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Alyssa Delle Palme is one of two certified forest therapy guides in Ottawa. Photo: Jessica Hodgson Photography

Forest Bathing: when nature is the best therapist

By Lana Crossman on September 21, 2018

Over a century ago, Scottish-American naturalist and philosopher John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”

Muir’s words ring truer than ever in 2018. For most of us, the idea that spending time in nature is restorative is, well, natural. It’s a balm for our over-wired minds; a spark igniting our sense of discovery.

It turns out research backs up what we’ve always known intuitively – and a science-based practice, called forest therapy, can help us to dig deeper into nature’s therapeutic effects.

Alyssa Delle Palme is one of two people in Ottawa trained as a guide in forest therapy. As an instructor at Wild Roots Nature and Forest School, Delle Palme was already a convert to the benefits of being in nature. But even she was surprised at the powerful effects of her first forest bathing experience.

“Afterwards I felt like I’d had a full body massage. That night I had one of the deepest sleeps I’d had in ages.”

Alyssa Delle Palme is one of two certified forest therapy guides in Ottawa. Photo: Jessica Hodgson Photography

Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and is now considered a key component of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers from Japan and South Korea have published many studies showing the health benefits of spending time in the forest, and certified guides can be found around the world.

Among other benefits, proponents cite the medicinal effects of phytoncide, a chemical secreted by evergreen trees that helps boost our immune system, and improves mood and cognition. Forest therapy goes beyond physical healing to touch on the mental, emotional and even spiritual benefits slowing down and spending time in nature.

Opening the door to healing

Muir wrote that: “between every two pine trees is a doorway leading to a new way of life.”

Forest therapy guides like Delle Palme are careful to point out that “the forest is the therapist; the guide opens the door.”

A forest therapy session typically runs 2-3 hours, and includes a number of “invitations” to help participants encounter nature in a more intentional way.

Some invitations are meditative (20-minute sit spots), others rekindle a childlike wonder of being in the woods (awakening all our senses to the elements), while some are creative and collaborative (assembling objects within a frame). All offer ways for participants to deepen connections with the forest, with each other and with themselves.

Unlike many outdoor activities forest bathing isn’t strenuous. Often an area of less than a kilometre is covered. Participants of all abilities and ages can take part.

As part of her practice and ongoing training, Delle Palme gathers feedback from participants of sessions she offers at MacSkimming Outdoor Centre in Ottawa’s east end.

She said some people reported lower blood pressure following a session, improved sleep, and reduced anxiety. Some have a strong emotional response to the experience, including one four-year-old participant who said forest bathing “is like eating ice cream every day.”

The cost of forest therapy varies depending on the length of time and the size of the group, but averages at $30 per session.

Sample forest therapy for free. On September 22 from 10am-2pm, Delle Palme and fellow guides Andrea Prazmowski and Kaia Nightingale will give a taste of forest therapy at Brewer Park as part of the Fall Tree FestivalFind out more about forest therapy and find a certified guide at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs website.