Last year David Kendall, who lives near Max Patch in Pisgah National Forest, found himself on a balcony in a Tokyo high-rise. “It was night, and you could see all the lights out [in the city], and there were these huge circles, big patches of black where there was no light,” he says. Kendall learned that these dark areas were the sacred forests surrounding Shinto shrines and that, according to his Japanese host, “They’d always been there; the city grows around them.”
Kendall tells the story to epitomize the culture that created the practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing or forest therapy — a practice for which he is trained as a guide.
Forest bathing entails walking in forests or other natural areas but differs from a typical hike in that it focuses on being in the woods “in a very intentional and aware manner,” says Kendall, a certified nature and forest therapy guide as well as owner of Kana’Ti Lodge near Max Patch.
“It’s important to know we are not training therapists; we’re training guides. We say that the forest itself is the therapist,” says Amos Clifford, founder and director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, a California-based organization. Clifford led a guide- training course held at Kendall’s lodge last year. “As guides, we open the doors that allow the forces [of nature] to come in in a healing way,” says Clifford.
“Nature therapy is probably as old as human beings; it just hasn’t been called that,” says Kendall, with a laugh. Bringing it into the 21st century, the Japanese began researching the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, “measuring just about anything you could in the body,” he notes.
Research shows that people who engage in forest bathing experience decreased blood pressure, cortisol levels and stress, as well as increased natural killer cells, which boost the immune system, says Lisa M. Garcia, a McDowell County resident and guide who attended a shinrin-yoku class in California.
“It’s all about stepping back, slowing down, and we call it shaking off the road dust,” she says.
“Road dust” is all the things going on in a person’s life — taking care of children, work, grocery shopping, checking email and voicemail, says Garcia, who left the corporate world nine years ago for a more nature-centric life of owning and operating the Yogi Bear Jellystone campground in Marion with her husband. Forest bathing “is an opportunity to shake off all that stuff, allow yourself to get very still, allow yourself to get centered, allow yourself to simply be present. One of the ways that we do that is by using nature, using the forest as that centering point,” says Garcia.
“It’s different from hiking … because you could maybe walk a mile in two hours when participating in forest therapy or forest bathing,” she says.
Moreover, the benefits of forest bathing go beyond the practice of being present, says Garcia. She explains that trees, especially conifers, release chemicals called phytoncides, which protect plants from disease and invasive insects and when inhaled by humans increase the body’s ability to fight diseases. “We’re breathing this in as we’re walking in the woods; deep breathing is a really essential element [of forest bathing],” says Garcia.
Mark Ellison, head and founder of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine’s North American Chapter, first heard about forest bathing seven years ago while working on his dissertation about nature’s impact on humans. As a hiking and nature enthusiast, he says, “I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been experiencing, but I didn’t have words to explain it.'”
The Cullowhee resident is using his hiking research blog to set up an online community focused on learning and experiential activity in nature and aims to hold a conference to bring different academic disciplines together around the topic of how nature impacts humans.
Spending time in nature also correlates with improved mental health and increased productivity, says Ellison, who holds a doctorate in adult education and human resource development from North Carolina State University. “Nature therapy helps you to think more clearly and boosts creativity and brain function,” he says (foresttherapy).
“There’s a great deal of research showing the physiological, emotional, psychological, cognitive benefits of forest bathing,” says Clifford. “What the convergence of data seems to be saying is that [forest bathing] is a general tonic for the nervous system, and the nervous system is incredibly involved in the body’s capacity to stay well and get well when we’re sick,” he says.
Will Ashevilleans gain as much health benefit from a walk along the French Broad River Park in Asheville as a walk through Pisgah National Forest? No, says Ellison. “Spending time on a city greenway where you can hear the interstate is beneficial, but the quality of the natural environment is going to directly impact the amount of benefit you are going to get from it. If you go to a setting where there is very limited human activity, no sound, don’t see buildings, it’s all natural, [where] you are kind of escaping from everyday life — that kind of setting can offer a lot more benefit, especially psychologically, than being on a greenway where you can still hear interstate, planes overhead and people talking,” he says.
This is because forest bathing engages all the senses, says Garcia. For example, when engaging sight in the forest, you might “look for movement along the forest trail; you may see the leaves going back and forth, maybe [they appear to be] waving at you,” she says, “or look at a pond and see the water shimmering and the ripples going out. With the sensation of touch, you may notice your feet on the path and hear sound of gravel, sand, and leaves, or feel wind caressing your cheeks, hear the birdsong, acorns dropping, squirrels scampering around and the wind rustling.”
Kendall believes the time is right for the nature and health connection to gain wider appeal. “In the broader culture there is so much disconnection, from person to person, and a disconnection certainly from nature,” he says. “I think it starts with the senses. The more dense urban situation you live in, the more bombarded your system is with all kinds of smells, bright lights, noise. … It’s kind of a sensory overload. I think people are having a kind of intuitive reaction to that; the human body didn’t evolve to be highly tolerant to that kind of thing. I think people are seeking some sort of relief from that,” he says.
All three guides have ambitious plans for expanding their forest therapy activities. In 2017, Garcia will be opening INDIGO Nature Retreat in Old Fort. Located on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, the INDIGO center (which stands for “immersion in nature designed to inspire growth”) will offer classes in meditation, yoga, forest bathing walks and art, all with the backdrop of connecting with nature, says Garcia. In addition, she will be leading a forest bathing walk hosted by the Marion YMCA on Wednesday, Nov. 30.
In April, Ellison plans to offer a class on forest therapy that focuses on the health benefits of spending time in nature, which will include experiential hikes. He will also continue to build the Society of Nature and Forest Medicine’s North American Chapter.
Kendall plans to host courses at his lodge that focus on nature and health, including another course for nature therapy guides led by Clifford’s Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides.
“We see ourselves as a gateway, a kind of portal,” says Kendall. “We’re next to Max Patch, and that is a pretty special place. People can walk right out of here through the meadows up into Max Patch,” he says. Kendall also runs an educational farm at the lodge. “This is a new mission for us, helping people to enjoy the walk on a much broader, deeper level,” he says.
“It’s really exciting to see all the different directions that this is coming from,” says Kendall, referring to the myriad academic disciplines that are examining the impact of nature on health, as well as practices like forest bathing that are surfacing to implement those findings. He sees North Carolina as a verifiable playground of opportunity to provide “guided awareness to people who don’t have it available.
“In North Carolina, any mountain, inn or lodge can provide these types of [experiences] and really enrich the experience of the visitor. … It’s very exciting to watch it evolve.”
WHAT: Forest Bathing Walk led by Lisa M. Garcia
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 10 a.m.
WHERE: South Mountain State Park, Connelly Springs
TO REGISTER: YMCA in Marion, 659-9622
Lisa M. Garcia
Mark Ellison, Ed.D.
Amos Clifford, Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides