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Forest bathers: A slow hike can help your health

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A woman stands in the forest with her eyes closed.
Leigha Horton of Silvae Spiritus closes her eyes as she invites participants to ground themselves and focus on their sense of hearing on Sept. 23, 2019, at Crosby Regional Farm in St. Paul. Horton leads guided nature and forest therapy walks, which connect participants to their surroundings by focusing on all of the senses.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Many Minnesotans enjoy walking in the woods, but some are now doing it a lot slower. Followers of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or "forest bathing" have adapted it for use here. The guided hikes promote the mental and physical advantages of reconnecting with nature.

One practitioner’s story begins in 2016.

"I was nearly killed in the Boundary Waters," said Leigha Horton. She was camping in the wilderness when a huge storm hit. Two people died during the July blowdown when storm winds snapped many trees and uprooted others.

Horton wasn’t hurt, although it did take almost a day to reach safety. Yet the experience left her floundering for a year. Then she heard about forest bathing, an idea developed in Japan to boost people's physical and mental health by reconnecting them with nature.

"It was like the universe hit this great big tuning fork and my heart was like, 'Yes! Let's go do that,'" she said.

Fast forward to a fall day in 2019. A group gathered near the picnic shelter at Crosby Farm Park in St Paul. Horton has become a certified nature and forest therapy guide and the co-founder of Silvae Spiritus, a company that offers forest bathing.

Horton carried a bag filled with snacks and sitting pads to first-aid kits and lemon-scented organic bug spray.

First, she explains to her group of seven hikers the history of forest bathing goes back to the mid-1980s in Japan, when government officials began focusing on why people were getting sick.

"They were experiencing various autoimmune diseases, stress-related diseases, heart issues, cancer, depression, suicide," she said.

Some pointed to industrialized society that had separated people from nature. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries launched a program based on its own forest research.

"What they found is that there is a compound that all trees and plants release to some extent — called phytoncides," Horton said.

The compound protects trees and plants from predator attacks by making them taste less pleasant.

Researchers found that humans react positively to phytoncides. Forest bathing proponents say the substance affects heart rate, and can lower stress hormone levels.

A closeup of hands pressed together.
Participants put their hands together as they focus on their sense of touch.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Horton offers a deeper experience: a guided meditation through the woods.

"This is going to be slow," she said "Very slow. Likely slower than you have ever walked through nature in the past."

As Horton leads the group along the trail, she also prompts the hikers to think about what they see and hear.

She suggests the group first listen to the sounds coming from close by, and then focus on sounds coming from half a mile away.

"I wonder if, whoever is responsible for that sound, if they know that we can hear them," Horton said. Just then a distant siren begins wailing. The unexpected, but perfectly timed sound causes a few smiles.

The group circles up and people share what they are experiencing.

"I was noticing it was a challenge not to work harder at it," said retired elementary school teacher Liz Cochran.

"This kind of took me by surprise," said Vaughn Ormseth. “It was sort of like a different dimension."

The circles are the U.S. addition to forest bathing. Horton describes the sharing of experience as culture repair. She said people may seem connected by social media, but they don’t spend as much time face to face.

The hike is a little over a mile, but it takes two hours.

By its end, the forest bathers have peered at bark and leaves through magnifying glasses, watched the evening sun dapple ground, and felt the wind in the trees.

A woman sitting in front of a tea set with five other people near a river.
Leigha Horton of Silvae Spiritus ends the guided nature and forest therapy walk with a tea ceremony.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

They have also sat completely alone in the woods for 15 minutes. That's difficult for some.

Finally the hikers gather to share tea made from foraged leaves. Everyone is in a mellow mood. Horton reads a poem by David Wagoner called "Lost."

"If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you."

Horton's company is one of a number of organizations offering forest bathing hikes in Minnesota, including through the winter.