I Just Did My First Forest Therapy Walk Last Night: Shinrin-Yoku Rocked My World!

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I have always been happiest outside and happier still when the time outside involves woods and water. As a young kid, I’d spend nearly all my free time playing in the wooded fields behind our house which also was home to, among other thrills, a pollywog pond (this wonderland is now, sadly, yet another suburban street). In July and August, too, for 11 wonderful summers, I went to camp, which was on 150 or so acres of woods along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio.

Fast forward to now. For someone living in a city, I get a decent amount of time in relative nature: Buffalo streets are mostly lined with beautiful trees; there’s a Rails-to-Trails bike path near us that Ella and I walk on many times each week; and we have Delaware Park — a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park (he’s the same landscape designer who did Central Park in NYC among many others) — about a seven-minute walk from our house and Ella and I are there, too, many times each week. So, for a city dweller, I do pretty well in getting bits of nature around me.

Still, it’s not the same as being immersed in woods and water as I had been in my younger years and my heart and soul deeply miss those times. I love to hike, too, but when I’m in the woods I often want a quieter experience and hiking with friends usually involves lots of talking, which sometimes works in opposition to what I need.

In seeking something that would give me time to take in nature more deeply, I found some info on Shinrin-Yoku — also known as forest bathing or forest therapy. While deep-woods contemplation is probably as old as life itself, forest bathing, as a form of human therapy, began to take shape in Japan in the 1980s as a way for overworked adults to find respite from an increasingly demanding and automated world.

Studies have shown that the physiological impacts of forest bathing are signficant (this link will take you to more about that). In a nutshell, though, the benefits range from everything to significant decreases in cortisol (known as the stress hormone) and blood pressure, along with important increases in immune responses. Anecdotally, participants report feeling happier, more connected, more peaceful.

I decided to see if there was any forest bathing going on around my area and through an online search, came across the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFTGP). After reading through the website, while I was still interested in checking it out, I admittedly wasn’t totally sold that it was quite what I was looking for. After all, I’d spent the better part of my youth in the woods, so did I really need a guide — particularly a Certified Guide? I didn’t think so. I’m raucously introverted, too (yes, really, like wildly introverted, which would seem to be a contradiction but isn’t, at least not to me), so did I really want to commune with strangers in the woods and talk about our collective awe? I wouldn’t think I would.

So, while I loved the idea of being in the woods quietly and contemplatively, I wasn’t sure this was, in fact, where I saw myself going. Still, as with my applied kinesiology work with Doc, this seems to be my year for pushing my boundaries a bit and trying new things and getting out of my comfort zone (which is more secure than most international borders). And with that knowledge, I decided I’d go for it, all in. I’d show up, I’d participate to the best of my ability and try to be open-minded about it all, even if all I really wanted to do was sit in a pile of moss and breathe.

I was just looking for a way to get into the woods and slow down some. I wasn’t looking for anything epic.

But that’s exactly what I got.

Through the ANFTGP website, I found the closest guides (currently, there are none in Buffalo, although I think there will be in the next year). There are a couple in the Finger Lakes region, which is a couple of hours from here. And there’s one recently minted Certified Guide in the St. Catherines region of Southern Ontario, Canada. Her name is Melissa Bollinger Seiling and if anyone was ever meant to take a group of strangers into the woods and help them discover something grounding and better and beautiful in this crazy world we’re living in, it is Melissa (with help, too, from her equally wonderful husband, Jon).

I contacted Melissa a few months ago when I’d first found her information on the Association website. At the time, she was just getting her practice underway and said she’d let me know when she had a forest therapy walk planned. Earlier this month (August) and true to her word, she reached out about a walk she was guiding and I signed up.

One thing to note about forest therapy walks is that even with my limited experience (only one so far), they are likely to be highly personal experiences (shared, to any extent that you’re comfortable, with the others in your group, which in our case last night was an amazing collection of six people that shared an incredible few hours together).

For that reason, I won’t go into all the details here. Instead, I’ll give a simple summary of what we did, how it went and why I now understand what it is that the certified guides bring to the journey. Let me also say now (otherwise, I’ll forget), that I’d recommend doing this on your own, rather than with a bunch of friends, your signficant other/s, etc. I’m quite certain that if I didn’t have the relative security of anonymity in the woods last night, I wouldn’t have had nearly as profound an experience. Knowing that there was no one around who would later joke or judge about it helped me let go and just enjoy it, and I’d recommend that anyone really wanting to explore it try it this way, too.

So, we meet in a parking lot at Short Hills Provincial Park in the Niagara region and it is lovely, as is the group, despite the fact that I rolled in 15 minutes late (I’m NEVER late!!!) due to GPS failure. Happily for me, they waited and we got underway.

Melissa gave us a brief overview of how the evening would unfold and after introductions (names, what our interests in forest therapy are and something that we’re grateful for which, in my case, was the that they all waited for me).

Then, we go through a series of ‘invitations.’ Each invitation is an exercise that helps us settle into and experience the woods (and all that encompasses, including sky and beasts and water and air) on a personal level. The activities during the invitations are performed in silence and after each, we come together to share what we experienced or observed (sometimes in pairs at first, then always as a group), to any extent that each of us chooses to share.

As the invitations unfold, each experience takes us a little deeper — physcially, geographically and emotionally — into the woods. Yes, we feel the water in a stream and squash pine needles to release their scent, and yes, we taste (or are encouraged to taste) the air around us. Yes, we talk to trees. Yes, we each leave a trouble in a stone.

By the time we are done with the last invitation, the sky is getting dark and the moon is bright. There hasn’t been anyone else around for some time. The sounds around us noticeably change to evening songs and the breeze is a little cooler and more pronounced. We sit in a circle on a bed of rocks by a stream. While we share our last impressions and observations, suffice it to say that each of us is stunned by the emotions that this experience has brought out and the connections, to earth and each other, that a few hours together in the woods with a skilled guide have brought on. I let go of a sorrow that I hadn’t even known and find immense senses of peace and safety. By the end of the evening, each of us has shed tears due, I think, to the vulnerability and trust we experienced — feelings that, I’m guessing, most of us haven’t let ourselves feel like that in decades.

At the end, we share tea that Jon makes from things he collected during our walk: cedar, grape and mint leaves, which he brews into the loveliest pale pink tea. It looks like twighlight and smells like heaven.

{Photo note: Once you start your walk, there’s no phones allowed and you’re glad, except when you go to write a blog post and have no photo of this immensely beautiful place you were in. So, photo credit to skitterbox.com via pexels.com, thank you.}

{Note: These are my own experiences with applied kinesiology, which clearly aren’t meant as medical advice for anyone else. But I know a lot of friends and family members are grappling with a huge variety of autoimmune issues and other ailments, so I’m happy to share my experiences. And if this is your first visit and you’d like to follow chronologically, click here. Otherwise, enjoy!}






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