The Healing Power of the Forest

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The Healing Power of the Forest

A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine mentioned “Japanese Forest Bathing”, otherwise known as Shinrin-yoku. Contrary to what you might think, this is, in essence, “taking in the atmosphere of the forest” and being mindful amidst the life of the forest. Whether it's a long hike or a short visit, Japanese forest bathing inspires you to take a break from your day-to-day and retreat to the forest.  Shinrin-yoku is one way to bring a sense of inner peace, mindfulness and boost your natural immune system all in one walk.  A walk through the forest doesn’t need to be a big hike in the mountains or in a world renown trail.  It can be a simple forest where trees sway, wind blows, creeks babble, trails wind and you can surrender to the healing power of the forest.

After learning about  Shinrin-yoku I was captivated. First, because of my love for Japan. This dates back to grade 3, when my teacher Mrs. Breadner, introduced me to all things Japanese: art, design, language, food and culture. My first visit to Japan in 2014 validated what my grade 3 teacher taught me: I was enamoured by the majestic temples, sleek architecture, tranquil people, attention to cleanliness, beautiful food and rich culture. I was also captivated by the way nature blended with city: green forests, local wildlife (deer everywhere!), and colourful flowers entangled into urban architecture, and I loved it all. This leads to my second intrigue around forest bathing: my love for nature. Walking and hiking have been a part of my life for years, especially since moving to a city where mountains are literally my backyard. Going for a hike is a great way to exercise, get my blood pumping, release the hound and connect with loved ones. For me, a way to experience Japanese customs in nature was a match made on Earth.

I was also drawn to forest bathing because it called to my healer vocation and focus on mindfulness. Little did I know about the preventative health benefits and the healing power of the forest.  My professional lens of nurse, coach, facilitator and creator of healing environments aligned with nature's remedy.  Ultimately, Shinrin-yoku spoke to me and rounded out my self-care plan.

Japanese forest bathing is simple: you walk through the forest and take careful note of what is around you. It aims to enhance your senses in the moment – from sight to sound to touch – by acknowledging the smell of pine or the soft murmurs of a stream or the cool moss on a fallen log. It's been scientifically proven to improve both mental and physical health by:

·      Lowering heart rate

·      Reducing blood pressure

·      Decreasing stress and anxiety by reducing circulating stress hormone, cortisol

·      Boost immune system functioning by activating natural killer cells

·      Lowering blood glucose levels in diabetes patients

While Japanese forest bathing originated in Japan, it has become a global practice. In Japan, specially designed government-sanctioned Shinrin-yoku forests breathe amongst the urban cities.  Organized groups around the world are gathering for meditative walks in the forest. Taking a mindful walk through any forest versus an urban setting, provides guidance for connecting more deeply within.


The past few years have brought many unplanned transitions that put me off the charts on the Life Stress Inventory .  These transitions forced me to make many life changes and engage in emotional clearing to heal deep emotional wounds, sit with grief and loss, and manage a recurring chronic illness.  My brother, Mitch,  who passed away a year ago, always said “Never challenge worse.  Worse is just around the corner”.  With that, I embarked on a self-compassion journey and created an  holistic self-care plan that has brought me healing, peace and ease. 


"Just let go. Let go of how you thought your life should be, and embrace the life that is trying to work its way into your consciousness."

~Caroline Myss


Shinrin-yoku was an integral practice for my careplan.  Breathing in the nourishing air of the forest, feeling the softness of moss on the trees, hearing the sounds of silence and song of the birds, sensing the crunch of the leaves under my feet, admiring the many shades of green and the vastness of the tree canopy, foraging for chanterelles, and feeling the flow of energy in the trees has grounded me especially in times of anxiety, exhaustion, sadness and despair.  The forest isn’t an escape but rather a comforting homecoming, a familiarity, a connection. Sometimes I'll pause, glance at the faint sunlight through the trees, and meditate.  Other times I will find an incline to get my heart pumping.  Or I casually meander through the paths.   The forest is alive and real. I feel alive and real when I practice Shinrin-yoku.. There is something inexplicably comforting about being amongst any great natural being - like trees, ocean or mountains - and Japanese forest bathing draws this out.


"We are all broken, that's how the light gets in."

~Earnest Hemingway


About a month ago, a friend and I decided to hike up a local mountain. Fog had dominated the landscape from the oceanfront deck where we enjoyed our morning coffee.  We knew the view from the summit would be sunny and glorious.  We had a small window of time to get up and back down by sundown. About 20 minutes up, my hiking boot snared an exposed root and lassoed me to the ground. I went down – fast –  and my wrist broke my fall, directly on a rock. Instantly, I felt a searing pain in my right arm and knew I had broken it.  As I rolled over, the crooked mangled wrist needed no further diagnostics to determine that it was broken. After the acute management and subsequent surgery, I found myself, bionic arm and all, pondering on this irony of it all.  Here I was, in my forest of healing and energy that forced me to succumb to injury and pain. As I reflected about this over the next few weeks of healing and rehabilitation, I realized that my focus on that hike was the destination, rather than the journey. Like most personal injury accidents that succumb to distraction, I allowed my quest for speed and the summit, interfere with being present to the moment and bathe in the power of the forest.  


‘Have faith in your journey. Everything had to happen exactly as it did to get you where you’re going next!”

~Mandy Hale


The first week post-surgery was tough. Unable to drive or immerse in my usual yoga and exercise routines, there was also a part of me that feared the outdoors specifically worried about a rogue rock or slippery patch during the cold, icy weather that would cause me to slip. With my safety measures in tow (yes, this does include a phone), I decided to turn to my gentle forest walks.  I yearned for the healing energy of the forest and a simple, low-risk activity in a walkable distance that took me out of my house was just what my instincts ordered.

My typical forest bathing routine followed a similar pattern. First, I turned my phone on silent and tucked it away only to be used in emergencies, capture a photo or play a meditation mantra. I released my dog from her leash and watched her scamper up an embankment in the endless pursuit of squirrels.  She is in her own effortless mindful moment.  I gazed at the trail head of this healing place to reflect on what I was grateful for:  appreciation for the healthcare system, my network of compassion in friends and family, the local cafe, Buddha-full, that served healthy, prepared meals, and so much more.  I then closed my eyes, took deep, long breaths and soaked in the forest air, full of all its healing properties zeroing in on my arm, my heart and my whole self.  I opened my eyes and began my forest bath through the trail being mindful of every step, rock and root.    I chuckled to myself, noting that my mindfulness was for the sole purpose of preventing a fall. Walking mindfully, calmly and contemplatively, I paused to admire the forest canopy, the vibrant shades of green, the hundreds of years of growth.   I admired Mother Nature’s way of managing the forest with its windswept fallen trees, or shifting embankments from the force of the rain and snow melting.  Her natural recycling program from fallen trees or hollowed stumps created homes for the many forest animals, rich soil for mushrooms or an obstacle course for my border collie. 

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"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself."

~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Shinrin-yoku encouraged me to ponder about the fall and reflect on my life: if I hadn't been so intent on the summit,  I may not have fallen.  It sounds cliche, but... "it's about the journey, not the destination". Japanese forest bathing reminded me of the importance of being present, being in the now, being mindful, just being. Throughout all of this, my past few years and particularly this past month, Shinrin-yoku has helped me with healing and recovery during very unstable times. Little did I know that my Grade 3 teacher would be so influential in my life.  At the end of the day, it is after, all, “all about the learning”




Dori Howard