Centennial Parklands in Sydney are offering Nature Therapy in the form of monthly Forest Bathing Walks through the park’s Pine Forest.
Inspired by Japanese Shinrin-yoku which literally translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” it was a practice developed in Japan in the 1980’s and has become a standard part of their complementary and preventative medical system. There are 48 official Forest Therapy Trails in Japan that have been designated for Shinrin-yoku by the Forestry Agency and they are planning to expand this to a 100 within the next ten years.
Some of the well-documented evidence of the physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing benefits of connecting to nature are:
• Reducing blood pressure and heart rate
• Boosting immune system function
• Soothes the nervous system
• Reducing stress
• Calming, rejuvenating and restorative
• Enhances ability to focus
• Improves sleep
Testing conducted on people’s immune systems before and after exposure to forests during the walks have shown significant increase in positive effects. This is meant to be due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, which the trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. When we inhale the forest air we also inhale the phytoncide which seems to actually improve our immune function.
The Forest Bathing Walks at Centennial Park are led by a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, environmental educator and meditation teacher. Each walk includes invitations for slow, mindful wandering through the forest, guided meditations on awakening the senses and invitations to connect to the natural world in deeper ways than we might normally.
Louise Kiddell is a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, currently one of just a handful in Australia. She regularly takes people for walks through natural wilderness areas and is also guiding walks through Centennial Park’s pine forest for stressed-out urbanites.
We spoke to her about the emergence of this type of healing modality in Australia and her work through her business, Barefoot Wellbeing.
Groundswell: How did you get into this line of work and how long have you been doing the walks?
LOUISE: My background is in Medical Science and Environmental Conservation. I’ve always had an interest in how human and environmental health are interrelated and inseparable. However, it took a health crisis of my own – a back injury and overwhelming stress, anxiety and burn out – to get me out of the office and into nature. I became a yoga teacher first, and then through a series of meetings with old work contacts around the concept of Nature Connection, I was introduced to a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide here in Australia. I learnt about the training to become a certified guide and it resonated very much with my interests and values, so I went and did it! I completed the six-month training course in 2017 and was certified in March 2018. I’ve been guiding walks since then.
These Nature Connection or Forest Bathing walks helps us to slow down and foster a deeper connection to self, others and nature. They are actually a remembering of our ancestral ways of being, which are deeply encoded in our DNA (and this is why our body physiology responds with relaxation and restoration when we’re in nature; our nervous system is configured to be content and at home in nature).
Groundswell: Can you elaborate on the studied effects of Shinrin-yoku in Japan?
LOUISE: Shinrin-yoku was introduced in response to a phenomenon called karoshi; ‘death by overwork’, which became an emerging issue in Japan in the 1980s. Government-funded studies routinely measure the heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels of visitors to the Shinrin-yoku trails before and after they walk. A number of medical practitioners in Japan have been certified in Forest Medicine, and they are able to prescribe forest therapy for their patients and clients.
Another interesting area in the Japanese research looks at is the immune system function. Research has shown that these forest walks seem to boost immune system function (particularly that of Natural Killer cells, which attack tumours and cancer). It’s thought that there is an interaction between the aromatic compounds produced by trees (called phytoncides, part of the tree’s innate defence system secreted in response to pathogens), and our immune system. It makes sense when you remember that humans evolved for tens of thousands of years surrounded by trees and forests!
Connecting to nature has always been an important antidote to high-stress, city living although we’ve probably never been as conscious about the role nature plays. All around the globe, this connection is being increasingly recognised as a type of healing, preventative, healthcare medicine.
Nature connection is about regenerating and restoring ourselves, and ultimately, fostering our custodianship of the earth.