Forest Bathing: How To Cleanse Your Spirit
As a part of North Carolina’s Year of The Trail celebration, “Wellness and Trails” is the theme for August. In conjunction with that theme, this month’s blog is about Forest Bathing, which has become a popular activity for folks who love the outdoors. If you’re new to the concept, you’ll enjoy this fascinating interview we conducted with Dr. Mattie Decker, a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, mindfulness teacher and a retired professor of education.
Mattie, tell us a little about yourself.
“I’m a lifelong educator who grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I got my teaching degree from Georgia State University and then went on to teach in rural Appalachia in northeast Georgia. Later, I spent ten years in Colorado. I’ve always had a deep connection with nature, and Colorado deepened that relationship. Ultimately, we moved to Arkansas where I finished my master’s thesis. I then went on to pursue my doctorate at the University of Memphis. Over the years, I’ve also spent a great amount of time in Finland, studying and researching their innovative teacher education program. In Norway, I became a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.”
What is forest bathing and how long has it been around?
“Forest bathing is derived from the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, which means forest bath. It was developed in the 80’s when Japan was in the midst of their tech boom. People were dying from a wide range of diseases in unprecedented numbers. The government ordered research and one of the key questions became: What is the connection between time spent in nature to health and well-being? One of the things they learned is that trees emit chemical compounds called phytoncides. These phytoncides bathe trees and help keep them healthy. When we, as humans, breath in these phytoncides, something curious happens: they increase a type of white blood cell that helps kill infected cells in our body. Doctors began to prescribe patients to be in the forest for two hours a week. When the patients returned to the doctor, they discovered that their health and well-being had improved. Heart rates and blood pressure came down. Stress levels plummeted. Their thinking became clearer.”
What are the principles of forest bathing?
“It’s essentially this: that we, as human beings, are part of nature. The animals. The insects. The plants. The rocks. The water. And forest bathing is a way to remember and awaken to our dynamic reciprocal relationship with all of nature. We all need each other.”
Can you learn to forest bathe on your own?
“Yes and no. Yes, because forest bathing, in a way, is something we already know deep down. Our grandfathers and grandmothers knew they felt better when they were outdoors. If nature is present, it will speak to you. However, a guide or instructor can help facilitate the experience.”
What is the most powerful experience you’ve had forest bathing?
“This happened in my first year of guiding, about three years ago. The forest bathing experience consists of a series of invitations. For example, we invited participants to look for a texture they were drawn to and bring it back to the group. After I’d issued the invitation I thought, I need to do this as well. I was standing with my back to the river and my eye went to this white image on the ground five feet in front of me, about the size of a quarter. The sun was shining on it. I went over and put my hand on it, and something told me to dig it up. And when I did, I realized it was a spear point. David Caldwell, the French Broad Riverkeeper, helped identify it: it was somewhere between 5,000-8,000 years old. My immediate thought was, Whose hand held this last? I couldn’t speak.”
Why is forest bathing important in today’s world?
“We are living in a time when nature wants to heal us and is also needing to heal itself. Everything in our culture tells us to speed up when what we really need to do is slow down. I see it time and time again. At the beginning of the forest bathing experience, I see people who are stressed and when they leave their faces are relaxed and their hearts are open.”
Engaging the senses seems to be an important tool in practicing forest bathing. Why is that?
“That’s the core element. This whole idea of coming home to yourself. We live in a thinking world. The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. When we allow ourselves to drop into the body and into the intelligence of the senses it changes our whole outlook. In the forest bathing exercises we encourage and guide participants to stay in your body.”
Where can folks go to learn more about forest bathing?
“The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is a great place to start. There are also several books I would recommend: Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature by M. Amos Clifford; Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing by Ben Page; Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li; The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life, by Melanie Choukas-Bradley.”
Are there forest bathing walks that I can participate in locally?
“I lead regular walks through Conserving Carolina. And there are several nature and forest therapy guides who host walks throughout Western North Carolina. Kelly Bruce has hosted walks at the Pink Beds in Pisgah National Forest.”