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Forest therapy has many physiological and psychological benefits

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Shinrin-yoku gives the phrase tree hugging a whole new meaning.

“I felt its strength and courage. I felt a lot of love,” said Glenda Barton of Santa Rosa after hugging a giant redwood in the park.

Barton was one of about 20 people being led by Karen Sapper on a Forest Therapy walk in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on a recent Saturday morning.

“Shinrin-yoku” literally translated from Japanese where the practice began, means “forest bathing.” Better described as forest therapy, the practice is a “meditative style of walking, but it wouldn’t be considered meditation,” Sapper said.

Sapper is a forest therapy guide, certified by Sonoma County-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, who leads individuals or groups on strolls in and through forested trails teaching the sensory-opening activities that can lead to calmer minds, lowered blood pressure and overall relaxation.

“The practice is essentially coming into a quality of presence through heightened sensory awareness,” Sapper said.

“Bathers” gathered in a large circle on that cool, crisp Saturday morning, as fog wrapped the hillsides where a howling coyote perched on a rock. Before they set off down a trail, Sapper explained to the forest therapy walkers – most on their first of such hikes – the philosophy and routine of Shinrin-yoku and its many reported health benefits.

There is a neuroscience connection to forest therapy, Sapper said, with medical practitioners now prescribing it to patients.

In a 2017 article in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health titled “Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and nature therapy: a state-of-the-art review,” the authors identified physiological, therapeutic benefits to the practice. Among the recorded benefits are improvements to the immune system, cardiovascular system and the respiratory system. It also can help with such things as hypertension, allergies, mood disorders such as anxiety or depression, and overall mental relaxation.

“It is a practice that provides an opportunity to deeply connect with the benefits of nature,” Sapper said.

Sapper led the group to a small clearing near a creek and passed out bay laurel leaves to each hiker. Rub it in your hands, then bend it until it cracks, she said, then touch it to your tongue. The leaves released an invigorating and earthy aroma.

Looking at the surrounding trees, Sapper tells of the mutually-beneficial relationship between human and trees – humans take in the oxygen the trees release, and the trees take in the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide humans produce, she said.

“Feel your feet planted to the earth,” Sapper said, “and close your eyes.” Instructing hikers to turn a quarter-turn at a time, Sapper asked them to be aware of the wind, the light coming through closed eyelids, the aromas, the songs of birds, a babbling brook. “With eyes open, take particular note of something in view.”

Passing around a “talking stick,” each took a turn sharing what they observed – the beauty of a piece of grass swaying in the wind, the feeling of space, the mountains and fog, the patterns in the trees, were some of the observations.

Sapper was leading the group on a series of “invitations” – instructions on how to open the senses and mind during their three-quarter mile long walk.

“Each invitation has a body of scientific research behind it on how it is beneficial to the body,” Sapper said.

Forest therapy walks are slow, gentle, and not meant to be calorie burning. They heighten the senses – not just the five ordinary senses – auditory, visual, taste, touch and olfactory – but the “interperceptive” senses such as the sensation of hunger or thirst; the sense that as you walk in the dark to your car there is someone behind you; and the so-called “extraperceptual” field of awareness – it’s about three feet, Sapper said – that surrounds one as they move about the world.

Then there are the senses of direction and balance. All of these senses are brought into alighnment through the practice of forest therapy, she said.

In primary forests in Japan, Sapper said there are medical clinics set up where a Shinrin-yoku practitioner can stop before a hike and have their blood pressure documented, and compare it to how it reads after the hike.

Over the weekend of July 13, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy held the first annual Forest Bathing International Conference at Sonoma State University. More than 200 attendees from 40 countries participated.

“Sugarloaf is the birthplace of the teachings in this country,” Sapper said.

Sapper likened forest bathing of today to how yoga was perceived a couple decades ago. It’s seen as kind of unconventional, on the fringe. But yoga is mainstream now, and Shinrin-yoku is being taken more seriously by healthcare practitioners who are seeing firsthand the physiological benefits.

Those who took the hike said they are likely to practice it on their own now that they understand the principles.

“I give it two thumbs up,” said John Kniffin of Greenbrae. Kniffin grew up around Sugarloaf and said he was always drawn to nature.

“I’m a social worker by trade, and maybe I did it a little too long,” he said. Shinrin-yoku helps him feel balanced, he said.

Carole Harbard, a nurse who works at Sonoma Valley Hospital was familiar with the phrase “forest therapy” but had never gone on a hike.

“Sapper was a fantastic guide,” Harbard said, appreciating the way Sapper taught them to take time to pay attention to their surroundings.

The sharing circle was reenergizing, and she valued the sentiments others shared, she said.

As part of the ParkRx for Health program in Sonoma County parks – in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, St. Joesph Health, Sonoma Valley Hospital and Sutter Health – forest therapy walks are held the third Saturday of the month. Tickets are $20, or free with a ParkRx from a Sonoma County medical provider, plus a $10 parking fee.

There are special free walks at Sugarloaf designed for fire survivors sponsored by Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County with event assistance provided by Sonoma Ecology Center/Team Sugarloaf. Called “Honoring Loss and Resilience” the walks “are designed to help those recovering from the traumatic impact of” the 2017 fires, according to the event page.

These walks are led by Susan Karle, a marriage and family therapist, who combines her training in helping people deal with grief and trauma with her love of nature and belief in its power to heal.

The next Honoring Loss and Resilience walk is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 31, starting at 10 a.m.

For more information go to NatureandForestTherapy.com.

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