Everyone knows how a good walk in nature makes them feel: relaxed and refreshed. Due to pandemic guidelines, though, many activities have been restricted, but walking is not one of them.
Niagara Nature and Forest Therapy is taking walking in nature to a new level. Melissa Bollinger Seiling, a certified forest therapy guide, takes people into forests or wooded areas to become quiet and listen to nature using their five senses.
“Being mindful in the forest can be really renewing for people,” says Bollinger Seiling, who attends The First Mennonite Church in Vineland. She says a guide helps participants to slow down, facilitating the letting go of the thinking brain, to allow the individual to simply “be” in the present moment.
These walks can be done individually or with a group, with a guide or as a virtual tour. Cell phones and cameras are turned off or left at home. There is no goal or end point. It is not a time for conversation, but a time to stop analytical thinking and slow down. A forest therapy walk is much slower than a hike; it can take two or three hours to move only one or two kilometres, as participants take in the atmosphere of the forest through their senses, which becomes part of the healing journey.
Forest walks can be done alone and while sitting on a bench on a trail or in the backyard. Participants should stay in this spot for at least 20 minutes and pay attention with their five senses: Is there a breeze? Are you facing the sun? Is it cold? What does the air taste like?
The practice of forest therapy has its roots in Japan, starting there in the early 1980s, where it was called shinrin yoku or forest bathing. The certification process for therapists involves an eight-day full immersion course, which is then followed up with a six-month apprenticeship, where beginners take out groups of people while they are being mentored.
Bollinger Seiling starts her walks by explaining what the session is and what it isn’t, and introduces the participants. Everyone is invited to find that “sit spot” to observe what is happening around them. While sitting or lying down during this quiet time, which is called an invitation, each individual is invited to use their senses by watching the birds, listening to the silence, inhaling the scent of pine needles, touching a tree or feeling the bark, and asking what does the forest have to offer? Each invitation can last 15 to 20 minutes before the group slowly moves down the path.
Bollinger Seiling finds that it takes about two invitations for people to let go of their prior life, to take deep breaths and start listening intently. After several stops, there is a tea ceremony with tea made from local plants. A circle time follows, during which people can share what they have noticed.
It is not meant to be a therapy session, but a time to speak and listen from the heart. Bollinger Seiling finds that participants reach different levels of sharing but have a sense of belonging and of finding safety in the group.
Bollinger Seiling grew up on a farm in Minnesota, she spent most of her childhood outdoors, among trees in the forest, climbing rocks, discovering new streams and hiking trails. She finds nature healing for herself.
Currently she is a practicing social worker/psychotherapist, with 20 years of experience working with the Welland McMaster Family Health Team in Niagara. She says she has introduced some of her clients to nature and forest therapy with great success. In the forest she is not a counsellor. “The forest is the therapist,” she says. The forest is part of the healing journey.
Studies have shown forest therapy is good medicine, according to Bollinger Seiling. There are many physical and mental health benefits to forest bathing, including decreased stress level, lower blood pressure and heart rates, and a decrease in anxiety and depression levels, and improvements to cognitive ability.
Bollinger Seiling and her husband Jonathan also lead forest church sessions. She was able to lead some walks last year when some of the pandemic restrictions were lifted. Although walks can be done in the winter, the season is best accommodated between April and November, she says.
To learn more about Niagara Nature and Forest Therapy, visit nnft.ca.