Creating time and space to feel, to be witnessed, to be loved, and fundamentally, to just be.

In the meeting of outer and inner nature, a relationship is born, nurtured, or reconciled. Forest therapy is this kind of relational experience.

forest with dappled light

What is forest therapy?

If you’ve never been on a forest therapy walk, you may be wondering what forest therapy means. How does it relate to the nature-connection movement or the growing industry of ecotherapy? Or perhaps, you’ve heard of the term used interchangeably with “forest bathing”.

To put it simply, forest or nature therapy walks are gentle walks in natural settings that encourage participants to slow down and engage in embodied experiences. While forest therapy in North America is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to forest bathing, there are some key differences. Forest bathing in Japan was developed as a response to the country’s health crisis in the 1980s, while forest therapy in North America, which was first adapted by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), focuses on the relational aspect of the practice.

The original research that informed forest bathing was the discovery of phytoncides, the chemicals that trees release to keep themselves healthy from threatening fungi or organisms. When humans inhale these phytoncides by being in forested environments, our bodies, in turn, will produce a special white blood cell called the natural killer cell, or NK-cell, that will look for and destroy cancer in the body.

While Japanese and global researchers continue to engage with science to show the positive impacts of forest bathing on human health, forest therapy is not specifically promoted as a form of ecotherapy or alternative health tool. Rather, what we are healing through sensory experiences in nature are our reciprocal relationships: our relationship with ourselves, with other human beings, with the more-than human world, and with our sense of time.

By repairing our relationships with nature, including the nature within, we invite into our lives a process of wholistic transformation.

Why participate in a forest therapy walk?

If we just need to spend more quality time in nature, you may wonder why anyone would want to attend a guided walk instead of going out alone.

Well, consider the motto, “The forest is the therapist. The guide opens the door” (Amos Clifford, founder of ANFT). When someone’s been used to a particular way of seeing, sometimes, it’s helpful to have another person remind them of old pathways missed in blindspots or show them new pathways not yet considered.  A guided walk offers participants these opportunities to step into different gateways of being with nature through a series of experiential and sensory “invitations.”

The guide assists the forest or natural environment by creating a container for the walk experience. That’s why guides don’t normally share naturalistic knowledge and diagnose or predict the outcome of participants’ wellness goals. In many ways, guided walks are self-empowering because there are no right or wrong ways to do invitations. Participants are encouraged to listen to their bodies and adapt invitations in the way they feel most right for them.

In group walks, participants share experiences as equal members of the community. With nature as the witness, these shared moments between human and more-than-human beings become part of an authentic relational experience—a kind of experience that is quite rare in our ordinary lives!

The destination is our inner nature

While mainstream society searches for technical or moral solutions to our world’s rising ecological problems, the real reason behind this crisis is the truth that much of humanity does not know what it means to be unconditionally loved. Consequently, to love (external) nature and to take care for our planet is nearly impossible until we learn to love ourselves. Yet, the capacity to love ourselves in our own nature is reciprocal to the awareness of how much nature loves us.

This unconditional love is so foreign that many turn to worshiping nature (and worshiping culture) instead. But this is merely a facade to bypass the challenge of unconditional self-love, because the relational processes we develop in a forest or in another natural setting are the same as the relationships we build with family and friends. Relationships can be supportive and loving, complicated and tense, or even hostile. However, the more-than-human-world has not been conditioned by the (often unsupportive and deep-seated) narratives of the human mind like our human counterparts.

This world more easily offers us a non-judgemental container to work through stuff that we’ve been carrying around. Healing through reciprocal relationships can be found in any form, but the destination is always the same: to return to the truths of our inner nature. When we are individually able to be in our true nature, we heal as a collective socially and ecologically.

Nature hierarchy and forest therapy in the city

I prefer to de-emphasize the concept of nature-connection and nature therapy as experiences in unspoiled natural environments because those experiences of nature have historically been, and are still in many places, an inequitable occurrence. However, finding our true nature, that is, to become authentically human, is a path available for everyone because social healing and personal flourishing are our spiritual purposes here on Earth.

Therefore, to heal humanity’s relationship with nature (within and without), we cannot insistently usher people into pristine forests, meadows, and beaches for therapeutic experiences. Considering that over 50% of the world’s population live in cities, doing that would not be sustainable either.

In my own life, having lived in cities and high-rises and having grown up in an immigrant family without a car to drive out to the countryside or go camping, I’d say that my experience in “stereotypical nature” has been lacking. Yet, this “lack” still led me to a career path that orbits around all aspects of nature. As a retired landscape architect and environmental studies scholar, the more-than-human world that I’ve encountered in life came in the form of human managed city parks, public and private landscapes designed by humans, conservation areas, public zoos, landscape art, houseplants, etc.

sidewalk with fire hydrant in fall

To find our truest home in nature, we must forgo the purity of nature

Forest therapy, in its essence as a personal practice, is available and accessible in most cities. If not, something needs to be done in your city’s urban planning department! Yet, simultaneous to the physical space is the need for the mental space: the capacity for us to value natural spaces in cities as real nature and not just low-grade substitutes for suburban or rural conservation areas, provincial or national parks, countryside, or wilderness areas.

Parallel to this non-hierarchy of nature is the non-hierarchical judgment of our human lives. The harmony of collective humanity is contingent on the commitment to uphold the social belief that nobody should feel that they don’t belong on the earth they stand on, the land they live on, and the nature they live in.

Our home in nature starts with our sense of self in our individual universes. This home is not built of trees, flowers, or stones, but rather the words we use to bring the magic of trees, flowers, and stones into each other’s lives. The lessons in forest therapy exists well beyond the forest. So let us endeavour to bring the magic of life into every little universe we may encounter.

Interested in building a practice of mindfulness in nature on your own?

Check out my forest therapy inspired card deck, Invitations from Nature, which has 50 prompts for the simple ways you can be more present in nature.