Spending time in the forest is a soothing and rejuvenating experience. The air seems more refreshing, and the sounds of birds singing and leaves rustling can help to calm our overwhelmed minds.
As scientists around the world study the benefits of time spent in nature, there is increasing evidence that these benefits may be greater than we had expected. Shinrin-yoku (known in English as “forest bathing”) is the Japanese practice of experiencing the forest through all of one’s senses. It was developed in the 1980s as a form of nature therapy.
“Forest therapy is an embodiment practice,” explains Ronna Schneberger, a forest therapy guide and owner of Forest Fix, an outdoor experience company in Canmore.
As in other embodiment practices like yoga, the aim of forest bathing is to bring us back into our bodies. Forest therapy guides, who take specialized training in order to be certified in the evidence-based therapeutic practice, invite participants to move intentionally and mindfully through nature.
“The forest really gives us an opportunity to slow down through our senses. When we take time to be in each sense, our minds slow down, our bodies start to rest at ease — which is our natural state of being — and our whole system starts to align with the present moment and the forest. It’s in those moments that there is this recalibration that happens within us,” Schneberger says.
There is evidence that spending time among trees may help to improve sleep, lower cortisol levels, pulse rate and blood pressure, and even promote natural killer (NK) cell activity. NK cells are a type of white blood cell with the reported ability to kill tumour cells. Scientists theorize that the increase in NK cell activity observed following a long walk in the forest is due to the presence of phytoncides, or essential oils naturally emitted by trees. Studies show that exposure to phytoncides can increase NK cell activity for as much as seven days following a forest walk.
Schneberger, who led forest-based sessions for almost two decades before completing her forest therapy guide training in 2016, has long been aware that beneficial effects arise from slow, mindful sessions in the forest.
“When I read the science, I started to understand why these profound moments were happening for people,” she says. “Their cortisol levels are going down, their heart rate is going down, their blood pressure is going down, their nervous system is resetting itself and their executive function gets a break. Basically, we’re coming back to ourselves — a deep sense of self, that maybe we don’t feel every day. And that, in itself, is profound.”
Three Exceptional Spots for Forest Bathing
Though Schneberger explains that to experience the highest level of phytoncides, it’s best to be among evergreens in a warm, humid climate, she also says, “One tree is enough!”
Even without a guide, you can reap the benefits of being in nature on your own by immersing yourself in the nearest accessible natural area. Here are three forested areas in Alberta to consider as forest bathing destinations:
This interprovincial park in southeastern Alberta is home to forest dominated by lodgepole pine, as well as white spruce
and aspen. This is a great spot for hiking and camping.
Red Deer’s river valley boasts over 100 kilometres of pathways. Visit McKenzie Trails Recreation Area to relax among some of the city’s oldest trees.
Elk Island National Park
Located 35 minutes east of Edmonton, this is a perfect spot to experience Alberta’s boreal forest and, if you’re lucky, spot bison, elk, or some of the park’s many resident bird species.