Bathing in Trees, Showered with Peace: The Healing Power of Forest Therapy
By Sophia Blair
Photo by Pinterest
The magic, power, and healing energy of nature is an incontestable phenomenon, but as humans, we often become so consumed by the world we created for ourselves that we forget how interconnected we are with our natural environment. We are as much nature as a tree, flower, or a bird, and immersing ourselves in nature is fundamental to our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.
I recently had the opportunity to experience the benefits of nature first-hand through “Forest Therapy,” hosted by BU Zen. Forest Therapy involves a guide facilitating participants to connect with nature. Our guide, Diane Pienta, led us through the experience by offering us invitations that brought the group into a meditative state and attuned our focus to specific experiential aspects of being outdoors. She encouraged us to slow down, pay attention, and connect with nature and each other.
Forest Therapy is based on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, translated as “Forest Bathing,” which was created in the 1980’s as a response to the tech boom that caused a tremendous influx of people to move from rural areas to cities. The corresponding increase in “modern” illnesses, such as cancers, autoimmune, and cardiovascular diseases, sparked Japan’s collective craving for connecting to nature. Studies have shown that Forest Bathing has a healing effect on our physiology, increasing relaxation and mental clarity, while boosting the immune system and positively affecting the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies have also shown that Forest Bathing leads to a decrease in cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, as well as an improvement in heart-rate variability. Forest Bathing was brought over to the U.S. by M. Amos Clifford, who created “The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.” Now, there are forest therapy guides all around the world.
Diane Pienta is a local forest-therapy guide, author, artist, yogi, and joyous soul. Through her book, Be The Magic, she serves as the catalyst for a growing number of people intentionally tuning into their inherent magic and awakening their relationship with the universe. She devotes her life to sharing the power of nature, beauty, creativity, and connection with others.
Just as we can be in relationship with the universe, we can cultivate a relationship with nature. Being in relationship with nature is fundamental to the practice of Forest Therapy, and before Diane conducts every session, she shows her respect to the land. “Something I do before the walk is I go to the land and I ask the land ‘can we be here?’ and I listen,” she shares. “For our walk, when we went to Hall’s Pond, it was a resounding ‘Bring them here!’”
Respect for the land is essential to the practice of Forest Therapy, and is shown through being in relationship with it rather than assuming a sense of superiority or disregard towards it. Acknowledging the land’s history and trauma is also crucial, as Diane expresses, “We took this land, so it’s important to honor it.” She emphasizes that engaging with nature is not one-sided. Respecting the land and being in relationship with it is about reciprocity and mutuality. “Often in my sessions I tell the groups, ‘when you open your eyes, imagine that what you’re looking at is looking back at you with love.’” She tells me, “It reminds us that it’s not just me here and everything else there… we are in relationship with all of this.”
When our group of eight walked through the gates of Hall’s Pond sanctuary behind Amory Park, it felt like we entered a portal. First, we got together in a circle and got quiet, settling in, and connecting to the hospitality of the land. There was no rush, and the energy shift away from the bustle of the city was evident. Diane explains, “Most people have no idea what they signed up for. They know it’s a forest therapy walk, but they have no idea what they’re doing. For our brain to settle, we need to know what are we doing. So that’s why I like to get in a circle and explain that we’re doing invitations. And invitations are really special because it’s really about paying attention to your own body… Really going into the experience using all of our senses and getting tuned in to kind of get out of our mind. It’s really sensory.”
The first invitation she offered us was to observe motion. I watched birds and squirrels traverse the trees and leaves glitter the air. My peers were on their backs enjoying the clouds moseying through the sky. Somehow, something as simple as just being in nature was strikingly profound. It was the first time in a while that my primary focus wasn’t the looming tasks on my to-do list. The invitations gave us something to focus on and acted as a mindfulness exercise by prompting our attention to the present moment. I had walked through the sanctuary before, but my mind wasn’t as present. “No matter how many times you walk through the park, you’re in your head and you miss so much. We all do, we miss so much,” Diane says. “Forest Therapy is a way of being in nature in an embodied way. Experiencing it with all of your senses.”
After exploring each invitation, we would return to our circle to share our experiences, allowing us to relate and learn from each other. I realized at one point that without instruction, every one of us had taken off our socks and shoes. The synergy of the group created a sense of powerful peacefulness. “Even though people might walk by, there’s not that interference. Not to call it a portal, but it’s like going through a portal,” Diane describes. “In a community, we set our own energy field… and it’s almost like the land supports and protects us… I wasn’t doing a lot of talking, you know. I was gently guiding and you participants were sharing your experience.” It felt like we had an invisible protective bubble of love around our group; the other people in the park were merely in the background.
As we wandered around the sanctuary with each invitation in mind, our mind was in what Diane calls “liminal space.” Liminal space refers to a transitional in-between realm. With regards to our brainspace, she details, “We have a modern thinking mind, we’re here, we’re doing this. Then, we have our daydreamy mind where we’re not super in-this-world. And so, this is the space between those two worlds where we’re not super locked in to our thinking brain but we’re not totally tranced out either. It’s incorporating those so our senses are heightened and we feel connected to our body.”
Following invitations to notice patterns and gaze at the water, Diane kindly concluded our Forest Therapy experience by presenting us with an assortment of treats like dates and clementines. “Sharing food and sharing drink is something we’ve done for thousands of years and yet it’s a lost art,” she remarks, “To be in community, in nature, but also in our own space too, is really powerful.” We drank pine needle tea that she brewed herself, an homage to the Native Americans that used it for centuries as a vital source of Vitamin C. At the end of our communitas, Diane gave back to the land by pouring out a cup of tea onto it as a final display of gratitude.
I left the Forest Therapy session feeling more connected to myself, friends, and the environment. Overwhelmingly, I felt at peace. Living in a city may make cultivating a relationship with nature more difficult, but with the intention to pay attention, we can extend the mindfulness aspect of Forest Therapy beyond the scope of one session. In a world so constantly consumed by technology and in a role so conditioned to utilize it, it’s especially valuable as students to unplug when we can. We can incorporate that same harmony we feel in nature into our ways of being as we go through the world — and the world will benefit because of it.