Health & Fitness
‘Forest bathing’ walks benefit mind and body
Santa Rosa, California, it focuses on training and certifying people to lead forest walks. According to its website, more than 700 guides had been certified by the end of 2018.
Olate and Scott Sheets were certified earlier this year and co-lead a number of outdoor experiences in central Ohio, including hiking, paddling (kayaking/ canoeing), outdoor meditative walks and shinrinyoku.
Olate is a psychotherapist, and she said she sometimes incorporates outdoor experiences into her practice with some of her clients.
But she stressed that, “from a clinical perspective, forest bathing is completely not psychology.”
On a recent Sunday, the nine participants gathered in a parking lot outside the McKnight Outdoor Education Center, a Columbus Recreation and Parks facility on the west bank of the Scioto River. It was sunny and in the mid-40s as Olate introduced herself and Sheets as guides, adding, “but really, the forest is the guide.”
The group then strolled into the woods. Shinrinyoku is not about walking for distance or physical exercise. It’s about immersion into nature. The structure involves a series of “invitations,” which Olate explained at the first stop. She invited everyone to find a leaf “that speaks to you.”
After several minutes, participants sat with their chosen leaves, then took turns explaining why they picked that leaf. The explanations included metaphors for life: old leaves that still had some life in them, for example, or one leaf tucked into another, providing protection.
Next, Sheets led the group farther down the path, but he walked slowly. The idea was to force everyone to slow down and truly notice their surroundings. Again, the group then shared their thoughts, although that is not mandatory — participants can choose not to speak.
“It’s hard to share at first,” Olate said, “and then I feel like slowly people start thawing, getting more comfortable with each other.”
The orange tree provided a base from which participants scattered into the nearby woods, then gathered to discuss what they had experienced. They came together a final time for a tea ceremony. Olate served hot herbal tea from a thermos, and the first cup was poured onto the ground, “in gratitude for sharing the landscape with us.”
Afterward, the group slowly dispersed, though not before more discussion of their experience.
Adam Wilson of Galloway was a first-time shinrin-yoku participant. He said being outdoors is not in his comfort zone, so it took time to “get calm and feel grounded.” He also was nervous about sharing his thoughts. But he said he would do it again.
“It helps me notice other parts of my life that I can dwell on that aren’t as negative,” he said. “I have a stressful work life that I’m dealing with right now, and this is kind of a nice break from that.”
McBrearty went on several shinrin-yoku walks earlier in the year with Olate and Sheets. Despite occasionally feeling awkward, McBrearty said she is increasingly enjoying her experiences.
“It’s a journey,” she said. “It’s a beautiful way to connect with nature. They say it’s really good for you, and it feels really good for me, so it all seems to work out.”
Participants of shinrin-yoku observe their surroundings and then share what they noticed at Indian Village Outdoor Education Center in Columbus, Ohio.