'Forest bathing': You don't need a swimsuit, just comfortable shoes and an open mind, guide says

It's not just a walk in the woods. "Forest therapy" or "forest bathing" to help heal mind and body has long been a thing in Japan — but it's a new health trend in North America.

New health trend in North America helps the mind and body, forest therapists say

Ronna Schneberger, a Canmore-based forest therapy guide, says 'forest bathing' helps slow down your mind and body.  (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A tour guide in Canmore, Alta., says "bathing in the forest" is good for your health. However, this practice doesn't require a swimsuit — just some comfortable shoes and an open mind.

The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy describes "forest therapy" — also known as "forest bathing" — as safe gentle walks in nature where guides provide sensory-opening activities along the way.

According to the association's website, forest therapy walks typically last two to four hours and cover less than a kilometre. Guides take a six-month certification course to learn theory, philosophy and skills to guide people on forest therapy walks.

Ronna Schneberger, a Canmore-based forest therapy guide certified by the association, says "forest bathing" is good for mind and body.

She says that while the term is new to North America, it actually originated in Japan during the 1980s.

"As they were transitioning to more of a tech society, they were noticing that their people's stress was just through the roof.… So the government decided to try to figure out a way to help its people, and one of the questions that was asked was, 'What happens when people are exposed to forests?'" she said.

Schneberger told the Calgary Eyeopener that the researchers discovered people appear to benefit from exposure to phytoncides — organic compounds given off by trees. These are substances that plants and trees emit to ward off harmful insects, but many cultures believe they provide humans with a variety of health benefits.

"As humans, we've evolved in the forest, and so our bodies have a unique reaction. Our stress hormones come down, blood pressure comes down, heart rate comes down and our nervous system resets itself," she said.

What you should know

Schneberger says that as the new trend grows, there are a few things one should know in order to get a fulfilling experience.

While going on your own gives some benefits, she says, a tour guide can help combat distractions.

"We kind of create this container of an experience.… We turn off our phones first thing, and I give what's called a series of invitations, where I'm inviting you to slow down and tune into your senses," she said.

She explains that being aware of your senses is the doorway to being in the present.

"I would do something like invite you to notice what's moving in the forest, and as simple as it sounds, it's one of the most important invitations I give in the whole session," Schneberger explains.

She adds that by taking notice of what's around you, it slows the brain down.

Another important part of the session is participating in a sharing circle, which Schneberger says helps harvest your collective experience.

"In our culture, we don't really acknowledge experiences in nature very much. And what happens is many people have these really interesting moments or realizations and insights in their lives, but because we don't integrate them, they just kind of float off," she said.

"So we try to catch those through these light-sharing circles. So what I see when I take people out is I hear a lot say things like, 'I haven't felt this way since I was a kid' or 'I have never experienced this before.'"

To end the day, Schneberger says, she has a tea ceremony with the client, serving a safe but wild herb she has collected.

"It's a way to really bring people down, slow them down and and get that reset," she said. "In that reset, there's this feeling of aliveness that sometimes we don't feel in our everyday lives."

Schneberger adds that Calgary residents are lucky, since not only are the Rockies accessible but there are many nearby parks that can be used for forest bathing.

"First, take a lunch and then go for a walk or go sit. It'll just make a world of difference," she said.

"I really truly believe that any time we take the time to connect to a forest or to nature, we're going to receive benefit from it on some level of our being."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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