What is this “Forest Therapy” I keep hearing about?
The practice of Forest Therapy (also called Forest Bathing but I promise no swimming is required!) is new to the UK although it’s been popular in Asia for 40+ years. You can think of it as Mindfulness in Nature.
I’m often asked what’s involved so I’ve described the key elements that make up a typical Adore Your Outdoors Forest Therapy session below:
1 – A Group Experience 🌳
I’m never sure what reaction I’ll get when I explain what I do for work these days. Some people are intrigued and ask lots of questions, and others say, “Oh I already do that when I walk alone”. But you cannot really do Forest Therapy on your own (or with your dog, actually!).
How come? Because a full Forest Therapy session is facilitated by a certified guide (me!) who guides participants through a series of group and individual mindfulness exercises (known as invitations). We end most invitations in a ‘sharing circle‘, and you all get the opportunity to share thoughts and feelings. The experience can ignite powerful connections and relationships with the guide, the group, and the forest itself. Because the sessions are always in small groups, the intimacy allows for the creation of a trusting bond that encourages bravery and honesty.
When someone shares, we all listen; it isn’t a discussion. This way everyone benefits from a broader depth of experience compared to if you were alone. It’s wonderful to listen as people speak of long-forgotten childhood memories or feelings of joy and delight as they start to reconnect with nature. Some invitations also enable the processing of feelings of grief, anger and sadness.
Although I’m also a participant in the session, as your guide I am responsible for holding a safe space for everyone during these sharing circles. It’s completely OK if you don’t want to share anything if it doesn’t feel right for you and you might find certain invitations prompt you to share more than others.
The full 3-hour experience ends with tea brewed from foraged ingredients, which is a wonderfully fitting way to close the experience, as we take some of the forest into our bodies. We all smell and taste the tea together, and give thanks to nature for the experience. This last invitation also provides the opportunity for a more casual chat before a return to normality.
2 – Sensory Immersion 🌳
The invitations are designed to activate and heighten your senses, bringing attention to the present moment and help you get in touch with sensations within your bodies. It’s like turning your awareness, your aliveness, your SOUL up to maximum so that the incessant chatter in your minds can be switched off or at the very least turned right down.. Things that you might otherwise not have noticed are suddenly mesmerising.
It is not possible for me to achieve this to the same degree when I’m alone in the woods. I am still thinking about the time, my next commitments, my friends, family and of course my personal safety. And having my phone right there means I’ll likely end up checking it. You might have seen Steph McGovern trying Forest Bathing on ‘Easy Ways to Live Well’ last year, she was only asked to do 30 mins but couldn’t resist looking at her phone!
It’s why I encourage you move into silence, to switch your phone to airplane mode, and to resist taking photos if you can, so you can let all that stuff go for the 3 hours, instead bringing all your focus to the place we are in, what you see, hear, touch, taste (yep!) and smell. You won’t get the benefits unless you do it properly so you might as well make the most of it.
And it really does work – it might not happen instantly but if you practice regularly you will connect to yourself, your body and your surroundings and find a growing sense of gratitude, joy, kindness towards others and even feelings of belonging coming from deep within your core, as you feel less stressed by the paraphernalia of everyday life.
3 – Nature Connection 🌳
Do you ever feel lonely without really understanding why? The more I learn about nature therapy the more I believe that these feelings are a direct result from us being indoors and on technology so much. We are simply not meant to live that way.
During a Forest Therapy session, we spend time paying attention to the little things around us that we might otherwise not notice. It’s a revelation! Twitter has a wonderful hashtag for this #smallbeautieshour 🍄 You might even start to feel more grounded with a sense of belonging you weren’t expecting to feel in a forest! I myself am absolutely loving my personal nature connection journey, which started 4 years ago with the Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild, an initiative that runs every June and aims to get your doing a daily ‘wild’ activity.
It’s worth mentioning that we don’t identify species on the walk; naming is not the true knowing 😍
As we connect with nature, we develop a more reciprocal relationship with the natural environment. Last year when the caterpillars demolished my purple sprouting broccoli, I wasn’t going to use a pesticide because of the damage done further up the food chain, and it was easy for me to think YAY for the birds and the butterflies instead. Human beings are a part of nature, we ARE nature, I want to be kind to all types of nature (I’ve even overcome my fear of spiders!).
4 – Enjoyment 🌳
During the 8-day residential training course (future blog post!) this element of Forest Therapy really struck a chord, and I absolutely love the phrase we use which is “orienting to pleasure”. I don’t know why but I love it
Everything you do in the session is intended to bring about enjoyment because with it comes deep relaxation, and when you’re relaxed, you’re more likely to be able to turn off the chatter in your minds and connect with your bodies and the surroundings. And it is then that the real magic can happen, and healing take place. Without you even trying.
Some invitations such as scrolls and gratitude alters use props which add a mystical element, and people often speak of connecting with pleasurable memories and a sense of carefree curiosity they haven’t felt since childhood. As adults, seldom do we express ourselves with this childlike curiosity and it can be liberating to do so.
Invitations are just that – invitations – meaning they are optional, and I always explain that if you feel drawn to doing something different (as long as it’s within reason!), you absolutely can do it because your experience is personal to you and YOU will get what YOU need from the forest.
And of course, there’s the part where I enable you to free yourself from all your responsibilities for a few hours, which is a truly immense gift.
5 – Slow paced 🌳
You won’t work up a sweat on a forest therapy session! Other than the initial walk in, and the final walk out, we move very slowly through the forest to allow sufficient time to establish, build and deepen connections to the beings around you.
The slow pace can be uncomfortable for some, at the start in particular, since we are so used to always rushing around. Doing everything at a frantic pace has become our new normal. So, for the first hour or so, I set the pace for the group and often we’re very still, barely moving at all. You might well be someone who struggles with this and fret not, you would be in very good company!
But usually after the first two invitations, you’ve relaxed, your senses are enlivened, and you will be enjoying moving so slowly because you want to stop and connect, taking your time to get to really be present, noticing little things you’ve never noticed before. After all the rushing around you do, doesn’t it sound wonderful to be asked to slow down?!
6 – Peaceful 🌳
How do you feel about silence? It can be uncomfortable for some, while others love it (I’m a lover!).
In Forest Therapy we are often silent, because silence helps you to relax and when relaxed, you’ll find it easier to connect to nature and maybe even find answers you’ve been looking for. The first invitation is a guided meditation which I lead but most of the others are done individually and in silence (unless you speak to your tree which is a distinct possibility!) and you’ll likely find that the silence is precisely what you want.
Casual chatter and mobile phones are discouraged as they take you back into the thinking mind but of course I can’t force you not to chat. My recommendation though – you only have 3 hours – make them count.
7 – Variety 🌳
Each Forest Therapy session is different. The location, weather, season, participants, other people and animals and my own gut instinct all influence which invitations I choose to facilitate. Some involve props, some are done alone, others in pairs or as a group, some involve movement, and some involve doing very little other than just being present.
The first invitation is almost always “Pleasures of Presence” because it starts the process of slowing down to maximise relaxation. This is a guided meditation that involves about 20 mins of sensory activation with eyes closed. It’s one of my favourite invitations although when I was learning it was the one I found the most scary! As I’ve gained experience, I have learnt to trust that I’ll deliver it in the way that’s appropriate for the session, and I include things that come to me in that moment, in that place.
And of course, the shares that come afterwards are different every time as they are personal to you. Someone said the other day that she forgot about pain for the first time in months – it’s such a privilege to be able to help you like this (although it’s mostly not me, it’s you and the forest!).
And that’s the 7 elements! I really hope the summary has been useful and helped shine some light on the amazing practice of Forest Therapy / Forest Bathing.
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