It’s the end of a long, stressful day at work and you’re heading out to a park. You see bright blue skies and colorful bouquets of flowers. You hear the chirping of birds and the quack of a duck. You feel the warmth of the sun on your face and a light breeze caresses your skin. When you take a deep breath, the smell of flowers fills your nose. When you exhale slowly, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, and your tight muscles relax. You experience the restorative powers of nature therapy.
In the 1980s, Tomohide Akiyama, the director of Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, coined the term Shinrin Yoku. This translates into a “forest bath” that encompasses an immersion of all the senses in nature. Specific trails were designed for forest bathing all over Japan, and doctors began prescribing them to their patients.
Since then, people in many countries have adopted the Japanese practice. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of nature therapy. Spending an extended amount of time in nature can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels, and increase your focus and creativity.
The Nature and Forest Therapy Association is an organization that educates and certifies guides to help participants enjoy these benefits. I recently received my certification from ANFT after a 6 month program that explored all aspects of nature therapy.
Although the practice is developed in the forests, my favorite term is “nature therapy”. The experience can be had in any type of nature: forest, beach, grassland or, my favorite, the Arizona desert. Even man-made local parks may be suitable for nature therapy and may be more accessible on a regular basis.
A certified guide can help you fully immerse yourself in the blessings of nature during a 2 or 3 hour experience. Here are some tips to get a taste of nature therapy and start receiving the benefits of nature.
1. Slow down
While hiking can take you through beautiful land and be good exercise, it can be hard to really be present when you have a goal to achieve. To truly immerse yourself in nature, take it slow. Let your breathing slow down and your mind relax. Walk very slowly or sit in one place. This may take some getting used to if you tend to move quickly through the day. Moving slowly helps you focus on what’s right in front of you.
2. Choose a suitable location
Anywhere you can breathe fresh air, hear the sounds of nature, and touch natural materials can be a great place for you to experience nature’s health benefits. If you can get away from the sights and sounds of the man-made world, it will probably be easier to pay close attention to your senses without frequent interruptions. I had the best experiences in the Arizona desert and sitting next to a stream in Colorado. However, I had many relaxing moments sitting on a bench next to the fountains in the park two blocks from my house.
3. Crossing a threshold
Early in your experience, setting and crossing a threshold can help leave the stressful world behind and get into the mindset of connecting with nature. You can designate a bridge you cross or a door you enter through as your threshold. If there is no obvious threshold, choose two trees to pass between or place a branch or rocks across the path and step over them. Take a deep breath or two, shake your body, and consciously walk through the zone for your nature therapy.
4. Pay attention to your senses
You can start by pausing and bringing attention to each of your senses. It helps you ground yourself in the present and become aware of your body and your place in the world. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly. When you exhale, your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, slowing your heart and lowering your blood pressure. It is the natural recovery system after a stressful fight or flight incident.
Stand or sit and look around. Pay attention to colors, shapes and textures. Notice the difference between light and shadows. Then close your eyes or soften your gaze. Draw attention to what you can hear. What’s the furthest sound you can hear? What’s the closest sound you can hear? Is there a rhythm here? Then pay attention to your sense of smell. It can be vivid in some places, like a garden, and very subtle in others, like the desert. You can try to smell particles in the air by opening your mouth and sticking out your tongue. Then inhale deeply.
Finally, pay attention to your sense of touch. Feel the sun on your skin or the breeze moving through your hair. Feel the ground beneath your feet and appreciate your connection to nature and the world.
5. Let yourself be absorbed by nature
As you move slowly through nature, allow yourself to be drawn to whatever catches your eye. Take the time to study a flower or watch an insect crawl along the ground. Have a conversation with a tree. Place your hands or feet in a stream and notice that all of your senses are engaged. Pick up some dirt or a stone and feel the connection to your skin. Sit or lie down in the same place for 10 or 20 minutes and observe what is happening around you. Try to be completely absorbed by your senses. When your mind returns to all your usual worries, try to bring attention back to one or more of your senses.
6. Look to the horizon
For most of our evolution, humans lived in open areas so they could watch out for danger. Our eyes and our brain have developed to look towards the horizon. Now we spend a lot of time staring at a computer a foot away from our faces or doing other close-up work, which is stressful over time. When we watch from a distance, our brain can relax and recover. Many people tell how a brilliant idea came to them while walking. When our brain relaxes by being in nature, new neural connections can be made, leading to creativity and focus. Spend at least some time each day outdoors looking at an open space or the mountains in the distance.
Seeing the branching of trees or bushes also relaxes our brain. The way trees spread out into smaller and smaller branches is called fractals. The structure of our brain and the vessels in the retinas at the back of our eyes follow a similar pattern. Seeing tree fractals triggers feelings of recognition and delight in our brain. The orderly flow of fractals aids our thinking while complicated views cause stress.
7. Intentionally return to the human world
When leaving the natural area, you can return to the human world by crossing another threshold or having a small ceremony. By expressing your gratitude to the natural world you are leaving, you can internalize all that you have learned. You can slowly come back into your life, bringing with you awareness of your senses and a sense of connection to the natural world. Many nature therapy guides hold a tea ceremony in keeping with the Japanese roots of the practice. I ask participants to share their thoughts or feelings that arise from the experience, and then we express our gratitude to the land. I then read the poem wild goose, by Marie-Olivier.
8. Prepare in advance for your comfort
Dress in comfortable clothes that will suit the terrain and weather. You may want to bring a small stool or rug to provide a more comfortable seating experience. Also bring water and a snack so you can linger as long as you want. Be aware of any dangerous animals or terrain on your walks.
9. Share your experience with others
You will probably want to spend most of your time alone so that you can go at your own pace and experience nature in your own way. However, having other people to gather with and share what you are going through can add to the benefits. ANFT guides lead walks that help you stay in the present and become aware of your senses.
10. Get regular small doses and occasional large doses of nature
Various studies have demonstrated the benefits of spending different amounts of time in nature. Even after just 15 minutes, participants showed reduced stress and improved thinking skills. Spending a few hours in nature shows deeper effects and these effects can linger for days. A good plan would be to spend at least 15 minutes a day outdoors among plants and trees. Try to spend an hour or two each week in nature to fully immerse yourself and experience its full benefits. These effects may linger even longer if you give yourself these short daily bursts.
Nature therapy has many health benefits and can make us feel calm, focused and happy. Treat yourself as often as you can. You can find a certified guide in your area via the Nature and Forest Therapy Association to help you get started.
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