COVID. George Floyd. Unrest. Unemployment. Since the pandemic hit, it’s felt like a near-constant state of siege.
David Motzenbecker knows what that’s like. On a recent podcast he said, “Right now … we are all in a state of constant low-level fight or flight stress. Our bodies are drip, drip, drip with cortisol, stress hormones, all the time with this low-level stress and that’s causing a lot of bad health problems for everyone.”
Motzenbecker has a remedy. He’s not a doctor or therapist. He’s a landscape architect who works full time as a forest guide. He takes people out in the woods, helping them slow down and soak up a natural remedy to stress: Forest bathing.
“Forest bathing allows us to switch off that (fight or flight response) and enter that rest and digest part of our nervous system that we all need to recover,” Motzenbecker told me.
Forest bathing took root halfway across the world, in Japan, when the country’s stress levels and suicides were rising in the early 80’s. Instead of pills or talk therapy, many Japanese people turned to nature. Shinrin-yoku means forest bathing, but not skinny dipping in a lake. Instead, it’s immersing oneself in nature, awash in the natural world.
Decades after Japan popularized it, forest bathing has splashed across the globe. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy has trained about 2,000 forest guides in 66 countries, Motzenbecker is one of two certified guides in Minnesota. On a breezy Saturday, I met Motzenbecker at our state’s only official forest bathing site, Silverwood Park, where he was leading a small tour group that included David Donovan, the park’s program coordinator. The two Davids designed the suburban Saint Anthony forest bathing course.
When he leads tours, Motzenbecker invites people to explore nature with all their senses. “Go out in the woods, find a treasure that fits in the palm of your hand,” he suggests. “Stare at a water diamond, watch the patterns.”
For two hours or so, we slow down. We meander on and off the dirt trails, stand in one spot for twenty minutes. It’s a quiet, intentional experience, more like restorative yoga than a fast-paced trek. It’s not about covering ground, instead, it’s paying attention to the ground, and everything around you — leaves skittering in the breeze, tree tops swaying gently, ducks quacking in the pond, cars whooshing on nearby roads, the occasional plane thrumming across the sky.
Two hours or so after I walked into the woods, I left refreshed, feeling lighter, calmed and delighted with my first forest bath.
I paid $41 for that restorative tour; money well spent. But you don’t have to pay a penny to forest bathe. With practice, you can slow down and soak in nature, with or without a guide. But as Motzenbecker says, “I liken it to any kind of practice. You can do that yoga practice in front of your TV set or in your backyard and you will certainly get a lot of excellent benefits from it, however, if you do it with a teacher or a practice guide, you’re going to get a level of depth that you wouldn’t get just doing it by yourself. So there’s advantages to both.”
Silverwood makes it easy for people who want to try forest bathing on their own. The park offers a self-guided trail, with artful trail signs made by Theresa Ptak.
The sign at the trail entrance explains: “the goal in forest bathing is more like wandering and exploring, letting your mind draw you in different directions. It is the medicine of being in the forest.”
Donovan emphasizes you don’t need a forest to forest bath, “Forest bathing isn’t exclusive to forest. Really, it’s more accurately nature bathing. This can be done in a backyard … This isn’t meant to be elite. This is accessible. You can do it alone, all ages and abilities.”
Silverwood’s forest bathing course will be a permanent part of the park that Donovan hopes will be a “fun testing grounds” inspiring forest bathing sites to sprout up at other parks.
There’s good reasons for parks to add forest bathing trails. Science has plenty of studies showing the benefits of forest bathing. Two quiet hours in the woods can reduce blood pressure and stress levels by almost twenty percent.
Are you ready to dip your toe into forest bathing? There aren’t formal rules, no absolute right or wrong ways to do it. Here’s a few tips you might want to try:
- Turn off your phone. No beeps, buzzes, rings. No camera
- Explore the wood using all your senses
- Give yourself time. It takes awhile to relax your breathing, and begin reconnecting with the natural world around you
So head outside to a city park bench or a big nature preserve. Take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes, listen, feel, smell, touch, look, breath. What do you notice?
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