By Laurie Casey
Practicing self-care is essential in 2018. It’s been a year of soul-crushing news about the climate, the state of our democracy, and #metoo. If you enjoy walking, you might try forest therapy. Called forest bathing (shinrin yoku) by the Japanese, this beautiful practice combines mindfulness and a slow stroll in nature, under the direction of a certified guide, often in the company of others.
“Forest therapy is a wellness practice that focuses on sensory connections with nature through easy-paced, short-distance walks,” says Kim Ruffin, a certified forest therapy guide. Typically, it takes about one to three hours to complete a one-mile walk. During a walk, Kim offers “invitations” or prompts to do sensory activities. She might say, “Hold a leaf and experience the shape of it.”
These invitations slow the pace of the walk, ask you to contemplate the beauty and wonder around you, and hopefully keep your mind off your to-do list. It’s all about slowing down and experiencing this particular moment.
A long-time educator, Kim earned her certification in forest therapy from the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs after becoming fascinated with the practice. It has improved her life and her mindset, and she wants to share this powerful practice with others. “I’ve noticed that I’m able to shake off distractions and everyday hassles more easily and enjoy more of my time in natural settings,” says Kim.
The Nature-Health Connection
It’s no accident that her stress has decreased. Scientists are examining the connection between time spent in natural areas and health and are finding that levels of cortisol, a stress hormone in our bodies, falls and our blood pressure comes down when we experience nature. In a forest, trees give off chemicals -- phytoncides – that prevent the growth of attacking organisms. Scientists are connecting exposure to these chemicals to improved immune function in humans. “Other reported benefits include increased focus and creativity along with reduced feelings of isolation,” says Kim, who recommends reading The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams, to learn more about the nature-health connection.
The wonderful thing about our reactions to nature is that they are immediate. Kim says that her forest therapy participants frequently report feelings of peace, relaxation and calm after a single walk. And, with practice, the body gets even more efficient in its response to nature.
To make things even easier, forest therapy doesn’t require an actual forest. Oak Park, which is a certified municipal arboretum and official Tree City USA, boasts thousands of trees in parks and along parkways. These are accessible to anyone, even those using wheelchairs.
Plus, we are lucky to be surrounded by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. “We have so many opportunities for sensory connections since there is so much green space in both villages,” says Kim, who loves exploring Scoville Park in Oak Park.
At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, she is leading a morning forest therapy program in another of her favorite local natural areas, Thatcher Woods, for people ages 18 and older. Call Trailside Museum to register at 708-366-6530. Visit Kim’s website cardinalencounters.com to learn more about how she provides guided forest therapy walks for individuals and groups. Or contact her at email@example.com.