Forest Therapy ~ Embracing Nature, Connecting with Others

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On the night before winter solstice in 2017, I was part of a small group that set out at dusk from the parking lot at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, carrying paper globes as we entered the adjacent woods on a footpath. Our guide, Ann Arbor artist and art teacher Cayla Samano, had distributed the lanterns beforehand. As darkness came down around us, the light-sensitive globes turned on, bright white orbs in the shadowy woods. Ice and snow crunched underfoot. We took our time, Cayla reminding us not to rush, asking us to slow our pace. 

When we reached a gazebo in the woods, she paused to check if everyone was warm enough and gave us our first “invitations” – carefully chosen prompts offered by the guide to help awaken the participants’ senses. She began with hearing, first asking us to close our eyes: what was the most distant sound we could detect? The closest? After each question there was a long pause in which to see what our senses would turn up. Before asking us to open our eyes she said, “Imagine, as you open your eyes, that this is the first time you’ve seen the earth. What is it like to see for the first time?”

When we reached a gazebo in the woods, she paused to check if everyone was warm enough and gave us our first “invitations” – carefully chosen prompts offered by the guide to help awaken the participants’ senses.

Following these first invitations, Cayla bent to pick up a twig from the path. She invited the group to share their reflections on this first round of exercises, a practice called “council,” handing the first volunteer the twig as a speaking piece. After he spoke, he passed the piece onto the next person, and this continued until everyone who had wanted to share had spoken. The walk continued, and we had about two more rounds of invitations before returning the rather short distance to the Botanical Gardens. Invitations made use of the natural surroundings, including Fleming Creek, which beautifully traverses the woods. After each council, turning my senses again to the surrounding forest put me in a different headspace – it seemed that there was abundant time, as if my attention could be fully absorbed merely by what was around me in the woods. It brought me a deep sense of calm. For the final invitation, Cayla commented that although the winter woods may seem dead, in fact they are dormant, like fields left temporarily unplanted by a farmer. Before sending us to find an opportune place in the woods to meditate for a few minutes, she asked us to reflect on what it might be like to be fallow ourselves, to not expect ourselves to always be productive. 

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Once inside the humid greenhouses at the Botanical Gardens, Cayla pulled out a few thermoses of tea she had prepared at home, along with small ceramic cups, and served us tea. The tea ceremony, like the invitations and council, is a key element of forest therapy. It is a gentle way to transition back into everyday life from the contemplative mental state participants enter on the walk. 

I visited Cayla at her Ann Arbor home to ask her some questions about the up-and-coming practice of forest therapy in the U.S. As an artist, former art teacher, and NOLS-certified wilderness first responder, I knew that she would have interesting things to say.

Beth Solberg: First of all, what is your background?

Cayla Samano: I taught elementary art for eight years, I have a bachelor’s in visual arts education and fine arts, and I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator as well. I also teach at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

BS: What is forest therapy? 

CS: Forest therapy is inspired by a Japanese custom called forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) practiced in Japan since the 1980s, which was promoted by the Japanese government to manage very high levels of stress in the population. They started doing research on ways to reduce cortisol, which is the hormone behind symptoms we associate with stress. Now there is a huge body of data around nature therapy and how your body interacts with nature. Phytoncides are chemicals that trees give off that interact with your body’s immune system and boost your N-killer cell count. N-killer cells fight infections.

I feel this is a growing need that people are becoming aware of all over the planet. It’s telling that this movement is happening now, when we’re at the height of the technology wave, with technology in every aspect of our lives. What that means with handheld technologies is that we have less and less brain space to be connected with our environments because we’re always connected with an electronic data sphere rather than with the places where we physically are. Recent research is finding that technology is addictive, that there are dopamine reward cycles triggered by things like comments and likes on Facebook, that we become addicted to the technologies that are supposed to help us.

I feel this is a growing need that people are becoming aware of all over the planet. It’s telling that this movement is happening now, when we’re at the height of the technology wave, with technology in every aspect of our lives.

That’s the biological part of forest therapy. The second part is cultural repair, which is what makes it different from a walk in the woods. Forest therapy guiding provides a safe experience for people who may never have been in nature. There is also the sharing and shared aspect of the forest walk. In the council circle, guides offer participants a way to reflect on their experiences without judgment, which is something they might not have in other areas of their lives. It’s about the opening up of dialogue between people. The council aspect is unique to forest therapy as it is conducted by ANFT.

Part of the training for holding council is how to control your emotions. It’s called omni-partiality, treating everyone’s experiences with the same amount of respect. Shared experiences and mutual respect is the foundation of relationship building, in my opinion. A lot of our relationships can be so superficial and it can be hard to go beyond that, but forest therapy allows people to have shared experiences and it also allows for that deeper connection.

Forest therapy is also my way of working toward ecological awareness, doing my part to help people become more aware of nature so that they will protect it. I want to be part of the solution as opposed to the problem. 

BS: What is the ANFT? 

CS: It’s the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, based in California, started by Amos Clifford. It was founded in 2012. Amos combined the Japanese shinrin-yoku practice with his experience in wilderness guiding, Zen and other types of therapy. The mission of the ANFT is to bring nature into health and wellness and offer a way for people to come into an authentic connection with nature. 

I just finished my certification with ANFT. They have certification programs all over the world, and they are similar to an immersive yoga training program. The programs are very rigorous, and are led by certified guide-trainers who have also gone through the program, often led by Amos himself. He’s working on a book right now about forest therapy.

BS: What is an invitation?

CS: Forest therapy guides use invitations as part of the structure of the walk. They are prompts whose purpose is to give you a framework within which your experience can grow. That’s why people are encouraged to modify invitations as needed, so an example of an invitation I might offer could be “meet a tree.” “Go out, find a tree that interests you and introduce yourself and see what happens.” So it’s open-ended because I’m not telling you what type of experience you’re supposed to have. You may find that you’re exploring the tree with all of your senses and that’s something you’ve never done before, and that becomes deeply profound. Or you may notice things about the tree that you’ve never noticed before because no one’s given you permission to stay with one tree for ten minutes. It’s about awakening all your senses to the experience of the world you live in.

Invitations are part of a standard sequence of events in forest therapy that gets you into a liminal space, opens up your senses so that you can experience the more-than-human world. There’s a whole database of invitations (from the ANFT) and we also create our own.

You start noticing beautiful things that you’ve been missing, no matter how small, and I think that’s a really good part of the ecological awareness that comes with forest therapy, greater awareness of each other and so on.

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Forest therapy is also my way of working toward ecological awareness, doing my part to help people become more aware of nature so that they will protect it. I want to be part of the solution as opposed to the problem.

BS: What is the story behind the tea ceremony?

CS: The ANFT mentors sometimes say that the tea ceremony is a threshold that you cross when you come back from the walk. When you go out into the woods in forest therapy, you do an invitation about awakening the senses which is meant to move you into something called liminal space, a state of timelessness where you lose track of time. It’s similar to when you are doing something you love, a frame of mind that I’ve heard people call “flow.” In this state, you’re able to just be in the present moment. This can also happen for some people in meditation. That liminal state is very calming to your nervous system and it can be very healing. When you have the tea ceremony at the end, it’s a way of bringing you out of liminality and back into relationship with other people because you can’t stay in a liminal state forever, it’s just not practical.

BS: Is there a connection between teaching art and forest therapy? 

CS: I think it’s actually the facilitation piece. The part about teaching that I love the most is being able to facilitate growth and change and discovery in my students. I feel I’m in the same role as a forest therapy guide: I feel I can facilitate personal growth, even though as a forest therapy guide, all I really do is hold open the door, and the forest does the rest. And that’s an important tenet of the ANFT’s program, that we don’t decide what kind of experience a person should have, we only create a space in which whatever needs to happen can happen. Which is similar to being an art teacher, similar to my method of teaching art, as a way of exploring the world. It’s gratifying to be doing something positive because there is so much that is beyond my control and that can get discouraging, but I really try to remember that any little thing I can do is better than doing nothing.

Cayla Samano can be reached at: csamano83@gmail.com. Her forest therapy website www.a2shinrinyoku.com, has more information about upcoming forest therapy walks and how to participate.

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