Thoughts & ideas after BOS+Badweekend

My tent is still drying in the veranda as I am writing this.

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This past weekend I got to take part in the event supported and funded by BOS+ (my favourite forest advocate organisation in Flanders) and CM (my favourite health insurance provider in Flanders).

The concept of the weekend was to offer people different kinds of experiences of forest inspired wellbeing. These were provided in the form of workshops of 2 hours at a time, while spending the entire time in a beautiful forest, getting to know the group and building a community. Sounds very much like IFTDays, which is why this  event also functioned as IFTDays pollinator event.

 

 

 

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The lovely  group of 40 or more people of young and more mature were those usual suspects who follow the mails of BOS+. But though love of forests  is our common denominator, the group was still surprisingly heteregenous. There were people busy in the field from nature conservation point of view; people starting and people already busy in their  nature & wellbeing careers. There were people who needed a time out in the forest and were treating themselves into some alone time, as well as people who were looking for something new, though they didn´t really yet know what that would be. Forest, they trusted, would bring them inspiration.

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It was therefore perfectly appropriate and inspiring to bring to the same space:

  • Rewilding with Bert Poffe – a practice that combines buschraft skills, natural movement as well as life coaching, all from the point of view of returning us to our natural state of wild
  • Kiki Nardiz´ foraging and natural cosmetics from nature´s medicine cabinet
  • Annelies Carpentier´s relaxation in nature
  • Ann Tillman´s forest bathing EFTI– style
  • And my own version of Forest Mind/Metsämieli.

These practices gave the participants the chance to taste the different ways one can fights stress and connect with natures in Belgian Flanders. Rewilding with Bert and the foraging workshop with Kiki were both more action oriented and focused on  bringing nature closer in one´s everyday life   through lifestyle and diet. Forest bathing offered by Ann aimed at deep relaxation in the forest but touched upon everyone´s nature connection as well. Annelies´activity  – which I unfortunately did not have the chance to familiarize with  – was praised for such well thought of exercises that combined both the physical and mental health aspects. I saw the group move to the forest with their yoga mats, so that gives us a hint of what the workshop was also about.

Lots of people asked me, what´s the difference between Forest Mind and forest bathing. Forest Mind is an evidence based method. It follows losely stress recovery theory by Ulrich and the attention restoration theory by Kaplan. These two theories combined posit that the wellbeing effects of forest (or nature at large) take place in stages.  Before the mental effects, e.g. mood lifting, clarity in the head and feelings of vitality can kick in, the physical effects, e.g. blood pressure dropping, muscle tension decreasing,… need to first take place.

When the calming down has happened and more space in the head has been cleared, it is possible to start the introspection. This is what is unique to Forest Mind.  In other words, being able to take stock of what you are feeling and how you are doing at that moment  is much easier when you are already in a receptive state and open to looking within.  In Forest Mind, after checking in with oneself, steps ahead are also laid. The idea is to plan ahead for those times when you are not in the forest so that you can better take care of your own wellbeing. Forest Mind gives tools to this with  exercises that stem from positive psychology, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy. Some Forest Mind exercises have been bundled here in a portal Mentalhub.fi, a service created by Finnish mental health professionals

I like to say that in Forest Mind one attempts to bring the forest along within oneself when leaving the forest. Quite simply the idea is to increase self-awareness and connection with oneself in order to live a more balanced and fulfilling life with resilience even in the middle of hardships. After all,  life is not always “dancing on rose peddles”.

I have based my understanding of shinrin yoku or forest bathing as we have come to know it,  on the views of our scientific advisor at IFTDays, Dr Iwao Uehara, in the book of Dr Yoshifumi Miyazaki, and finally in personal conversation with Dr Qing Li. According to this synthesis,  forest bathing refers to a full sensory relaxation in a forest environment. Simple as that. However, how you get to the result is open for interpretation. Riding a horse through a hinoki forest or doing yoga in a cherry tree woodland might also work  –  the modality does not matter as long as it is a forest and all the senses are being opened.

Even the pace of walking is left open and the advise is rather to match the rhytm with what the participants are used to. Pushing too much will turn into participant producing stress hormones and walking too little or slow, might frustrate another, causing more stress hormones to come free. However, walking slowly, according to my experience, is anyway a worth while habit when forest bathing as it helps in becoming mindful of one´s steps and also gently pushes the body to calm down – just as soon as it gets over the urge to race onwards.

The forest where the bathing is to happen itself is not that strictly defined either. However, the total effect of it is what counts. This total effect I interpret then to come from e.g. the types of trees in the forest, experience of walking in the forest, i.e. clarity of signalisation, feelings of safety, the type of path one is walking on, soundscape, light conditions and the hermal comfort the participant is experiencing. We shouldn´t forget the forest air´s phytoncide concentration that is dependant on the types of trees, the season, the wind conditions and the time of day in the forest, either! All these aspects are highly subjective. But since I am personally most concerned with prevention, I´ll stick to the losely defined “total effect” without trying to define a perfect forest bathing forest hat fits everyone. Not in this post anyway.

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I often refer to my type of Forest Mind.  There are many different FM  guides who have different professional backgrounds and who work with different target groups with different goals. My Forest Mind, however, consists of a minimum of one hour long forest bathing session, to make sure the people who have often (in Flanders) had to travel from far to get to the forest, have enough time to really calm down. I am not sure wheter the Finnish guides strech the sense opening exercises that long – according to my experiences in Finland, those sessions have been shorter. After the forest bathing, I turn to a few light introspective exercises.  I also include more sharing sessions that I have experienced in Finland because, according to my experience, the participants in Flanders enjoy the sharing.

Yet another personal addition is the emphasis I put on smelling things.  Because I have found that people are not often in the habit of touching and smelling the elements in the forest, I encourage this to really let the forest on one´s skin and those precious forest microbes in one´s system.

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I´ve had the chance to walk with a number of guides on their forest bathing walks. Different approaches or even different individual guides add different flavours to their practices. Amond many others,  I´ve had the pleasure of experiencing a number of ANFT-style forest bathing walks with different guides and enjoyed the slow movements, the eloquently worded invitations and the tea ceremony that invites everyone to share in a circle at the end. I´ve also tried forest bathing in a forest bathing center in Hangzhou, China where the walk started with Chi Qong movements and ended with listening to music while sipping a cup of tea.  I´ve tried the sequence with specific eye movements that I experienced on a forest bathing walk with Somaya. Or closing the walk with first resonating our common “omh” at the end of Ingeborg´s shinrin yoku walk.  All these approaches include sense opening exercises/invitations/meditations and are conducted in a more or less forested environment. There´s also the forest bathing I´ve tested at SLU Umeå and the growing in popularity, Natural Mindfulness, lead by my colleague at IFTDays, Ian Banyard. Healing Forest´s walks often incorporate creative elements in their walks.

The wording and the types of exercises have differed. The role that sharing plays in the experience have differed. The biggest difference, however, has been in the personality of the guide and wheter or not there has been a click with the guide. This click  is very important and probably the most influencing factor in the entire experience.  Because even if we are there for the forest, we still are human beings guided by a human guide.

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Spending the BOS+Badweekend  in the beautiful and surprisingly calm Hoge Rielen surrounded by my favourite trees, the pines, cleared my mind and gave me many more new ideas, visions and clarity. I am even more convinced of the vision me and Heidi Korhonen and our entire IFTDays team share: to keep making room for and supporting different forest based health and wellbeing approaches. It is and remains  challenging to get the unusual suspects out into the forests, that would benefit them even if they didn´t feel as strongly about forests as us forest lovers do. And for that we need all hands on deck to meet the many different needs and preferences that are out there.

If you´d like to experience a Forest Mind walk with me, you can join me on the 15th of December in the forests of Merelbeke to celebrate the launch of Het Zakboek voor Bosbaden that I wrote together with Sarah Devos.  More information can be found right here on NatureMinded or on my Facebook page closer to the date.

– Katriina –