It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.
— Robert Louis Stevenson
The Japanese practice of forest bathing – shinrin-yoku – where people spend time in forested areas to enhance wellness, health and happiness, has taken hold all over the world, and the Hudson Valley is no exception. Jane Dobson, a “mindful nature guide,” will be leading members and visitors at the Mohonk Preserve in the art of forest bathing one Saturday a month: September 11, October 9 and November 20, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at specific trailheads within the 8,000-acre nature preserve.
“It’s a wellness practice,” says Dobson as she sits on a wooden bench perched next to the stream that flows into Split Rock, near the Coxing trailhead. “It’s more than just spending time in the outdoors. At its core, forest bathing is a way for us to reestablish our connection with the natural world, which, sadly, for many people, has really been broken.”
How broken have we become from the natural world, of which we are a part? The statistics are calamitous, especially when contrasted with the mental, physical and overall health benefits that are generated by spending time in nature. Dobson mentions a few studies offhand, including one recent one from “the UK, where they note that children today spend less time outdoors than prison inmates do.” If that’s not frightening enough, she turns to a study by the US Environmental Protection Agency, “which concluded that the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors or inside of a car.”
Yes, when science is brought into the picture, the benefits of unlocking ourselves from this human-made asphalt jungle are quite extraordinary. According to the CDC and the Mayo Clinic and any number of medical journals, time spent immersed in nature has shown to decrease the heart rate and the hormone cortisol, which is the chemical attached to fear and anxiety. Other health benefits of spending time outdoors, in nature, include elevated moods, improved focus, reduced anxiety, decrease in blood pressure and improved immune system activity.
There are off-gases that trees produce that are linked to increased level of endorphins and serotonin – happy and calming hormones in the body – and forest therapy guides point to the way trees keep themselves healthy by showering their own trunks and leaves in phytoncides: essential oils that protect the tree from fungus and other disease. “The amazing thing is that the research shows that, because human genes evolved in the natural environment, humans have similar reaction to phytoncides,” said Dobson. “Our bodies produce special white blood cells that roam the body looking for stressed cells and preventatively killing them off.”
Forest bathing or “forest therapy” has now evolved into a worldwide community known as the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), with 800 trained guides operating in over 55 countries, centered around what we all intuitively know: that nature is healing and that we are part of the natural world. “For more than 99.9 percent of our existence on Earth, we have been intimately part of the natural world, and somewhere along the way we’ve lost that. And with that loss, we’ve developed so much stress, depression, anxiety,” notes Dobson. “It’s more of a ‘remembering’ when we spend time in the woods – a feeling of coming home, of reestablishing those deep connections to the sound and rhythms. We’ve become divorced from nature, and we’re told that nature is ‘dangerous.’” Ironically, a lot of what ails us can be greatly eased by spending time in nature, whether it’s depression, heartbreak, anxiety, loneliness, fear. Our more-than-human world is designed to restore us to balance, if we allow ourselves to open the door and go outside.
How does it work? It’s not a 10,000-step app or an Outward Bound venture to the top of Mount Everest or Machu Picchu, but instead is a simple greeting for each participant back to “the more-than-human world – the smell of the sensuous, a certain amount of slowing down, centering, breath awareness, physical activity, sensory connection,” she says.
To that end, Dobson invites participants use their senses and touch something to feel the texture. “It’s self-directed. Someone might reach out and touch bark, another person grass, someone else a rock. I build in a sit-spot, because I think it’s so important just to sit and observe and be present in the natural world.”
She’s quick to note that part of the practice is about experiencing these sensations and being more connected to the natural world as individuals, but then coming back together and sharing discoveries, observations or simply listening. This practice is a springboard toward rekindling adventure and creativity that could remain blocked by all of the artificial walls and fences and buildings that lie between humans and their original home. “We never go that far,” she explains. “We use any of the major trailheads at the Preserve, which all lead to beautiful spots, and that makes it accessible to more people.”
Dobson herself was a full-time corporate attorney working for various water technologies. “It was a great job, working on trying to help solve the world’s water problems; but I worked a lot and had a long commute. And I began to realize how disconnected I’d become from nature and how important that connection was to my sense of well-being.” She made a major life-shift, and while she still practices law, she does it on a part-time basis. In the meantime, she has become a licensed yoga instructor, a certified mindful nature guide, a New York State licensed outdoor guide and the founder of Mind the Forest, LLC, which provides forest bathing programs to the public at local parks and preserves. She lives in High Falls and says that she’s in love with the Gunks (Shawangunk Ridge) and “its history of renewal and land preservation.”
She says that while reclaiming that connection to nature and making that shift in her life and engaging in more wellness activities like meditation and yoga and hiking, it was “forest bathing and the community that really inspired me.” Asked what it is that she enjoys most about being a guide, she responds, “a feeling of authenticity, of putting out a message I feel so passionately about and sharing that beautiful experience with folks who join the programs. It connects me to that universal truth – to that thing that is greater than all of us.”
Looking at humans’ dependence on fossil fuels, the rapid deforestation taking place and all of the things that are throwing the natural world and every species (including humans) inside of it out of balance, Dobson notes that this reconnection is also about helping people realize how critical our natural world is to their own well-being and the world’s well-being. We protect what we love, and if we reposition ourselves, even for a few hours a week, back into the belly of nature, we may not only feel more peace and calm and creativity, but could also find the inspiration to heal our world as we heal ourselves.
To learn more about this program, go to www.mohonkpreserve.org. To learn more about ANFT, go to www.natureandforesttherapy.earth or Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health at the DEC website: www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html.