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WRITTEN BY ANNORA McGARRY
PHOTOS BY ANNORA McGARRY AND SJ MARKETING
At the Restorative Arts and Yoga Festival at Granlibakken Tahoe, Ashley Aarti Cooper will be leading a forest-bathing, or shinrin-yoku, hike through the abundant forests that surround Granlibakken Tahoe in North Lake Tahoe.
When you walk into the forest, do you see a city of trees? Or do you see an ecosystem teeming with life both observable and microscopic? What you might not recognize immediately is the healing power of the forest — as a place to foster deeper connections with your sense of self, the world at large, and Mother Earth to arrive at a harmonious state of physical and mental well-being.
The healing art of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, originated in Japan, where the healing power of forest bathing is recognized as such a crucial part of mental and physical health that it was implemented as a part of that country’s public health program in 1982. Since then, there have been many studies done by organizations around the globe linking the outdoors to greater holistic health. Forest bathing is the restorative practice of simply spending time in nature, specifically in a forested area. It involves experiencing the forest at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and smells. It is recommended that people spend at least 30 minutes per day walking at a relaxed pace in the forest to achieve benefits, which studies have shown to be improved focus and productivity, greater creative inspiration, increased happiness, and greater immunity, all while fostering physical wellness.
When was the last time that you took a break from work, or consciously stepped outside to spend time among the trees, to clear your mind and let nature revive and rejuvenate your soul? Whether it is just for a few minutes or a few hours, studies have shown that time spent in the forest — breathing the air and enjoying the peaceful setting — can greatly improve mental and physical health in a myriad of ways.
Have you hit a wall in your office day? Studies have shown that it may help to head outside. Just 15 minutes outside can help to clear your mind and increase productivity. The concept at play here is Attention Restoration Theory (ART). This theory postulates that our world — filled with computers, phones, cars, and people — taxes our brains with constant mental processing. Being outside comes … well … naturally to humans. Through spending time in natural settings, we humans are able to mitigate the overstimulation of our minds, allowing us to focus more clearly on tasks and retain more information. In essence, zoning out might be good for you.
A study conducted in 2011 asked participants to work on a task, and then go for a walk midway through. One group walked bustling city streets, the other headed to a wooded park. Those who had walked in the wooded park achieved 20 percent better task completion than those who spent time in the city. Cityscapes, and often offices, keep our brains stimulated. It is important to refresh and restore an overstimulated brain, and heading out to the forest just might do the trick.
In fact, you don’t even need to head outside to attain the benefits of nature. If you don’t have time for a break, take a micro-break. A 2015 study asked participants to take a micro-break during a task, during which they spent 40 seconds looking at a photo of greenery. After just 40 seconds of this, participants made fewer errors in the task they were assigned and exhibited more attention and focus.
So the next time you hit a wall, try heading out to the woods, or even try giving your brain a natural micro-break, looking at images of nature — whether it be out your window or on a computer screen.
Everyone strives to be more creative in their life and work — individuality and creativity are expressed in many big and small ways throughout our lives. Spending time in the forest just may help you to tap into that latent creative energy that we all have.
Ashley Aarti Cooper, who leads retreats, yoga classes, and shinrin-yoku forest-bathing hikes, says, “When you move slowly in nature, when you listen, feel, smell, really observe, and even taste the forest, you realize how rich this natural world is, and you recognize that you are as welcome in this environment as any other living creature. You can experience feeling grounded, light, expansive, and free."
This expansiveness and acceptance in the natural world allows our minds to explore concepts, ideas, and inspiration both internal and external, allowing us to discover our truly creative selves.
A study published by Atchley, Atchley, and Strayer showed that just four days of exposure to the outdoors, sans electronics, increased performance in a creative task by about 50 percent. Those who completed the task afterward were more creative in their approach and strategy than those who did so before their exposure to the outdoors.
Don’t have time for a four-day camping trip? It has been proven that simply taking breaks to go walking during the workday increases creativity. In a study done by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, participants at a university were given prompts and then asked to create analogies describing those prompts. Participants who sat for the duration of the experiment created an average of 50 percent novel analogies, compared to 95 percent novel analogies from those who walked. Simply getting up and stretching your legs can help boost creativity and clear-mindedness.
Being in the forest affects us on many levels, from awakening our five senses to having an impact on our mental well-being. The phytoncides, or essential oils, released by trees and other plant life have been shown to have positive psychological effects. Spending time in the forest has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase feelings of well-being and contentedness.
“The principles of shinrin-yoku have really helped my clients become connected to their bodies, and the internal and external environments they inhabited,” Cooper says. “They reported greater presence, reduction in feelings of anxiety, better pain management, and an overall sense of well-being."
She stresses the distinction between endurance or destination hiking and full immersion in the forest. Taking the time to contemplate your natural surroundings while enjoying the scenery, the smells, and the feel of the forest helps to focus and rejuvenate the mind and body, leading to noticeably lower stress levels and greater happiness.
It is thought that the phytoncides that the trees emit have physiological as well as psychological benefits. They have also been shown to increase the quantity of immune-boosting compounds in the human body. Essentially, spending time in the forest on a frequent basis can help to enhance the activity of white blood cells, boosting your immunity.
Another side benefit to spending time outdoors in the forest and in natural areas is absorption of vitamin D from the sun, which is essential for immune function. Want to stay healthy this summer? Head outside!
Forest-bathing is great for our physical health, there is no denying that, from the obvious — getting outside and walking is good for you — to the less-evident fact that forest-bathing has been linked with lower blood pressure in adults.
"From children who have experienced hardship to veterans, from overworked professionals to senior citizens, everyone I have led in these hikes has felt profound connection and healing benefits,” Cooper says. “Simply slowing down and experiencing the world through their senses has given them a medicine that heals depression, anxiety, stress, disease, pain, and trauma. The forest is constantly seeking equilibrium and health; humans are just another part of that ecosystem."
Forest bathing is something that people of all walks of life can enjoy for increased physical and mental well-being with little effort. We are meant to be outdoors; that is where humans have spent the majority of their time throughout existence, so heading to the forest is a natural choice.
"It puts everything in perspective when you see yourself as a being that is meant to be a part of the natural world,” Cooper says. “Take your shoes off, take your time, lean against an old tree, and close your eyes in the sunshine. Just listen. Smell the cedars, taste the wood mint, splash your face in a stream ... remember that you are just one tiny human with one fleeting life, and enjoy the freedom that comes with that knowledge."
Enjoy a guided shinrin-yoku hike as a part of Granlibakken Tahoe’s Restorative Arts and Yoga Festival, June 1-3, 2018.
NOTE: This is a sponsored post.
Annora McGarry is a lover of all things outdoors who has made her home in Tahoe City. She works for Granlibakken Tahoe, a resort, retreat center, and lodge located in Tahoe City, California. Granlibakken Tahoe hosts twice yearly wellness retreats, under its Sierra Soul brand.