It is the end of a long, stressful day of work and you step outdoors into a park. You see a bright blue sky and colorful bunches of flowers. You hear the chirping of birds and the quack of a duck. You feel the warm sun on your face and a light breeze caresses your skin. As you take a deep breath, the smell of the flowers fills your nose. As you exhale slowly, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, and your tight muscles relax. You are experiencing the restorative powers of nature therapy.
In the 1980s, Tomohide Akiyama, the director of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, coined the term Shinrin Yoku. This translates to “forest bathing” which encompasses an immersion of all of the senses in nature. Specific trails were designed for forest bathing throughout Japan and doctors began prescribing it to their patients.
Since then, people in many countries have adopted the Japanese practice. Many studies have shown the benefits of nature therapy. Spending an extended period in nature can boost your immune system, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, and increase your focus and creativity.
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is an organization that instructs and certifies guides to help participants experience 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 forests, my favorite term for it is “nature therapy.” The experience can be enjoyed in any type of nature: forest, beach, grasslands, or, my favorite, in the Arizona desert. Even man-made local parks can be suitable for nature therapy and can be more accessible on a regular basis.
A certified guide can help you to fully immerse yourself in the benefits of nature over 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 bring you through some beautiful lands and be good exercise, it can be difficult to be truly present when you have a goal to reach. To truly immerse yourself in nature, go slow. Allow your breathing to slow and your mind to relax. Walk very slowly or sit in one place. This can take some getting used to if you tend to move quickly through your day. Moving slowly helps you to focus on what is right in front of you.
2. Choose A Suitable Location
Anywhere you can breathe fresh air, hear the sounds of nature, and touch some natural materials can be a good place to allow you to reap the health benefits of nature. If you can get away from the sights and sounds of the man-made world, it will likely be easier to pay close attention to your senses without frequent interruptions. I have had the best experiences deep in the desert of Arizona and while sitting next to a stream in Colorado. However, I have spent many relaxing moments sitting on a bench next to the fountains in the park two blocks from my home.
3. Cross A Threshold
At the start of your experience, defining and crossing a threshold can help to leave the stressful world behind and get into the mindset of connecting with nature. You can designate a bridge you cross or a gate you enter through as the 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 out your body, and mindfully cross into the area for your nature therapy.
4. Pay Attention To Your Senses
You can start by pausing and mindfully bringing attention to each of your senses. This helps to ground you in the present and bring awareness to your body and your place in the world. Take a deep breath in and breathe out slowly. As you breathe out, your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, slowing your heart and decreasing your blood pressure. This is the natural recovery system after a stressful fight-or-flight incident.
Stand or sit in place and gaze around. Pay attention to colors, shapes, and textures. Notice the difference between light and shadows. Then close your eyes or soften your gaze. Bring attention to what you can hear. What is the farthest sound you can hear? What is the closest sound you can hear? Is there a rhythm to this place? Then bring your attention to your sense of smell. This can be vivid in some locations, such as a garden, and very subtle in others, such as the desert. You can try to taste particles in the air by opening your mouth and sticking out your tongue. Then take a deep breath in.
Finally, bring attention to your sense of touch. Feel the sun on your skin or the breeze move through your hair. Feel the ground under your feet and appreciate your connection with nature and the world.
5. Allow Yourself To Be Absorbed By Nature
As you move slowly through nature, allow yourself to be drawn to whatever catches your attention. Take some time to study a flower or watch an insect crawl along the dirt. Have a conversation with a tree. Place your hands or feet in a stream and notice all your senses being engaged. Pick up some dirt or a rock and feel the connection with your skin. Sit or lie in one spot for 10 or 20 minutes and watch what happens around you. Try to get absorbed fully by your senses. When your mind starts wandering back to all of 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 for danger. Our eyes and brains developed to look to the horizon. Now we spend a large amount of time staring at a computer a foot from our faces or other close-up work, which is stressful over time. When we look out at a distance, our brains can relax and recover. Many people will talk about how a great idea came to them while walking. When our brains relax by being out in nature, new neural connections can be made, leading to creativity and focus. Spend at least a little time each day outside looking over an open area or to the mountains in the distance.
Viewing the branching of trees or bushes also relaxes our brains. The way trees spread out into ever diminishing branches is called fractals. The structure of our brains and the vessels of the retinas at the back of our eyes follow a similar pattern. Seeing the fractals of the trees triggers feelings of recognition and pleasure in our brains. The orderly flow of fractals eases our thinking while complicated views cause stress.
7. Move Intentionally Back Into The Human World
As you leave the natural area, you can transition back into the human world by crossing another threshold or having a small ceremony. By expressing gratitude to the natural world you are leaving, you can internalize anything you learned. You can move gently back into your life, bringing along the awareness of your senses and the feeling of connection to the natural world. Many nature therapy guides hold a tea ceremony in harmony with the Japanese roots of the practice. I ask the participants to share any thoughts or feelings that come from the experience and then we express gratitude to the land. I then read the poem Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.
8. Prepare Ahead Of Time For Your Comfort
Dress in comfortable clothes that will be appropriate for the terrain and weather. You may want to bring a small stool or mat to provide a more comfortable sit spot experience. Also bring water and a snack so you can linger as long as you want. Be aware of any dangerous animals or terrain while wandering.
9. Share Your Experience With Others
You will likely want to spend most of your time by yourself so that you can go at your own pace and experience nature in your own way. However, having others to gather with and share what you are experiencing can add to the benefits. ANFT guides lead walks that help you to stay in the present and be aware of your senses.
10. Get Small Regular Doses And Occasional Large Doses Of Nature
Various studies have demonstrated the benefits of spending different amounts of time in nature. Even after only 15 minutes, participants showed reduced stress and improved thinking abilities. Spending a few hours in nature shows more profound effects and these effects can linger over days. A good plan would be to spend at least 15 minutes every day outdoors among plants and trees. Try to spend an hour or two every week in nature to fully immerse and get its full benefits. These effects can linger even longer if you give yourself those daily short bursts.
Nature therapy has many health benefits and can keep us feeling calm, focused, and happy. Indulge yourself as often as you can. You can find a certified guide in your area through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy for help getting started.
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