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At the height of the lockdowns, when many of us felt trapped, unsettled and decidedly grumpy, nature saved us.
We flocked to city parks, went for long walks in our neighborhoods, hit jogging trails and explored wooded areas near our homes. We breathed in fresh air and felt immeasurably better for it. And, perhaps most important, we found that microdosing on nature – even if it was only for a few minutes a day – helped relieve some of the stress and anxiety we were all feeling as we grappled with the emotional, physical and spiritual fallout of a global pandemic.
It’s not surprising, then, that at the end of last year the Global Wellness Institute released a report, entitled The Global Wellness Economy: Looking Beyond COVID, that predicted society would continue to lean into nature for nourishment and healing well beyond 2022. It predicted that the estimated US$5-trillion wellness business is headed in a regenerative and environmental direction where various forms of ecotherapy (which considers the curative potential of natural settings) will surge in popularity.
One such holistic discipline that is growing worldwide is called forest bathing or forest therapy, which has been informally practised by Indigenous peoples for millennia for reasons of healing and spiritual connection.
From Baja, Calif., to Nagano, Japan, people are signing up to become forest therapy guides and mentors. Parks are creating self-guided forest therapy trails, while high-end spas (such as Salt Spring Island, B.C.’s Solace Organic Spa) and remote wilderness retreats (Farewell Harbour Lodge in B.C. and Trout Point Lodge in N.S.) are now offering forest bathing sessions to soak up – and reap the health benefits from – the rich forest environment.
“Forest bathing is best-described as an ancient practice we’ve come back to,” says Ben Porchuk, co-founder of the five-year-old, non-profit Global Institute of Forest Therapy based in London, Ont. “Over a three-hour walk we might not cover more than 500 metres or one kilometre because it is all about slowing down and noticing, in detail, the environment you are in.”
“One common thing I hear from many of my clients is that they feel like a child again, revelling in the sheer fun of being outside,” adds Porchuk, a restoration ecologist (by education) who just finished helping conservation staff at two parks (Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and MacGregor Point Provincial Park in Port Elgin, Ont.) complete self-guided forest therapy trails that will open this summer. “They also say they feel so much more at peace.”
The modern concept and experience of forest therapy formally started in the early 1980s in Japan, where the practice of shinrin yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” became part of its national health program as a way to foster a greater connection with nature and as a means to manage stress. (That country now has 48 dedicated forest therapy trails.)
Its premise is simple: Go to the woods, breathe deeply and tune into your senses. Its appeal lies in its simplicity. There are no trendy outfits to wear, no gravity-defying moves to master or expensive tinctures to ingest. It typically costs $30 to $60 for a two-hour to three-hour guided walk where the biggest challenge is mastering the art of slowing down and simply taking in (through sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing) what exists around you.
Carolynne Crawley, a forest therapy trainer and mentor in Toronto for five years, describes the practice as “all about being in the present moment. However, unlike the practice of meditation, which encourages practitioners to shut the outside world out, forest bathing is about inviting all of it in.”
“Before we start on a walk, I warn people that they are going to move a lot slower than they’re used to,” says Crawley, a Mi’kmaw woman who brings a lot of Indigenous context to her walks, which are also offered virtually, a move necessitated by physical distancing requirements. “The practice is all about seeing with new eyes and being guided more by your heart than by your mind.”
On a typical walk, Crawley might encourage people to look at the different greens of the trees and the light filtering through the branches, to listen to sounds both near and far away, to smell deeply the fragrance of the forest, to touch the trunk of a tree or to simply lie on the ground.
Shane Moffatt, 38, experienced one of Crawley’s guided walks as part of a corporate retreat just before COVID-19 turned the world upside down in early 2020. Forty employees of Greenpeace Canada set off on a slow-moving journey in Toronto’s High Park, where they were “invited” to take part in a number of exercises designed to give participants a deeper connection to the land, wildlife and natural habitat.
Moffatt, who grew up in Ireland and had spent a lot of time in the forest as a child, says he went in with an open mind and had no idea what to expect.
“The overwhelming thing I felt was a calmness,” says Moffatt. “It also helped me to stop, which may have been the useful and important aspect of it. In the hustle and bustle of city life it asked me to hit pause on a brain that is always working – to just breathe and be still. I felt a lot of gratitude afterward for that. In the past two years, my partner and I have gone for countless walks in the woods as a way to stay quasi-sane and we always feel so much better for it.”
In Japan, where forest bathing is seen as preventive medicine, researchers have found that the practice helps to lower blood pressure, lessens stress and anxiety and boosts immunity. Some of their studies have shown that spending time in a verdant environment reduces cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) and activates the parasympathetic (self-healing) nervous system. They’ve also found evidence that breathing in phytoncides, the aromatic oils released by trees, can increase the number of the body’s natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell crucial to the immune system).
Sure, there might be some people eager to ditch their walks now that they can head back to the gym, but the science shows time spent under a canopy of trees might be just as beneficial – perhaps even more so – than sweating it out in a closed-in space.
As remedies go, nature may be the best “green” medicine you can take: fast-acting, easy to access and inexpensive. It remains the perfect antidote for all the craziness going on in the world, and yet few partake.
A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency found the average American, for instance, spends 93 per cent of their time indoors, 87 per cent of their lives inside buildings, and another 6 per cent in automobiles. All of which equates to half a day a week outside.
With the United Nations predicting 66 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, the rise of urbanism – which typically necessitates the destruction of natural habits – means there is greater urgency to safeguard and protect the Earth.
Crawley says a holistic practice such as forest bathing, which encourages a deep respect for the ground you stand on, the air you breathe and the trees that shelter you, can only be a good thing.
“When people are in a deeper relationship with the Earth and they treat it with as much love as they do their human relations, the more likely they are going to advocate for the Earth because we’re all interconnected.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect quotation attributed to Carolynne Crawley. This version has been corrected.
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