A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood
June 17, 2019
When my editors asked me to report on forest bathing, I packed a swimsuit. I assumed it must involve a dip in the water.
It turns out, my interpretation was too literal.
I met certified Forest Therapy guide Melanie Choukas-Bradley and several other women who'd come along for the adventure at the footbridge to Theodore Roosevelt Island, a dense jungle of an urban forest along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
Here, I began to get it. Forest bathing isn't a bath. We sat on the banks of the river, but we did not get in the water.
It's not a hike, either. We did walk the forest trails, but we meandered with no particular destination in mind.
The aim of forest bathing, Choukas-Bradley explained, is to slow down and become immersed in the natural environment. She helped us tune in to the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. We took in our surroundings by using all our senses.
As we passed through a stand of pawpaw trees, we touched the bark. We smelled the black walnuts, which give off a lovely citrus fragrance. We got a little shower of ripe mulberries, too.
"Close your eyes and just breathe, just breathe," Choukas-Bradley intoned. It felt a bit like a meditation retreat.
It took me a few minutes to clear out the clutter in my brain, and tune in to the natural world.
"When you open your eyes, imagine you're seeing the world for the very first time," Choukas-Bradley told us.
After I opened my eyes, the green looked a lot greener. And I began to see things I hadn't noticed before: the flutter of birds, the ripple of the water, the swaying of trees.
A forest guide "helps you be here, not there," says Amos Clifford, a former wilderness guide with a master's degree in counseling, and the founder of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, the organization that certifies the guides.
Clifford's goal is to encourage health care providers to incorporate forest therapy as a stress-reduction strategy. There's no question that stress takes a terrible toll in the United States; a 2015 study found work-related stress accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs each.
"It's my hope that the health care system will include [forest therapy] into the range of services they reimburse for," Clifford says.
The practice began in Japan. Back in the early 1990s the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku -- which translates roughly as forest bathing.
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