Calm your senses with forest therapy as quarantine ends

By Kathryn Barnes

Clouds over Angeles National Forest, CA. Photo by Angel La Canfora/Shutterstock.

Forest bathing (known as Shinrin-Yoku in Japanese) and forest therapy are ways of immersing our senses in the atmosphere of the forest for relaxation and health and wellness benefits.

It came about during a tech boom in Japan in the 1980s. More and more people were moving to the city, working in offices, and sitting in desks for much longer than before.

“A lot of people started to get sick,” says Lila Higgins, the director of the community science program at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “So the Japanese government invested a lot of money on ‘how can we help heal people?’ And they did research in forest bathing. Can taking people to the forest help to make them better?”

Turns out, it can. Spending time in nature lowers our heart rate and pulse rate, and helps get rid of cortisol, the stress hormones in our body, says Higgins, who is a newly certified forest therapy guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

The practice has taken off around the world, including LA, a place that can feel like an urban jungle one minute and a natural oasis the next.

Higgins took KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis through a four-part guided journey at Descanso Gardens, a 150-acre botanical garden in La Cañada Flintridge. Maybe you can try it on your next walk in the woods, either with friends or alone.

Part 1: Pleasures of presence


Chiotakis gets comfortable on a rock as he prepares for the first “invitation.” Typically, leave the microphone and laptop at home. Photo by Lila Higgins.

Sit comfortably on a rock or the ground and get into our senses. Notice what your breath feels like as it goes into your body. 

Next, feel the textures near you, like your clothes, the soil, or the rock. Take a deep breath in through your nose and notice what you smell. 

Move to your sense of taste. Take a breath in and see what it feels like to chew on that air. What does it taste like? 

Slowly, open your eyes like you're opening them for the first time. Notice what you see and how it may look different than before.

“It seems more colorful. It seems like the greens are a little greener, deeper. The sun is a little brighter,” said Chiotakis.

Part 2: What’s in motion


Large oak trees sway at Descanso Gardens. Photo by Lila Higgins.

Slowly walk down a path or trail for about 10 minutes. Notice what or who is in motion. 

Chiotakis noticed blades of grass and ferns moving, and the oak trees around him. Higgins noticed water cupped in an oak leaf, spider webs among one of the plants, and little insects buzzing around her head. 

Part 3: Nature’s treasures


Evidence of a successful forest therapy trip. Photo by Lila Higgins.

Using your senses, go off and find nature treasure. After about 10 minutes of searching, bring what you’ve found back to the meeting spot. 

Chiotakis and Higgin’s treasures included a rock, a pine cone, a piece of yellow caution tape, seven oak leaves of varying colors, and either rabbit or deer poop. 

“I picked it up using a little oak leaf to bring it over here ... nature's gold!” said Higgins.

Part 4: Sit spot


Who doesn’t like tea? Photo by Lila Higgins.

Go out and meet a tree. Sit with that tree for about 15 minutes and see if it has anything to share with you. 

When you’re done, return to your meeting area for a tea ceremony. 

Higgins made rosebud, yarrow, and lemon balm tea. You can use tea packets, or if you’re in a place that allows it, you can forage for your own ingredients in the forest, like rosemary, lavender, or sage.

“You may notice that we have three tea cups set up, and there's only two of us,” said Higgins. “We always have tea for the forest.”

When the tea is ready, pour the first cup onto the ground.

“To the forest, which made me calm today, which gave me peace,” said Chiotakis. “To the forest, that gives us clean air. To the forest, that gives us beauty. I offer this cup of tea that comes from you that I will now return to you.”

Savor the smell and taste of your own cup of tea. Hopefully, you’ll walk home a bit lighter and calmer.

Credits

Guest:

  • Lila Higgins - Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County