Zencast: Forest bathing and Spring Lake Regional Park

Reduce stress with this guided mindfulness exercise

An egret in the water.
Follow along on a simple guided forest bathing led by certified nature and forest therapy guide Leigha Horton, accompanied by scenes and sounds from Spring Lake Regional Park.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR
Leigha Horton guides a virtual forest bathing exercise.

As we’re nearing one month under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, many of us might feel increasingly isolated or stressed due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. 

While the order allows for outdoor activities while maintaining social distance, it can be tough for those who are immunocompromised or under quarantine. 

Leigha Horton is a certified nature and forest therapy guide. She leads forest therapy walks through Silvae Spiritus, a company she co-founded. The practice, also referred to as shinrin-yoku in Japanese, is a slow-moving guided hike that promotes the health and wellness benefits of connecting with nature and your senses.

We spoke about how to incorporate forest bathing into your life, even if you’re unable to get outside.

The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity. Watch the video above for a short guided meditation.

What is forest bathing and how does it work? 

Forest bathing, or nature and forest therapy, is basically mindful and more accurately “bodyful” time spent in nature. Nature and forest therapy drops you into each of your senses and heightens those senses so that you can then be aware of your surroundings. 

When I say “bodyful,” I mean that instead of bringing you up into your brain and having you ruminate about certain things, it's inherently trauma-informed and it places you in your body instead. And so it's the ultimate present: What am I feeling now in this moment? What am I hearing now in this moment? Smelling? Tasting? What does certain things feel like to the skin? What is the touch experience like? It's a very slow practice. It's not meant to get you, much like hiking, it's not meant to get you from here to there. It's to just get you here — now.  

It has a load of physical and psychological health benefits, but it also brings us back to our inherent relationship with ourselves as part of nature and the larger nature around us. Just as we have sentience, so do animals and trees and plants. Forest bathing explores what it looks and feels like when we allow ourselves to be in relation to these other sentient beings.

How does it help with managing stress and staying well?

There have been quite a few studies that have come out from Japan, Korea, Scotland, Finland and the United States that show that exposure to nature lowers our stress levels on many levels. When we spend mindful, bodyful time in nature, humans often experience a measurable shift out of their sympathetic nervous systems ("fight, flight, freeze or fawn"), into their parasympathetic systems ("rest and digest"). 

Are there ways to incorporate forest bathing practices in our daily lives? What if you don’t have access to a park or can’t go outside during the pandemic? 

If you do have safe access to the outdoors, you can do something even as simple as sitting outside while you have your lunch. You can sit on a bench, whether that be in your backyard or in your local park. If you spend 15 minutes sitting in the same place, nature will sort of unfold for you. Some of the area critters will start to be less nervous about your presence and start going back about their daily business. You might have animals get much closer to you than they would otherwise.

If you can't get outside, just sit at a window and notice what's in motion. If you do that for 10 minutes, you get that exposure to fractals, which are repeating patterns in nature. If you have your window open a little bit, you may have exposure to phytoncides, which are these organic compounds that trees release that have beautiful effects on the human body. Although, phytoncides usually are only released at certain temperatures and it's too cold for phytoncides right now. 

If you're indoors and you can't get outside, aside from window gazing, if you have a houseplant, take it down from the shelf and maybe pick up some soil in your fingers and smell what that soil smells like. There are more microbes in a cup full of soil than there are stars in the universe. You can also touch that houseplant — What does it feel like? Does it feel like what you expected it to feel like?

Another option if you don't have a house plant is simply pulling up a video on your computer or on your TV. YouTube has plenty of free shinrin-yoku videos that you can watch that are just slow pans through nature. And if you watch those and just walk yourself through your senses — What are you noticing? What are you seeing? What are you smelling? What are you tasting?

Even though you're not physically in that place, your body remembers what it's like when it has been in those places, and it can still trigger some of the same autoimmune responses. 

Are there ways forest bathing can be used to safely maintain connections during the pandemic? 

One of the things that we do when we guide people is that in between what we call invitations — which are sort of frames in which people can experience nature and forest therapy — we have people come together and do a little bit of light sharing in a circle. While they're in that circle, their sole job is simply to listen to what the other person is sharing.

Then when it comes time for them to share — to share with their whole heart — [I encourage them to] keep it in the present with questions like, what are you noticing or what am I noticing? It’s one of those ways to keep everyone grounded in the moment.

And that sharing is what we refer to as cultural repair. We are in this culture right now of disconnection. We think we're connected and we try to be connected. But with social distancing and with social media and physical distancing, all of these things are forcing us physically away from one another. This is a way to come together safely with members of your household and share what you're all noticing. You'd be surprised how different the things are that people notice. It's really a lovely window into other people's experiences.

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