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ON THE SCENE: Time for a little forest bathing

August 3, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Have you heard of forest bathing? It's the literal translation of a program developed in Japan for experiencing nature as a means of de-stressing one's life.

I first learned about it in a 2012 Outside Magazine article titled, "Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning."

The relaxing benefits of nature have been known for thousands of years. The Greek physician Galen used to take his patients outside where they could experience nature as part of their healing process. He felt that it helped stimulate their desire to get better, and famed Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, who went on to found the Leeds Infirmary, once wrote about the healing benefits of patients seeing flowers.

Article Photos

Forest bathing leader Helene Gibbons, left, and participant Jess Collins
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

In 1984, Professor Roger S. Ulrich released his landmark study, "A View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery." Published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the study demonstrated that all circumstances being equal, patients with a view of nature get well quicker and require less medication than those who do not, a study that helped revolutionize the design of hospitals.

In Japan, researchers demonstrated that spending time in forests can lower one's blood pressure, fight off depression, and reduce the impact of stress. The process is called shinrin-yoku, a phrase coined by the government in 1982 that means using the five senses to experience nature. The process was inspired by Shinto and Buddhist practices, and the government started investing in research starting about 2004.

Mitigating stress has become a national concern in Japan. Indeed, it has been for several decades. Currently, according to a report published by the weekly business magazine Toyo Keizai, 60 percent of Japan's workforce suffers from stress so acute that a phrase - karoshi - has been created to describe working oneself to death. That doesn't factor in the stress of living on earthquake prone archipelago that a few years ago experienced one of the worst nuclear reactor disasters in history which remain a ticking time bomb as damaged fuel cells and leaked radioactive waste have yet to be contained.

In Japan, like here, people have long known that hanging out in nature - be it strolling in the woods, fly fishing, golfing, or a backcountry skiing - is relaxing. People have been coming to the Adirondacks for more than 200 years for such benefits. Best known is Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau having his tuberculosis patients sitting out in the coldest conditions to breathe in crisp, clean mountain air as part of the cure in Saranac Lake.

Japan researchers wanted to identify if being in nature had healing benefits and could mitigate stress. If so, what experiences were most effective, and how long did the benefits last?

The guru and driving force behind the Japanese research is Yoshifumi Miyazaki, an anthropologist and vice director of the Ciba University Center for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences located just outside Tokyo and near the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. He, his colleague Juyoung Lee, and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School discovered that people who participated in shinrin-yoku had a 12 percent reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, nearly 2 percent reduction in blood pressure, almost a 6 percent reduction in the heart rate, and increased production of NK cells known for strengthening one's immune system. Further, the benefits extended well into life at home and work on the job. Their findings published in 2011 has inspired millions of Japanese to take to the woods, not to bag the 46 highest Adirondack peaks in record time, but rather to take in nature closer to what might be described as a snail's pace.

Think of the student asking the Zen teacher, "How do you see so much?" And the teacher responding, "I close my eyes."

Good news for locals and visitors of the Adirondacks, people can experience forest bathing at such places as the Paul Smith's College VIC guided by Helene Gibbons. She has been teaching yoga, meditation and wellness for nearly two decades. The Montreal transplant, based for many years in Malone, now calls Saranac Lake home. With her partner Bob Hudock, a semi-retired North Country Community College professor, she founded Adirondack River Walking that provides forest bathing as one of their services.

Gibbons is a certified forest therapy guide who has received training in shinrin-yoku. Two weeks ago, she held an introductory forest bathing session at the VIC, which I attended. My session lasted just an hour, less than half a normal session. I was amazed how quickly the time flew by, not unlike what happens when one gets lost in a project and before you know it several hours are up.

It reminded me of a 1998 New York Times article by Joe Glickman who took his 2-year-old daughter Willa on a canoe-camping trip on the Raquette River. Never had he spent so much time looking at a single lily pad and seeing it through a 2-year-old's eyes. It proved to be quite magical indeed.

"It's bathing in the sense of deep immersion in the forest," said Gibbons at the start of our session. "It's not a fitness walk or interpretive walk; both are important as we need to stay healthy and know about the world around us. Forest bathing is a sensory immersion in nature. Our objective is to slow down, unplug, open our senses, and relate to the natural world around us differently. I will not direct you but invite you to relate to nature through your senses in different ways, and if they don't feel quite right, you can modify them."

We began with a grounding and breathing exercise to let go of the energy and thoughts that came with us and to get centered to where we were. We each got to determine our own pace as we took in nature through different our senses. At times, we were paired off to share our experiences. The VIC is a great locale because the trails are easy to walk on and there are no crowds rushing to a destination.

Have your ever watched a breeze slowly work its way through a tree and then hop to another and then another and hear the different sounds that the leaves of a birch, beech or maple tree make? Or have you tasted the air and discovered the differences in flavors near a bog from that of a balsam wood? We experienced that and more, leaving us relaxed and desiring more.

"I found the forest bathing experience peaceful and engaging," said Holly Chorba one of my fellow participants. "It took me out of all my worries and put me in a wonderful space during the time we could be here."

"I learned that we need to listen, observe, breathe in, smell and feel the forest," said Jess Collins. "It's there for us. Forest bathing has changed my experience of nature. I almost feel like I had a massage."

With more than 57 percent of Americans stressed about our nation's future, 61 percent about the economy and 80 percent reporting living with at least one stress-related symptom, perhaps positioning the Adirondacks with its 6 million acres of forests as the national center for forest bathing is an opportunity to improve our economy while helping millions of others de-stress their lives.

Hug a tree anyone?



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