'Forest bathing' explores health benefits of trees
Forest trails are shown a session of forest therapy at Sunnybrook Park, in Toronto, on Friday, June 3, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima)
Jessica Hill, The Associated Press
Published Monday, July 8, 2019 2:31PM EDT
BREWSTER, Mass. -- While the term "forest bathing" may conjure scenes of soaking in mud baths or swimming in lakes, this activity doesn't involve bathing suits or water activities. Rather, according to psychologist and guide Carol Marcy, forest bathing is to "swim in the living being of the forest."
This summer, visitors to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Forest Bathing: Deepening Our Relationship with Nature events for $6 a person.
The term forest bathing originated in Japan during the 1980s from a practice called shinrin-yoku, which means taking in the forest atmosphere. The form of therapy focuses on soaking up nature and simply "being" in nature -- a kind of meditation. Although the term is relatively new, people have seen the health benefits of spending time in nature for thousands of years.
On the forest baths, Marcy leads through the trails behind the museum, participants learn how to become more connected to nature as well as to recognize their own place in the earth.
"You're learning to be grounded and connected," Marcy said. "And not just connected inside but you're really connected outside to the whole web of life. We are an integral part of a much larger whole, not isolated and separated."
At the beginning and end of the guided walk, Marcy checks the blood pressure of participants. Spending time in nature is generally known to have several health benefits, and Marcy has found that many participants in the forest baths have lower blood pressure after the experience and feel less stressed.
Qing Li's 2018 book "Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness" highlights the rising number of people living in cities and experiencing "nature deficit disorder," the idea that spending less time outdoors has caused behavioural and health problems. Li has found that forest bathing can strengthen the immune system, improve metabolic and cardiovascular health as well as reduce anxiety, stress and depression.
Forest bathing has increased in popularity in China, South Korea and the United States.
Marcy starts the forest bath outside the museum and walks participants slowly through Wing Island and Paines Creek, telling them to focus on mindfulness, awareness and breath. She instructs the group to breathe in counts of four or five and tells them to be aware of their senses as they walk from the marshes and into the forest.
"What are you smelling? What are you feeling? What are you tasting? What are you touching?" Marcy asks. "Is there breeze against your skin? Can you feel the crunch of the leaves or the shells as we walk along the path? Just notice those things."
Once deeper into the woods, Marcy tells participants to close their eyes and to feel connected to the earth by imagining roots from the soles of their feet being buried into the ground and connecting with the rest of the trees in the area, feeling rooted and a part of the earth.
"It helps provide a sense of being, a sense of safety and feeling connected," Marcy said.
In many Native American cultures, she says, the earth is often viewed as a mother, or divine feminine.
"The earth is very much about holding us to her body, about nourishing us with all the food that she comes from her body," she said.
While experiencing the energy, nourishment and connection to the earth, the forest bathers are told to think about the sun, moon and stars and realize the energy from "the divine masculine," understanding how all are connected.
Marcy instructs each member of the group to find a tree they identify with or feel a connection to, and asks that they spend time with it, feeling the tree and imagining that they are a tree as well.
"Focus on your heart and breath and move to a tree that calls to you," she says. "We're a part of this living forest, extending out."
Near the end of the tour, Marcy introduces the participants to qigong, a Chinese system of exercises that focus on cleansing bone marrow. Together, they raise one hand at a time toward the sun and think of the light and energy absorbing into their hands. They move their hands in front of their bodies, feeling the energy coursing through their bodies and the world.
They continue their feelings of connectedness to nature as the keep walking. Marcy ends the meditative tour overlooking the bay and passes out small notebooks for participants to write their thoughts. Again, she takes their blood pressure and makes note of the changes.
"In our culture, we spend a lot of time being stressed, a lot of time being pretty ramped up," Marcy said. "So that's another reason why learning (to breathe) and calming down and feeling connected and grounded is really healthy."
Many of the participants left feeling more relaxed and aware of their connection to nature.
Jeanette Bragger, of Provincetown, said she feels very lucky to have a museum that offers this kind of program, as learning how to connect more with nature is important.
"I see people stepping on a flower without thinking about it, or using horrible toxic stuff to get rid of what they call weeds," Bragger said. "This is one of the reasons why the walk really interested me is to see what it would be like to do it in silence, in the woods with somebody who can sort of guide you through it, as opposed to just wandering around."
Janice Joyce, a visitor from Albany, New York, was trying to figure out what to do and see while on Cape Cod and was glad she found the forest bath.
"We all need to be reminded to relax and balance. It's a great way to really reconnect," Joyce said. "This was a way to just stop and be quiet for a bit. You get balance. You come out and enjoy the experience and not be so much in your head."
Although the summer forest baths might be ending in August, Marcy is interested in proposing a fall schedule.