It’s the end of a long, stressful work day and you step outside into a park. You see a clear blue sky and colorful bushes of flowers. You hear the chirping of birds and the croaking of an end. You feel the warm sun on your face and a light breeze soothes your skin. When you take a deep breath, the scent of the flowers fills your nose. If you exhale slowly, your heart rate will drop, your blood pressure will drop, and your tight muscles will relax. You will experience the restorative powers of natural 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 baths” which include an immersion of all senses in nature. Specific tracks were designed for forest baths throughout Japan and doctors began prescribing it for their patients.
Since then, people in many countries have adopted the Japanese practice. Many studies have shown the benefits of natural therapy. Spending a longer period in nature can stimulate 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 ANFT certification after a 6 month program that explored all aspects of naturopathy.
Although the practice is developed in forests, my favorite term for it is “nature therapy.” The experience can be enjoyed in all kinds of nature: forest, beach, meadows, or, my favorite, in the desert of Arizona. Even man-made local parks may be suitable for natural therapy and may become more accessible on a regular basis.
A certified guide can help you fully immerse yourself in the benefits of nature over an experience of 2 or 3 hours. Here are some tips to get a taste of nature therapy and start enjoying the benefits of nature.
While walking can take you through some beautiful lands and can be good exercise, it can be difficult to really be present when you have a goal to achieve. To really immerse yourself in nature, go slow. Let your breathing slow down and your mind 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 focus on what is right for you.
2. Choose a suitable location
Wherever you can breathe fresh air, hear the sounds of nature, and touch some natural materials can be a good place to reap the health benefits of nature. If you can get away from the sights and sounds of the man-made world, it will probably 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 on a bench next to the fountains in the park two blocks from my house.
3. Cross A Threshold
At the beginning 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 that crosses you or a gate that you enter as a threshold. If there is no clear threshold, choose two trees to cross or place a branch or rock across the path and step over it. Take a deep breath or two, shake your body out, and consciously cross the area for your natural therapy.
4. Pay attention to your senses
You can start by stopping and paying 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 and exhale slowly. When you exhale, your parasympathetic nervous system is busy, slowing down your heart and lowering your blood pressure. This is the natural recovery system after a stressful fight-or-flight incident.
Stand or sit on the spot and look around. Pay attention to colors, shapes and textures. Note the difference between light and shadow. Then close your eyes or soften your gaze. Pay attention to what you can hear. What is the furthest 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 lively in some locations, such as a garden, and very subtle in others, such as the desert. You can try tasting particles in the air by opening your mouth and sticking out your tongue. Then take a deep breath.
Lastly, pay attention to your sense of touch. Feel the sun on your skin as the wind moves through your hair. Feel the ground beneath your feet and appreciate your connection to nature and the world.
5. Allow yourself to be absorbed by nature
As you slowly move through nature, allow yourself to be drawn to what catches your attention. Take some time to study a flower or see an insect crawling along the dirt. Have a chat with a tree. Place your hands or feet in a stream and notice that all your senses are engaged. Pick up some dirt or a rock and feel the connection with your skin. Sit or lie down in one place for 10 or 20 minutes and see what is happening around you. Try to be fully absorbed by your senses. When your mind starts to wander back to all your usual worries, try to bring the attention back to one or more of your senses.
6. Look at The Horizon
For most of our evolution, humans lived in open areas so they could look for danger. Our eyes and brains evolved to look at the horizon. Now we spend a lot of time staring at a computer a foot away from our faces or other close-up work, which is stressful over time. When we look at it from a distance, our brains can relax and recover. Many people will talk about how a great idea came to them while walking. As our brains relax by being in nature, new neural connections can be made, leading to creativity and focus. Spend at least a little time each day going outside to an open area or to the mountains in the distance.
Watching the branching of trees or shrubs also relaxes our brains. The way trees disperse in ever fewer 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 joy in our brains. The orderly flow of fractals makes our thinking easier, while intricate views cause stress.
7. Intentionally move back into the human world
When you leave the natural area, you can return to the human world by crossing another threshold or having a small ceremony. By expressing gratitude to the natural world you leave behind, you can internalize everything you have learned. You can gently return to your life, bringing awareness to your senses and feeling connected to the natural world. Many naturopathic 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 for the country. I then read the poem Wild goose, by Mary Oliver.
8. Prepare ahead of time for your comfort
Ready in comfortable clothes that are suitable for the terrain and weather. You may want to bring a small stool or mat to provide a more comfortable seating experience. Also bring water and a snack so you can have it for as long as you want. Be aware of any dangerous animals or terrain while wandering.
9. Share your experience with others
You will probably 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 guide walks that help you stay in the moment and be aware of your senses.
10. Get small regular doses and occasional large doses of nature
Several studies have shown the benefits of spending different amounts of time in nature. Even after only 15 minutes, the participants showed reduced stress and improved thinking skills. Spending a few hours in nature shows deeper effects and these effects can last for days. A good plan would be to spend at least 15 minutes every day outdoors between plants and trees. Try to spend an hour or two in nature each week to fully immerse yourself and get the full benefits. These effects can last even longer if you give yourself those daily short bursts.
Natural therapy has many health benefits and can make us feel calm, focused and happy. Make 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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