Get Outside / Forest bathing
Spending quiet time in the forest can provide myriad health benefits.
Feeling the urge to get away from daily stresses and a steady deluge of information? Want to throw your smartphone into a ravine and go live in the woods? Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve and Environmental Education Center just may offer the balm you crave, without unchecked body hair or the destruction of pricey gadgets. The Center recently held its first forest bathing walk, which focused on using the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest to induce relaxation and ease anxiety and stress.
Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku is a Japanese practice somewhere between Zen meditation and natural treatment. Spending quiet time in the woods can put you in touch with nature and yourself, and provide a slew of health benefits from reduced blood pressure to increased immune function. It is believed that the combination of sunlight, light physical activity, a meditative enjoyment of nature, and organic compounds called phytoncides—created by plants and trees in abundance—have profound psychological and physiological effects on your health.
And it’s so simple.
We spoke with Mary Ronan, an environmental educator at New York State Department of Conservation, who led the walk at Reinstein Woods.
I’ve heard that some health insurance companies are offering to cover “prescriptions” for forest bathing.
That doesn’t surprise me, because research has been done on this and all the health benefits.
How did you get interested in forest bathing and how did you start this program?
We decided to run this program because we’d been hearing about it, and one of our board members brought it up as something of interest. A few of us had read about it in different magazines. We looked further into it and thought it was a great fit for us at Reinstein Woods.
What we wanted to do with our forest bathing program was highlight Reinstein Woods as one of the pockets of green space in this increasingly urban and suburban neighborhood. We were hoping that, by doing a program like this, it would open people’s eyes and help them understand the value of having these spaces. We also thought it was a great opportunity to help our community members and the people of Western New York find a new way to connect to nature. We’re very invested in our community and the health of our community. It’s a program that’s popular and kind of trendy at the moment, so it seemed like a good opportunity for us.
What kind of training did you need to lead the group?
For forest bathing, there are professionally trained facilitators around the United States and around the world. For our program, we didn’t take any special training; we did research on what programs are offering in other places, and we put our take on that.
I lead the program as an environmental educator, which is my background and experience. We’re pretty upfront with people attending the program that this was not a professionally led forest bathing program, but I try to highlight some of the same things you would see in a more formal setting.
What was the group like? Did you have a lot of response?
We had a great mix of people. Our programs usually have a mix of adults and children, so it was interesting to have all adults in this group, from age twenty up to people in their sixties. They came from all different backgrounds. Some people came because they had an interest in yoga. Some people came because it was a new way for them to see Reinstein Woods. Some people came because they had just read about forest bathing in our program or in the paper and were interested in what that meant.
How did it go? Did they enjoy it? Did they get a lot out of it?
I think so. For our program, we wanted to highlight what was different from some of the other walks we lead. Forest bathing has more of a sensory focus, as opposed to relaying facts. The goal was to experience the sights and the smells of the forest. That seems basic, but, for a lot of people, the idea of spending a whole hour silently out in the woods—and not having a presentation given to you or focusing on working out—could seem a little daunting. So, our goal was to do a little bit of teaching about what to look for, but more teaching how to look, and how to slow down and help your brain relax in the forest.
It was almost a guided meditation. We spent some time slowing down and literally smelling the flowers. I pointed out different plants that are very fragrant at Reinstein Woods, so they could come back and learn how to recognize those if they wanted to do it on their own, as a way to open up their senses. We smelled things like yellow birch trees and milkweed flowers. We focused on our physical connection to nature, feeling some of the plants—and pointing out plants that are not safe to feel, like poison ivy. People started to feel a little bit more comfortable in nature. The weather that day was lightly sprinkling, so that brought another sensory aspect to our walk.
Our goal was that, by taking the time to slow down and focus on our senses, we allowed our brain to work in a way that was completely different than if we were out exercising or at home and watching TV. It let bloodflow go to different parts of our brains.
When we finished up and did a debrief circle at the end, participants said that they felt more relaxed and that they experienced the woods in a way that was new to them. They noticed something they had never noticed before, or it seemed a little bit greener or a little bit more alive than on walks they’d taken in the past. It was really interesting to hear that feedback.
I’m guessing that cameras and telephones were banned on this walk.
It wasn’t a firm ban, but I did suggest that they turn phones off and leave cameras behind. As far as I noticed, everyone did that. It was a big group; there were twenty-six people. People were really great about leaving electronics behind and trying to stay quiet and allow everyone to experience the walk in their own way.
It was a test for all of us. As a naturalist, I love having my camera with me to take pictures of what I don’t know or things I see, or something I want to share with someone, so it was really hard for me not to have my camera with me. Really, it was a whole different experience to try to focus on concentrating and remembering patterns so that I could look things up later. It was a good break from technology for all of us.
Do you think that people can do this on their own?
Yes, that was kind of our idea behind this. Some people might be a little hesitant to go for a walk this long on their own without a guide. They might feel like they’d get bored in the forest. This is a good introduction to how to go about it, and all the things you can do on our trails without a cell phone, a camera, or a guide. We’re hoping that people know they can still get these benefits at Reinstein, but also in their own neighborhoods, that it opens their eyes to the nature that surrounds them in their back yards or even in urban parks in the middle of Buffalo. They can go out and do this on their lunch break.
Will you offer this again?
I wanted to get feedback from the participants, as it was the first time we’d offered it. We got a lot of positive feedback; they would love to do it again. Some people said they’d love to have their kids experience this. We’ll probably have one session per quarter.
If anyone has any questions about how to self guide on the trail, we’re always here at the Nature Center to offer suggestions. We also have a lot of Meetup groups [meetup.com], so that might be something people would like to take on themselves; just gathering with a few friends and going on these experiences. That’s something we would definitely encourage.
Take a dip in these WNY woods
Photo by kc kratt
93 Honorine Dr., Depew; reinsteinwoods.org or 683-5959
This unique 292-acre complex of forests, ponds, and wetlands is a natural oasis surrounded by suburban development.
Woods at Artpark
450 South 4th St. Lewiston, artpark.net or 754-4375
The Woods Trail winds through the Historic Woods at Artpark; enjoy viewing various sculptures and historic sites while traveling this trail.
Off Seneca St., South Buffalo; bfloparks.org/parks/cazenovia-park
The park boasts one of the more mature stands of trees in the city, and has been one of the focus parks in the Conservancy’s tree planting program.
Tifft Nature Preserve
1200 Fuhrmann Blvd., Buffalo; tifft.org or 825-6397
This 264-acre preserve is a notable birding site, with five miles of trails through marshes, grasslands, and woodlands.
DeVeaux Woods State Park
3180 DeVeaux Woods Dr., Niagara Falls; parks.ny.gov/parks/11/details.aspx or 284-4691
The park has nature trails through a meadow and Old Growth Woods, and a path that leads across the Robert Moses Parkway to Whirlpool State Park with access to the Niagara gorge trail system.
6121 Chestnut Ridge Rd., Orchard Park; www.erie.gov/parks/index.php?q=chestnut-ridge or 662-3290
In the southwest portion, sometimes referred to as the “Shale Creek Preserve,” is a remote section with its seemingly primitive wooded ravines and a most unique natural feature, the “Eternal Flame Falls.”
Buckhorn Island State Park
East River Rd., Grand Island; parks.ny.gov/parks/174 or 773-3271
This nature preserve comprises 895 acres of marsh, meadows, and woods and the last vestige of once vast marshlands and meadows that bordered the Niagara River. The ongoing restoration plan includes increasing public access with more nonintrusive trails, overlooks, and bird-watching blinds.
Wendy Guild Swearingen is senior editor of Spree.