands. We as people have to do the same.”
Chief Labrador was talking about Humans creating better connection with Humans and at the same time, Humans are craving better connection and relationship with the more-than-Human world, too.
One of my colleagues had just noticed the tall Eastern Hemlocks surrounding us and asked for a blessing of these beautiful trees because they are being attacked by an insect that is not native to the region. In the 1950s, an insect called the adelgid made its way into the eastern U.S. from Asia. The insect first appeared in the Richmond, Virginia/Washington D.C. area. Since then an estimated 50 percent of hemlocks in 11 states have been infected. The tiny insect, about 1/16th of an inch long, is identified by the white woolly tufts it creates on the hemlock's needles. It is known as the hemlock woolly adelgid, or HWA. It brought tears to my eyes that these beautiful, powerful trees needed our blessings because they may not survive this blight. As Humans, maybe we know how they feel.
I invited those in our circle to wander and be drawn to a tree; to hold its hand and see what might want to be shared, asked, or said. I, too, was drawn to a tree; a tall hemlock with a branch within my reach. She grew at the edge of steep drop from which the roaring brook could be seen and heard below. I don’t like heights so I stayed on the upside of the tree; the tree acting like a wall between me and the drop.
I asked if I could hold her hand and sensed permission was granted. At first, I held her hand tightly, as if I needed her more than she needed me. After a time, I relaxed my hold, realizing she wasn’t going anywhere, you know?
At some point, I leaned into the tree, smelling its sweet piney scent, which is always my favorite scent, and stayed there for some time just letting the connection deepened. Without any warning, I began to tear up and felt a deep sadness. I was moved to step back from the tree, still holding hands and readjust my position to where I could see the drop-down-to-the-ravine side of the tree. There was another tree there, long dead, with a larger girth than my tree. I heard the words, “She is my sister” and it was clear to me that she wanted me to meet her and know her own sorrow at losing her. Their roots were so close, I tried to determine if they were the same tree, split early in life, like twins … it was difficult to know more than what I’d been given. I didn’t want to pry.
I moved back to a more comfortable spot; where the tree was between me and the ravine. With a looser grasp, we played together; the shoots of her needles were like fingers; dark green with a paler green at the tips of the leader shoots. A tiny spider appeared to sigh at the interruption of its daily routine and lowered itself on its silken thread to do other things while we played.
At the end of the invitation, I was the one to call the group back together, using my Native American flute as the signal. One of the participants said we are all like deer. We heard the flute, looked up and slowly walked towards the sound.
I ended my hand holding with the Eastern Hemlock with some words of gratitude; for trusting me with her sorrow and letting me share some of my own; for play time together and for the connection and relationship.
I wish everyone could have a moment with a tree. We need it and the trees have been waiting for it.
Once upon a time, Humans belonged to the sentient, more-than-Human world; to the forests and the trees; to those who walk on all fours; those who slither and those who fly. Then, somehow, we forgot that we belong.
Once upon a time, Humans belonged to each other; we saw our diversity as a gift and uniqueness as part of the greater whole. Yet, somehow, we forgot that, too.
Now, what's left for us? Believing we are each alone on this huge planet and in this vast Universe? That is a world filled with emptiness and grief; a hopeless world of fear and conflict; of walls and bombs?
Humans need a remembering; first, that we are connected inescapably to each other, and next, that we belong to the sentient, more-than-Human world. It does not belong to us.
Look around you. The remembering is here; in our every-day lives and the global systems. Will we remember, or will we continue to forget, like dementia ... memories disappearing, grasping for words of compassion; forgetting until all our systems shut down and we finally forget how to breathe?
Have you ever poured your cup of coffee and thought, “Well, there’s just a bit left in the pot, so let me pour the rest of it in my cup?”
You fill that cup to its very brim. It teeters a bit. Then, magically, it holds. Of course, now you’ve got to pick it up and walk with it and that’s another story altogether, isn’t it?
It’s a lot like life. We’re all carrying around these cups that are filled to the brim. How do you walk around with that? Do you stare at it and walk very, very slowly? Do you look away (as many You Tube videos suggest) and just walk normally, knowing it’ll find its own level and so will you? Either way, you probably leave a trail of coffee along the way; something you have to clean up before you get to drink that coffee, which will probably be cold by the time you get to drink it.
How is it possible that we Humans cannot walk with a cup of coffee without spilling it? It’s like asking, “Why is the sky blue?”
It turns out that Human stride has almost exactly the right frequency to drive the natural oscillations of coffee when the coffee is in a typically sized coffee mug. That’s physics.*
The sacred is our Human propensity to take on more than we can without spilling. Filling our own cups to the brim and then going through life, spilling every step of the way. Have you ever heard someone order coffee who requests that the Barista leave room for the cream? Ah, there’s another moment to ponder. Who is this person at your local coffee shop who’s discovered the secret to life itself - leave room for the cream? Even if you take your coffee black, you’ve got to be impressed.
What does it mean to leave that little bit of room in the cup? What does it mean to walk and leave room for the oscillation in the cup … or your life? It’s a lesson worth learning.