Forest bathing creates a pause from the stressors of daily life

ICE LAKE – As a relief from the stressful grind of daily life, more and more people are turning to alternative ways to help manage their stress, including participating in nature therapy such as forest bathing—a practice that is growing in strength on Manitoulin through guided sessions.

“Forest bathing is really the practice of being still. It doesn’t have to be in a forest, though generally it takes place there. And it’s not like a hike, because the pace is really slow. You’re not focused on counting birds or spotting wildflowers, it’s about a sense of connection and building a relationship with the land, which is something I think we’ve lost in our culture,” said Sarah Earley, a forest bathing workshop leader based just south of Gore Bay.

“For First Nations people, that’s very much a part of their culture, but I think we’re more distant as settler communities. We’ve lost that connection,” she said.

Ms. Earley moved to Manitoulin in 2017 and began offering the workshops the following year. She has completed training on this topic through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Ms. Earley and her partner Scott Miller run Flint and Flora, a business that offers workshops and adventures designed to reconnect people with nature.

Forest bathing has its roots in early 1980s Japan, where it’s known as Shinrin Yoku. Ms. Earley said that the heavy workload that is celebrated in Japanese and other eastern cultures was beginning to cause significant health impacts on the population, such as a steadily growing rate of heart attacks. 

“They created trails and started doing metrics on people. They found that walking in the woods led to decreases in heart rate and blood pressure. They also started noticing decreased glucose levels in diabetics,” she said, adding that some of the causes of the benefits may be attributable to the phytoncides that the trees give off—substances that protect plants from decay and microbes. These contribute to the characteristic smell of a forest.

“When you inhale these essential oils, our body responds in a positive way and cortisol levels decrease,” Ms. Earley said.

The walks generally take place over two to three hours and only cover as much as one kilometre of distance. Although anyone can initiate their own forest bathing session solo, Ms. Earley said having a guide can increase one’s ability to escape from intrusive thoughts and immerse themselves in the present moment.

“We have a sequence of invitations which are very simple provocations that will engage the senses, which might involve noticing the breeze move through the trees,” she said.

“These walks are about slowing down, pausing and being in the moment. They are also loosely structured in a way that allows you to soak in the sounds, scents and sights of nature … offering opportunities to deepen your connection to nature. Each walk is so different and magical in its own way.”

Following the walk, there is a ceremony where participants share tea made from ingredients that have been collected during the session.

Ms. Earley said she discovered forest bathing while completing a degree and the feeling it offered gave her profound comfort following the passing of her mother.

“It might not be that moving for everyone, necessarily, but it offers something different for everyone and can really just be therapeutic in its own way,” said Ms. Earley.

Forest bathing is relatively new to North America, having begun to gain some popularity in the past few years. It is a favourite activity of the Duchess of Sussex, Kate Middleton.

These workshops have been designed for an adult audience and are accessible by people of all skill levels.

“It’s really slow-paced and on gentle trails, so people who aren’t able to cover large distances can still be comfortable,” she said.

Participants are recommended to bring a bottle of water, comfortable shoes and appropriate clothing. Sunscreen and bug spray can also be assets, depending on the season.

Other workshops offered through Flint and Flora include crafting, children’s activities, wilderness retreats, and there are future plans to host birthday parties. The full range of their offerings can be found at FlintAndFlora.com.