The Dirt on Forest Therapy
Posted: January 10, 2019
Wind whispering through leaves; subtle scents of cedar; sun spilling through a forest canopy. Many of us are innately drawn to nature, finding solace in its restorative powers.
Recently, science has begun to support what so many of us have suspected: Time in nature is good for us!
One way to reap the physical and mental health benefits nature has to offer is through forest therapy. Inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” forest therapy involves immersing oneself in nature.
But forest therapy isn’t simply a walk in the woods – a trained guide is often required to achieve the most effective results.
Melanie Hazell is one of Ontario’s 20 forest therapy guides certified through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Before becoming a guide, Melanie ran her own leadership and career coaching company. Now she’s focused on developing a nature retreat in Prince Edward County, where she plans to offer regular walks.
A keen advocate of (re)connecting people with nature, Melanie is eager to share her forest therapy experiences.
What does forest therapy mean to you?
Forest therapy is either creating from anew, recreating, or strengthening a relationship with the non-human world in order to be as fully whole as we can be. As we become more urbanized and more reliant upon technology, our relationship with nature is becoming dormant, or even nonexistent for some. So, for me, forest therapy was a way to rediscover that relationship that was waning a bit.
How did you find out about forest therapy, and why did you get want to get involved?
I heard about forest therapy through a very wise woman in my life who shows me the way for most things – my mother! She had either read something or heard an interview with somebody about shinrin-yoku and she thought, “Oh, that sounds like something Melanie might be interested in.” So, I started googling and found the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and saw they were offering an upcoming certification program in Ottawa. I decided to go and find out as much as I could!
Since I was a child, I always felt more alive in nature. Intuitively we know there is a link between wellbeing and nature, but when I found the science behind it, it made the connection even more powerful to me. If I can provide these benefits for myself and others through forest therapy, that’s just incredible.
What is your official title?
I am a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. Guide is the key word there – the forest is the therapist!
What are some of the benefits of forest therapy that you have experienced for yourself or observed in others?
In my own experience, forest therapy always takes me out of myself. It reminds me that the world is a lot bigger than me, and it gives me a new perspective. It also improves my mood, memory, and cognition. In both myself and others, I have seen forest therapy walks combat depression, anxiety, and conditions like ADHD, as well as improve empathy.
Forest therapy is all about slowing down; when we slow ourselves down, we are able to see beautiful things that we normally wouldn’t.
Could you tell me more about the technical aspects of a forest therapy walk?
The ideal amount of time to maximize the benefits of forest therapy is three hours. Walks are typically divided into ‘sequences’ which aim to ease people into the experience, engage all of the senses, and invite people to slow down and notice what’s going on around them. The walks conclude with a tea ceremony and provide opportunities for sharing throughout.
Language is really important in a walk; everything is an invitation, we are not making people do anything. If something doesn’t work for you, then do something else.
Everything is dead simple, but can be very difficult for people because of the busyness of our lives.
Forest therapy walks seem like very sensory experiences. Why is it important to engage all of the senses?
Nature can provide benefits to each of our senses. For example, the scent molecules of coniferous trees can increase natural killer cells, which promote immune system health and combat cancer. Smells can also increase energy and decrease stress levels. Seeing the repeating patterns of leaves on a tree, known as fractals, can relieve stress, too. There’s even an elemental benefit to kicking one’s shoes off and feeling that connection to the earth. On every level, the senses are improved by virtue of exposure to nature.
How much forest is needed for a forest therapy walk?
None! You can do forest therapy walks on a beach, in a meadow, in a tiny little pocket garden in the city, in a botanical garden or green house, even in an old folk’s home with plants! Walks are usually less than a kilometer so you don’t go very far, and any nature is good.
What is the typical reaction to one of your walks?
People usually come away feeling surprised that they got as much out of it as they did. On one walk I led, an investment banker who easily works over 100 hours a week said, “Everybody needs to do this. I have not given myself the gift of doing something alone without technology for…” He couldn’t even remember. And he just said, “I feel so much better.”
Why is forest therapy and connecting with nature in general important?
Forest therapy is a way to improve one’s relationship with nature. I believe that when we form relationships, we care more about that thing or that person. On the other hand, when we don’t have a relationship with something, we aren’t looking out for it.
Our relationship with nature is crucial to our own survival, and we have to fight for nature to keep that relationship intact. If we don’t acknowledge the extent to which nature continues to support us, we are dead. It’s a really critical time to start caring about the environment.
Why are urban trees in particular important?
Well, first there is the environmental piece; trees improve air quality, they act as wildlife habitat, they help lower temperatures in cities, and they provide oxygen while sequestering carbon dioxide.
But beyond that, trees help with learning, they help with healing, they help foster empathy, they help lower mortality rates, they help with cognition and memory – they help us on every level. If we didn’t have urban trees, we would be depriving ourselves of all those powerful benefits.
In your opinion, what are the greatest threats faced by our trees and forests today?
Not enough people caring, and not enough people advocating for the maintenance or creation of green space in cities. We know increased urbanization is inevitable, but not enough people are working to ensure that green space doesn’t get shrunk in the process. And when I say people, I mean people at every level – policy makers, business people, citizens, children.
Is there a place for forest therapy in traditional western medicine?
Absolutely! The medical community is supportive of forest therapy, but our level of education and awareness in North America isn’t quite where it is in Asian and Scandinavian countries. I think an important step is getting forest therapy covered by insurance companies – that would help to make people aware and want to participate.
I believe that forest therapy is just on the cusp of being talked about a lot, it’s sort of where yoga was 30 years ago.
Do you have a favourite tree?
I love maples. My family planted a maple tree on the front lawn of our old house when we first moved in, and it grew to have three branch systems – one for each of my children. Every morning and night I watched the tree grow, and it supported me unconsciously through all kinds of different things.
I also love poplars, I think they’re beautiful. They are like the runway models of the tree family!
If you find yourself in need of some forest therapy, or are just curious to try it out, Toronto-based Melanie can be reached at 416.786.4819 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice to beginners? Come in with no expectations, let go of any anxieties and fears before your walk, and make forest therapy a regular habit!