In this series, I want to highlight some expat entrepreneurs who are contributing to the wellbeing of people living in Belgium with their nature based offerings.
Because I am a Forest-Finn, it gives me such pleasure to start off the series with a fellow forest-Finn, Jonna Kokko (Jonna´s last name means a big bonfire that we traditionally burn near the lakeside in the midsummer or at Easter in some parts of Finland). I had the pleasure of joining one of Jonna´s Taiga-yoga sessions in the Liedermeers park on a Saturday morning. We started out with a meditative walk, and then went on to some forest inspired yoga poses. We finished with a chat and a lovely cup of tea, all corona-safe. #thistooisforestbathing
Hi there, please introduce yourself?
“I’m Jonna. I’m a Finnish expat, yogi, yogateacher, musician, nature lover and a mother of two. I moved to Ghent Belgium in 2009. I’ve been teaching yoga since early 2020.
I’m currently hustling with a full time job, teaching yoga and being a mom. Sometimes it feels like a lot but mostly I’m loving my busy and chaotic life. I’m hoping to inspire others with regular jobs and busy family lives to make time to take care of themselves.
Where did you get the idea of taking yoga to the forest in Belgium?
I’ve been practicing yoga since the early millennium so it’s been an important part of my whole adult life. The idea of following a teacher training was there for several years before I finally decided to go for it in 2019. I’ve been very inspired by the Forest Yoga movement in Finland which was started by Mia Jokiniva with her book Metsäjooga (=Forest Yoga) in 2018. Finnish folklore and shaman culture are often at the heart of the Finnish Forest Yoga.
In Belgium, I cannot entirely copy paste the Finnish Forest Yoga so I am making it my own. Folklore is less present in my Forest Yoga for now but I’m most definitely letting my imagination go wild.
Part of the Forest Yoga experience is bringing the attention away from the mind and becoming present with the forest and nature around us. In Forest Yoga I’m combining the benefits of noticing nature and yoga in imaginative ways and the result is something very healing and empowering.
What is the difference between the indoors and outdoors yoga except for the obvious?
In my indoor yoga classes we bring our full focus inwards and to our body. We are practicing the skills of yoga asana, meditation and breathing. Essentially we are learning tools for life.
In my Forest Yoga sessions we open our senses to experience the nature around us. It is more imaginative using symbols to find the right energy of the pose. During the sessions we use sticks, rocks, trees and other elements from nature to incorporate in our yoga practice which makes it very creative.
There is magic in Metsäjooga
Is there something in nature in Belgium that you have learned to especially appreciate?
Belgian nature is highly accessible for everyone. I used to dislike the straight paths and the park feeling of the forests but now I can appreciate the positive side of it. Everyone has the possibility to enjoy nature, the young, the old, people with disabilities.
What is our own relationship to nature like?
Nature means everything to me. I was brought up making day trips to nature, fishing, picking berries, swimming in the lakes. When I’m outdoors, I can fully relax and experience the nature around me with all my senses. Mother nature is a reminder that all the worries of our daily life are usually smaller than we think. Being outdoors puts things back into the perspective.
Today we officially opened the resilience path at the beautiful Borgwal domain in Vurste (Gavere). This route of +2 km contains exercises that invite you to slow down, stop and immerse yourself in the forest. From Saturday September 12th you are very welcome to try out the Veerkrachtpad yourself and enjoy the positive health effects of the forest.
From the beginning of 2021, you can also be guided on the path by a guide who will support you in the exercises.
Download the Veerkracht report here (in Dutch, available until 15/09/2020)
Dowload the press release about the Veerkrachtpad here (in Dutch):
Afgelopen donderdag openden we het Opkikkerpad in Puyenbroeck. Sindsdien ben ik in Vlaanderen op radio (Radio2, Nostalgie) en tv (AVS) geweest. Waarover gaat het?
Het is duidelijk dat het belang van de natuur voor welzijn eindelijk is opgemerkt in Vlaanderen. Het maakt me heel gelukkig. De ophef over het Opkikkerpad heeft waarschijnlijk te maken met het feit dat het ging over het bewust contact maken met de natuur, de “Scandinavische oorsprong” en de grappige naam.
De waarheid is dat de originele “Voimapolku” (Sterkte-pad) in 2010 werd gecreëerd door Dr Kalevi Korpela in het Finse Ikaalinen. Sindsdien is het losjes gekopieerd in Finland, Zweden, Frankrijk, Luxemburg en dus nu ook in België. De paden zijn ook getest op mensen en bleken te werken. Ze zijn vooral veelbelovend in omgevingen waar je lawaai, oogproblemen en andere dingen hebt die je ervan kunnen weerhouden om van je natuurervaring te genieten. Ze herinneren ons er ook aan om te vertragen en te genieten van wat er om ons heen is. Het is in wezen een bosbad, maar dan zonder
Het Opkikkerpad is het tweede van onze NatureMinded-creaties. Het eerste pad is nog niet open. Eind vorig jaar heb ik samen met mijn collega Henrik twee maanden het Veerkrachtpad getest in Borgwal, Ortho-Agogisch Centrum. Daar hebben we onderzocht wat het effect is van het pad op mensen die het bewandelen. Ik kan je de resultaten nog niet vertellen omdat het verslag op dit moment wordt vertaald voordat ik het inlever bij gezondheidsfonds CM die de hele studie heeft gefinancierd (Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen en Borgwal gefinancierde ook ons werk en werkten enthusiast mee). Maar op basis van de resultaten kan ik zeggen dat mensen in Vlaanderen echt hun voordeel doen met dergelijke paden die hen eraan herinneren om te vertragen en “aan de rozen te
Het leuke van het Opkikkerpad in Puyenbroeck is dat het een langere route is, er verschillende alternatieve lengtes zijn om uit te kiezen en de meeste paden toegankelijk zijn voor rolstoelgebruikers. De negatieve punten zijn dat je bijna de hele tijd op een verharde weg zit. Het is echter een heel rustig deel van Puyenbroeck waar je af en toe ook herten kunt zien! (Ik heb ze elke keer dat ik ging ook echt waargenomen, geen grapje). Doordat je de folders met oefeningen mee kunt nemen, kan je ze ook in andere omgevingen uitproberen, zelfs in je eigen tuin. En zo kan de magie van het bewust verbinden met de natuur zich over heel Vlaanderen verspreiden…
Het Veerkrachtpad in Vurste is iets anders. De domein is kleiner en er is maar één route. De oefeningen die op specifieke plekken te vinden zijn, verlengen echt je verblijf in het bos waar je anders op enkele minuten doorheen zou lopen. Maar je krijgt er een bosgevoel, ook omdat je over de bosgrond loopt. Je kunt het bos ook echt ruiken, vanwege de vochtige grond. En de bomen zijn prachtig! Het is een meer dan 300 jaar oud bos met een grote diversiteit aan bomen. Ik kan je verzekeren, elk seizoen in Borgwal is een bezoek waard! Net als aan Puyenbroeck.
Maar genoeg erover. Ik nodig je uit om het pad in Puyenbroeck uit te proberen en na de opening op 8 september ook zeker het Veerkrachtpad in Borgwal te gaan bezoeken. Daar is tenslotte alles begonnen.
Last Thursday we opened the Opkikkerpad (“Boost path”), and since then I´ve been on radio (Radio2, Nostalgie) and TV (AVS) in Flanders. What is all this fuss about?
Clearly nature´s importance for wellbeing has been finally noticed in Flanders and we at NatureMinded could not be happier. The fuss about the Opkikker pad has probably to do with the fact that it includes the very mindful connecting with nature, “Scandinavian origins” and a funny name.
But truth be told, the original “Voimapolku” (Strength path), was created by Kalevi Korpela in Finland´s Ikaalinen in 2010. Since then it´s been loosely replicated in Finland, Sweden, France, Luxembourg and now Belgium. The paths have also been tested on people and found to work. They are especially promising in environments where you have noise, eye sores and other things that might keep you from enjoying your nature experience. They also remind us to slow down and enjoy what´s around us. It´s essentially forest bathing, without a guide.
But Opkikkerpad is the second of our NatureMinded creations. The first one is not yet open. Late last year me and my colleague Henrik spent two months testing the Veerkrachtpad (Resilience path) in Borgwal Ortho-Agogisch Center. There we tested on people what the effect of the path would be. I can´t tell you the results yet because the report is being translated as we speak before we hand it in to CM who financed the whole study. But, based on the results, I can say that people in Flanders can benefit from such paths that remind them to slow down and to smell the roses.
The nice thing about Opkikkerpad in Puyenbroeck is that it´s a longer route, there are couple of alternative lengths to choose from and most paths are accessible to wheelchair users. The negative points are that you are almost the entire time on paved road. However, it´s a very quiet part of Puyenbroeck where you can also often spot deer! The fact that you can take the folders with exercises with you, means that people get to try them out also in other environments, even in their own gardens. And so the magic of mindfully connecting with nature spreads across Flanders…
And Veerkrachtpad is something different. The domain is smaller, there´s only one route, so the exercises that are fixed in place really lenghten your stay in the forest that you would otherwise walk through in a matter of minutes. And there is a forest feeling there, also because you walk on the soft and squishy ground. You can also really smell the forest, because of the moistness of the environment. And the trees are magnificent and old! It´s an over 300 year old forest with such diversity of trees. I can assure you, every season in Borgwal is worth visiting! As is Puyenbroeck, of course.
But enough about writing about it. I invite you to check out the path in Puyenbroeck and make sure to visit Borgwal after the opening on the 8th of September. Afterall, Borgwal is where everything started.
Deze video is een samenwerking tussen NatureMinded Consultancy en Maks Vzw om het bewustzijn over het belang van natuur voor onze gezondheid en ons welzijn te vergroten.
Maks vzw (https://maksvzw.org/) stimuleert bewoners uit Brussel om op zoek te gaan naar hun talenten en competenties met een focus op digitale kennis. Maks vzw levert ook diensten aan bedrijven en organisaties uit de profit en non-profit, zoals ICT cursussen, de realisatie van video CV’s, grafisch werk, promotiefilms, digitale story’s voor en met de klant.
Met dank aan:
Opa – Etienne Flerick
Meisjes op school – Unna Flerick Kilpi, Nine Hendrikx, Marie Tschabé
Kindjes in de park – Amin, Ayoub, Senna, Anouar
Meisje met de hond – Ellen de Lagun
De jongen op de kinesthetics – Sam Van Leugenhaege
The sun is glaring through the windows. The spring in Belgium has never been as beautiful. The scent of the wisteria blooming in the garden gets mixed up with the scent of the purple lilac carried over the fence from the neighbour´s yard, mixing the two into a wonderful fragrant cloud. The birdsong covers the sounds of neighbours chatting on their yards. The colours are vibrant as the air is clear. The haze, that would decend in the evenings and irritate my the throat is not there. When it rains, all the smells are amplified. I can smell nature. I can see nature. I can hear nature.
All this is possible because of the pause we have been forced to put out lives on since March. I am able to spend more time outdoors and I am overjoyed seeing people walking in the neighbourhood. The dog walkers have been joined by families, young and older couples, even youngsters in the neighbourhood green spaces.
But this dreamy scenario was not always as dreamy.
You see, at the ripe age of almost 40, my invincible body and her immune system developed allergies. I don´t know for what exactly, but I know April has become the month of sneezes, snots and coughs, even occasional rashes. I´ve heard that allergies can be triggered by air pollution even at an older age. The culprit is clear: the Belgian airspace with its plentiful impurities. Except this year. This year my symptoms have been milder than ever.
Allergy is only one of the challenges I´ve faced since moving to Belgian Flanders in 2006. When I arrived, I never considered to settle here as Belgium was not exactly the ideal country for an outdoorsy nature-lover like myself. But as life (=love) had brought me to Flanders, I decided to give it a go. For now.
But while missing nature, I ended up getting angry at the country and its busy streets. I blamed the paved and managed Belgian surfaces for my unhappiness (side note: Obviously not all my unhappiness can be blamed on the lack of nature in Belgium, but I´d like for now just to conclude that one´s surroundings do affect one´s wellbeing which is what I touch upon in this text). All I saw was the violent way nature was tamed and managed, and how I was reduced to a mere passer by who needed to stay on the path.
Everywhere in my immediate surroundings I was reminded of the human world and its grip on nature. I could never have the forest all to myself (Finnish privilege, I realise). If it wasn´t for the scouts making noise or bikers passing by, it would be the nearby highway not letting me forget I had never really left the civilisation. The sights, sounds and smells kept me tied to the human world.
On our street in one of city of Ghent´s most densely populated housing areas, houses were attached to each other side-by-side. As soon as you stepped outside, there was life in front of you. Neighbors to talk to you, cars to honk at you, dog shit to step on and to all this, you had no time to prepare. It hit you just as you stepped out. For the introverted highly sensitive outsider that I am, this was often too much. At the same time, I loved the multicultural, active community of Ledeberg, and the idea of our street with (at the time) 19 nationalities.
A lot has happened in Ledeberg since I left. Mini green space in 2019.
The dirty park has turned into a community green hub since 2019.
To ease my own longing for nature, I let our tiny garden grow wild. I planted a facade garden and I took my tiny daughter and dog to the nearby “dirty park” (“vuile park”, i.e. Vijverspark). Most kids were not accompanied to the park by their parents so the kids played on the narrow sidewalks with cars whizzing by. Once a month I packed our family to hit one of the bigger nature reserves in the south of the country or the Dutch coast as I felt the growing need of feeling surrounded by the vastness of nature.
The family grew by one more child and the house started feeling inconvenient, the green even smaller and the busyness of the surroundings unbearable. As a last resort before throwing in the towel and using force to move the unwilling love to Finland, we found a house not so far away from Ledeberg but in a distinctly different kind of neighbourhood. Compared to Ledeberg, however, the move to a new neighbourhood included a steep decline in diversity of nationalities and a sharp increase in the average age of the residents. The proximity of the highway and the inner ring around the city of Ghent and the subsequent gridlock in the afternoons on both sides of our neighbourhood, dawned on us only after settling in. My thirst for nature had got so acute, all I saw was the amount of light inside the house and the potential of greening the area around us.
All this came to a halt during the past almost two months when we have been forced to put our lives on a pause. But a pause means a temporary stop. The lockdown easement will start tomorrow. The freedom to move beyond one´s neighborhood will be returned and people are even recommended to use their own cars to leave public transport to those who need it more urgently.
After weeks of not being able to move as we wish to, the urge to drive to the coast or to one of the nature reserves with more services and facilities, will be as tempting as ever. What will it take to keep us from taking one of those 2-3 cars standing idle on our yards? How can we remind ourselves of the glorious silence on any morning of the week when there was no gridlock? How will we remember how the sudden smell of the may flowers at the side of the road lifted our moods on a walk in our neighbourhood? Will we remember the surprise of meeting so many familiar smiling faces in the nearby forest during the lockdown and how nice our neighbourhoods actually are and can be?
The lockdown has showed me that there is a wild side to the Belgian nature. Once we lift the blanket of human activity that covers the vibrant colours, the birdsong and the scents of the spring flowers, nature will take over.
The idea of losing that wild nature again breaks my heart. I have been waiting all these years to fall in love with it.
We at NatureMinded seek to deepen the current understanding of aspects supporting or hindering mental health and wellbeing during our first (but probably not last) pandemic. Together with our partners from Steunpunt Geestelijk Gezondheid, we are launching a survey in three languages to involve as many people as possible in this endeavour.
The data collected will be used to raise awareness on aspects influencing how we cope during a pandemic but also our mental health and wellbeing in general. No such personal data will be collected that can be linked to your identity (e.g. email addresses, phone numbers, names). We appreciate your participation!
Since we started hearing the awful news from Italy, it started to dawn on many people that we were also headed to a lockdown. And many people started finding their way out into nature. No wonder, as the internet is blasting out messages of how if one is not feeling sick, they should be getting out to nature because nature is good for you. And of course, they – the internets – are right. During these days, weeks and let´s face it, months of unusual situation, we should find our way out to nature daily.
Simple movement in nature – walking, biking, jogging – gets our blood circulating, warms up our stiff muscles and body on the whole. Walking in a greenery lets us relax our minds as we pay attention to the green around us and the fractal patterns of nature. Our minds relax, we let go of the nagging thoughts that bother us and our moods lift. The sky starts to show up a bit more pink after all. We start walking home, home to ourselves.
When we breathe in the healing and fortifying fumes breathed out by the plants and trees, our cells are strengthened. The forest soil reminds our internal microbial environment about the good and the bad guys trying to enter our bodies and trains our system to work optimally.
The flooding of humans to the nature domains and forests more than ever before is a worldwide phenomenon – my colleagues report the same from the United States and Japan. That is easy to understand – where before one´s energy was spent at work, commuting to work and picking up the children, many are finding their homes just a bit too confining. Not enough energy is burnt, and more and more messages on the endless stream of corona news starts to build a heavy weight on the mind too.
On top of getting rid of energy, we humans have a need to experience the wildness of nature and the sheer power of nature. Being able to follow a nesting bird, the first wood anemone or observing butterflies over blooming flowers is nature in action which gives us hope and a feeling that life goes on. That is a very important notion in these strange times when we are looking for answers and a way forward.
Nature domains are perfect places for this as one is able to get a feeling of untouched nature (minus the paved walking paths, signage and facilities. And the café at the parking). However, during this crisis, the domains are getting overly used. Green spaces in Flanders are scarce. If this housebound situation persist, the government will have no other choice than to start liming our access to these spaces, in the fear that we will be getting too close to each other on the forest paths.
So I´ve collected here some tips and hints on where to find your daily dose of green when the forest paths get too crowded. Remember, these should be found in your nearby environment or not further than a bikeride away:
Check out your neighbourhood: now that there are less cars outside, even the busiest of neighbourhoods are bound to be more liveable. Take a walk in your neighbourhood, and even if where you live is not particularly green, pay attention to the colour of the sky, the way the sun makes different surfaces look; how on a sunny day you can feel the summer making its way to Belgium, regardless of corona. Pay attention to the birds in the city, the trees that are there. And take a moment to greet a tree in your neighbourhood. Imagine, if you will, all the services the tree is offering you in this city: it produces fresh oxygen without which you would seize to exist. On a sunny day it offers you shade, if you let it grow to become big enough where its shade can fit more humans underneath it. Using up some of the water and transpiring it into the air so that when we get heavy rains, it helps us to get rid excess water that would otherwise flood the paved city ground. And did I mention the phytoncides? They are out there, wherever there are plants growing. And who says you cannot walk after hours in your neighbourhood. Just remember your reflecting jacket!
Try the slow streets in the countryside that offer nice and romantic sceneries of the Flemish countryside. Next to vitamin D that you will need to again boost your immunity and sunlight to regulate your sleeping patterns, there will be trees to look at, fields that are starting to push some green and more birds to pay attention to. Take a look at the willows that have been cut in the traditional way. These trees can hold so much biodiversity as they are often hollow from inside. Imagine how much life an old willow can keep within it, and still keep growing! That´s the beauty of nature right there. Visit the horses or cows you see on the pasture. Take a moment to observe their way of being. How has their life changed since you were ordered housebound? Pay also attention the countryside houses and the signs of the olden days that are often visible. Reflect on how life has changed from the times of your grandparents… I dare to say, life on planetary level has improved tremendously, regardless of Corona.
Take a walk in the green neighbourhoods: in your city there are bound to be one or two neighbourhoods that are spectacularly green, with beautiful big, old trees surrounding the big villas. Most of the time, the soundscape in these environments is also pleasant as there are no busy highways in the vicinity. The air is again cleaner and your friends, the phytoncides, will be floating around that airspace too.
If you live on the seaside or at a reasonable distance from the sea; the sea has a calming effect on the human, due to, some say, the fact that we came from the ocean and because water has always played an important part in any landscape we find especially soothing and pleasing (of course, for people who have experienced trauma in relation to water, this might not be the case). The sounds of the waves work wonders on our brain and help us to relax. A walk at the seaside with the sea gulls screaming above you and the smells and sounds can catapult you to a memory and holiday feel instantly. That itself is enough to give you a healing, relaxing experience.
A garden: your own or a city garden. Though smaller in size, you can get the same feeling of wild nature when paying attention to a detail of a young shoot pushing from the ground. Take some mulch in your hands and smell it. There is something comforting about the smell too. What signs of spring are already visible? Can you remember or imagine what this space will look like after a few months when everything is in full bloom?
How about planting some seeds? Some of the grocery stores sell seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers etc. and even bags of soil. Why not try to grow your own vegetable patch, in your yard or on the balcony or windowsill on small scale. Observing the start of new life and tending to baby plants can be a healing experience on its own. Plus, it gives you something else to do and think about.
Just putting this out there: imagine if the private forest owners would make their private forests available to people, even if just on some mornings or some days of the week, with the same rules in place as on public forests, and visitors fully accepting own responsibility, we could make more green space available in Flanders. Just a thought…
My advice is to alternate between the places you visit so you won´t contribute to the crowds and you keep it interesting for yourself. There is no point in driving further than your neck of the woods. Nature is all around us. It is just a matter of noticing it.
Kansen en mogelijkheden voor bostherapie in Vlaanderen
BLOG – Frank Monsecour – Nature Minded 1 maart 2020
Gontrode, vrijdagmiddag 28 februari, grote zaal BOS+.
Eind februari brachten Prof. Iwao Uehara, Dr Hiroe Takeuchi en Dr Shinji Takashima Japanse bosdeskundigen en -therapeuten, op initiatief van NatureMinded, een werkbezoek aan Vlaanderen. Dit is een samenvatting van dat bezoek.
Prof Uehara van de silvicultuurfaculteit aan de landbouw universiteit van Tokyo, geeft een boeiende lezing over de mogelijkheden van bostherapie in Vlaanderen. Hij is zelf bosbouwer en bostherapeut. Samen met onderzoekster Dr Hiroe Takeuchi lichtte de vaak erg grappige professor het aanwezige publiek in over de wereld van bostherapiepraktijken en -onderzoek zoals het zich de voorbije twintig jaar in Japan heeft ontwikkeld.
Bostherapie is winst voor mens en natuur Het hoofddoel van bostherapie is dat zowel de mens als het bos er beter van wordt. Onder de noemer ‘Universal design of forests’ schetste de Japanse Prof een beeld van hoe programma´s en faciliteiten in het bos kunnen worden ontworpen om aan de behoeften van verschillende doelgroepen te voldoen, o.a. inzake toegankelijkheid. De professor startte met de methodische
aanpak van bostherapie. Die bestaat uit vier onderdelen. Eerst worden de noden van de cliënten in beeld gebracht om vervolgens de meest geschikte aanpak te bepalen. Stap 3 is de overweging welk soort bos het best is uitgerust voor het programma met tot slot de evaluatie van de activiteit. Die laatste stap wordt als heel belangrijk ervaren om zo de methodieken steeds verder te verfijnen.
Bosinrichting volgens noden doelgroep
Prof. Uehara illustreerde uitvoerig de impact van bostherapie op mensen met autisme, met fysieke en mentale beperkingen maar ook op oudere mensen met o.a. dementie. Een programma van bezigheidstherapie in het bos bleek voor meerdere doelgroepen erg efficiënt, bijv. het leren hout en bladeren sprokkelen, brandhout dragen, kortom actief meedraaien in een groep en dat soms vier dagen per week. Aan het eind van zijn betoog volgde nog een zes stappenplan via dewelke bostherapie kan worden gerealiseerd. Belangrijk nieuw element daarbij is de inrichting van het bos (arranging the forest) zodat het aan de noden van het programma en de doelgroep tegemoet komt.
Een concreet voorbeeld is de aanleg van ronde of vierkanten ‘counseling spaces’ tussen 25 en 100m² groot. Die stilte-, praat- en overlegplekken blijken heel belangrijk bij bostherapie.
Shinrin yoku, Ryoho en Serapi
Tussendoor gaf Iwao ook enkele interessante weetjes mee. Zo bedraagt de beboste oppervlakte in Japan 67% van het grondgebied tegenover 20% in België en 11% in Vlaanderen. Hij leerde ons ook het verschil tussen Shinrin Yoku, wat bosbaden betekent (sinds 1982) en Shinrin Ryoho, wat staat voor bostherapie (1999). Shinrin Yoku is ontstaan begin jaren tachtig om de bevolking te stimuleren meer het bos in te trekken voor rust en ontspanning. De Japanse samenleving is erg prestatiegericht met heel hoge zelfmoordcijfers tot gevolg en daar wou men iets aan doen. Om te zorgen dat de welzijnspraktijken in het bos voldoende kwaliteitsvol gebeuren, werd Shinrin Serapi opgericht als gecertificeerd keurmerk voor bostherapie.
Vier praktijken van bostherapie
Met de bespreking van vier concrete casussen wisten Iwao en Hiroe de aanwezigen te overtuigen van de meerwaarde van bostherapie en dat in heel verschillende welzijnspraktijken: bij een ziekenhuis, ter preventie van zelfmoord, bij de behandeling van posttraumatische stress disorder (PTSD) en bij burn-out bij leerkrachten.
Ziekenhuis met bos
Prof. Uehara kreeg de vraag van een hospitaal om een aanpalend, verlaten bos in te richten en klaar te maken voor revalidatie en bostherapie. Iwao realiseerde een reeks ingrepen zoals lichtinbreng en de aanleg van openlucht ontmoetingsplekken. Ook zorgde hij voor de beschikbaarheid van therapeutisch werkmateriaal overal in het bos: takken, banken en tafels maar ook eetbare en medicinale planten en struiken. Spectaculair waren de bezigheidsactiviteiten voor ouderen in het bos, o.a. mensen met dementie die zelfs terug woorden vonden (forest remembrance).
Zelfmoordpreventie en aanpak PTSS
Bij een programma van zelfmoordpreventie werden bekende privébossen ingezet voor de cliënten waarbij een beukenbos een grote impact had. Het medisch welzijnsdepartement van de betrokken stad coördineerde de aanpak. Het zelfmoordcijfer daalde bij de risicogroep. Bij de cliënten met posttraumatische stressstoornissen bleek de bosomgeving erg helend te zijn als gevolg van de rust,
de stilte en de afwezigheid van woorden. Instructies en raadgevingen blijken niet altijd nodig. Na het volgen van een bostherapieprogramma van een jaar mochten alle 24 deelnemers het ziekenhuis verlaten. Zonder meer straffe resultaten die dankzij nauwgezette wetenschappelijke opvolging met de nodige bewijskracht kunnen worden gestaafd.
Projectonderzoeker Hiroe Takeuchi mocht de lezing afronden met een duiding bij de opvolging van een cliënte die uiterst mensenschuw en sociaal onaangepast in het leven stond. Na een jaar van intense bostherapie-activiteiten vond de vrouw terug evenwicht in het leven, voelde ze zich als herboren en kon ze volop genieten van de natuur. Opvallend: de dame legde steeds meer linken tussen de kenmerken die ze zag en leerde in het bos en haar eigen leven. Haar zelfvertrouwen en zelfinzicht groeide waarbij natuurmetaforen een inspirerende leidraad werden.
De inbreng van Hiroe gaf aanleiding tot een boeiende discussie over de nodige deskundigheden van een goed bostherapeut of boswandelcoach. Voor Hiroe is het duidelijk: de bostherapeut moet én kennis hebben over het bosecosysteem én over de nodige therapeutische of coachingskwaliteiten beschikken. Ik maakte de opmerking dat ik al meerdere bosbadsessies had meegemaakt en dat daarbij het bos weliswaar fungeert als ideale relaxerende gezonde omgeving, maar dat kennis of weetjes over bosfauna, -flora of ecosysteem geen noodzakelijke elementen waren. Wel de opbouw en begeleiding van mentale oefeningen door de bosbadgids.
Bosbaden en bostherapie
Bij de fietstocht huiswaarts kwam het onderscheid tussen bosbaden en bostherapie me helder voor de geest. Bosbaden werken gezondheidsbevorderend preventief en kunnen door een geschoolde bosbadgids worden begeleid. Bostherapie of therapie in het bos zit eerder in de helende en curatieve sfeer waarvoor extra professionele kwaliteiten zijn vereist. Al is daarmee de discussie over de bosdeskundigheid zelf nog niet beslecht. Vast staat dat het bos heel wat kansen biedt voor de gehele gezondheidszorg in België.
Als je je wilt indiepen in een van de “bosgebaseerde welzijnspraktijken”, wordt de Finse Forest Mind / Metsämieli instructeurstraining georganiseerd op 2-3 mei in Merelbeke. Lees meer hier.
In late November, trees in Tokyo – the capital city of Japan and one of the largest cities in the world – are still relatively green. Three members of the IFTDays team (myself, Heidi Korhonen and Nitin Das), we have arrived to explore the concept of shinrin yoku that is gaining popularity in the Western world since some years now, and the role that nature and forest play in the lives of the Japanese people today. Our guide and friend, Dr Iwao Uehara has promised to show us his most important nature spots and explain further his approach to forest based wellbeing.
Over 13 million people live and enjoy the greenery in Tokyo metropolitan area of 2,200 km2 (Hosaka et al, 2016). However, the level of urbanisation is not equally distributed between the eastern and western parts of the city. While the western part of the city contains considerable forest areas (48.7%) and agricultural land (5.5%), the eastern part containing also the Tokyo city center, is highly urbanised and includes little forested area (0.1% of total area) or agricultural land (1.1%).
The area of urban parkland continues to increase in Tokyo, supported by the decision of Tokyo Metropolitan Government and individual local governments to establish strategies for urban biodiversity conservation through improvements in the green space quality and connectivity.
Though the heart of Tokyo is a beeping and flashing and teeming with people, quickly after entering the side streets where urban residents live, one encounters greenery in small, imaginative patches and calm soundscape surprisingly close by. Electric and hybrid cars form the majority of the motorised vehicles and people hurry along in their own quiet ways. There is little yelling on the Japanese streets.
Japan´s green gold
Outside of the city, in the greener western side of Tokyo where the elevation levels increase, the highest peak of most astounding foliage has already passed. Still, just two hours away from Tokyo by regular train, in the area of Okutama, vibrant colours of momiji (Japanese maple) and Ginkgo biloba offer beautiful views in the midst of oaks, beeches and Japanese cedars and cypresses.
Japan is a forest rich country: 67% of the land area is occupied by forest. Most forests areas in Japan are steep which makes harvesting wood in those areas difficult and expensive. Therefore, the majority (60%) of the forest cover in Japan is so-called natural forest where would does not get harvested (Huusko, 2019).
After the Second World War, Japan began to cut down its diverse and untouched beech forests to be replaced by fast-growing sugi, i.e. Japanese cedar and other cypress forest that were needed by the pulp and sawmill industry. Due to the steep landscape, from the 1960s onwards, Japan began to import more pulp and lumber from cheaper countries. This lead ultimately to the decline of Japan’s own forestry. However, forests, including planted commercial forests, which account for about 44% of Japanese forest land, continued to grow (Huusko, 2019).
In recent years, the Government of Japan has taken policy measures to revitalise forestry, focusing on the coordination and consolidation of forestry practices among others. As a result, domestic wood supply has been increasing. The plan now is to improve forestry productivity by further coordinating small scale forest owners and conduct forestry practices on a larger, more commercial, scale (Forestry Agency, 2017).
At the same time, a different trend has also begun. The Japanese, who are under the stress of competitive metropolitan life, are lured into the healing atmosphere of the forests to engage in different relaxing activities (Huusko, 2019).
Forest to help people with stress
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries came up with the idea of shinrin yoku in the early eighties. Shinrin yoku stands for a forest bath, or enjoying the forest atmosphere in order to relax. Due to the relentless Japanese working culture, the stress levels of Japanese employees was running rampant already then and the forestry department saw a wonderful possibility that would benefit the stress levels of people and increase demand for forest cover needed by the forestry department. And so shinrin yoku was born.
Many westerners refer to shinrin yoku as the traditional Japanese practice of forest going. This is technically not true due to the ingenious idea of branding by the Forestry department. However, the concept of shinrin yoku does have its roots in the animistic beliefs of ancient Japanese religions. Shinrin yoku became embraced by people as it made sense in their cultural context where natural elements such as stones, mountains and trees have spirits. And so recognising forests as a source of wellbeing became embraced without scientific proof.
There is something to be said about the central role that Zen Buddhism plays in Japan. Zen Buddhism encourages the practitioner to learn to gather one’s scattered mind and stabilise one´s attention so that it can be easier to see things more clearly and with a new perspective. When some space is created between our experiences and how we react to these experiences, we are able to respond with greater wisdom and care.
While traditionally, Buddhist monks in India, China and later in Japan, traversed long distances to meditate in nature, in the recent decades the phenomenon of headspace creation has become known as restoration in environmental psychology. The Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1985) and its closely connected Stress Recovery Theory (Ulrich, 1991) posit that our psychophysical recovery from stress starts within minutes of entering a green space. When the physical body has started to calm down – blood pressure stabilises, stress hormones in our blood decrease, muscle tension decreases – the mental health benefits also kick in. We start thinking more clearly, our feelings of vitality increase and our mood starts to lift. The urbanite can now exhale a sigh of relief, as the time needed in nature has been narrowed down to only 20 minutes a day in order to manage one´s mental health.
From Forest Bathing to Forest Therapy
Though the biggest hype around shinrin yoku as a concept quieted down a few years after its emergence, what remained, was the belief in nature´s actual healing effects on people, which a group of scientists then set out to investigate in 2004. A study group was launched in cooperation with medical schools, research institutes and companies to study the health effects of the forest. After the initial study, many more studies followed, to investigate more profoundly the results of the first study in order to apply it in practical use.
Since the early 2000, certified “Forest Therapy Bases” (shinrin serapii kichi) and certified “Forest Therapy Roads” have been established by the Japanese Forest Therapy Association all around Japan. Certification, in this context, means that the test walkers of the trail have been tested for their vital signs before entering the trail and right after returning from the trail. The vital signs include blood pressure and salivary amylase which are both affected when our bodies relax and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, i.e. some of the health effects of forest bathing. Forest Therapy Bases and some trails have been certified in this manner.
The Association has also set out to raise awareness and promote the scientific results of the refreshing and therapeutic effects of the forest. The association is promoting the concept of shinrin serapii (translating as Forest Therapy) to the extent of protecting it with a trademark. Since 2005, the Japan Forest Therapy Association has had a commercial trademark for shinrin yoku, which can be purchased by local nature entrepreneurs for a license fee.
According to the Association, there are now up to 62 Forest Therapy Bases in Japan. These bases are owned locally by the small towns and villages in the sparsely populated areas. At the Forest Therapy bases, one can pay for a guided Forest Therapy activity. Forest therapy is also seen as a means of revitalising a declining countryside.
Okutama Forest Therapy Base
Okutama was the first area in Tokyo prefecture to be approved as a site for Forest Therapy. The entire 225.5 km² town of Okutama with a population of around 5000, is certified as a Forest Therapy Base. The therapy roads are always open, except for one, which is closed in the winter time. Tours organised by the Forest Therapy Base are available year-round on a reservation basis (Iwasaki, 2019).
Okutama Forest Therapy Base, that lies 2 hours metro and train ride away from Tokyo center, has a secretariat that handles all the planning, managing and coordinating of activities and employs 6 people full-time. On top of the full time employees, 30 people are registered as temporary guides at the base. Each of the guides has a different area of expertise, such as yoga, aromatherapy, acupuncture, Tai Chi, bird observation, etc. (Iwasaki, 2019).
The Okutama Town has its own guide certification program. In addition to basic knowledge of Forest Therapy, a guide should have knowledge of the local history and vegetation of this region. Several guides hold therapist qualifications of the Forest Therapy Society. The base welcomes a wide variety of participants. As the Association views Forest Therapy as disease prevention and not treatment, no seriously ill people will participate in the programs offered. However, some people come for rehabilitation after their treatment. As a company welfare program, Forest Therapy can be used for employee recreation, new employee training, and mental health management. Many people keep coming back after one time “treatment” (Iwasaki, 2019).
The Forest Therapy base Okutama has 5 roads and the longest of them is 12 km. The road is paved and therefore possible to access also with a bike or wheelchair. The roads are broad and in good condition. There are toilets, and some benches on the road. The signalisation includes also warnings of falling rocks.
The Forest Therapy base Okutama has 5 roads and the longest of them is 12 km. The road is paved and therefore possible to access also with a bike or wheelchair. The roads are broad and in good condition. There are toilets, and some benches on the road. The signalisation includes also warnings of falling rocks.
Taking part in a Forest Therapy walk
Before a walk, blood pressure is measured and salivary amylase is tested by the secretarial staff. Only at special events, medical staff may accompany the staff to offer an expert opinion.
Most participants are people who actively enjoy walking in the forest and experiencing activities. Many people will participate for the purpose of blood pressure management, physical fitness, and making new friends. Older adults’ sessions in Okutama are conducted for health promotion purposes.
During a walk in Okutama, a Forest Therapy guide introduces the different tree and plant species, invites participants to smell different aromas found in the forest, to touch the trees and plants and even to taste some of them. The guides also share their knowledge about the use of the plants for different ailments. A group walk is up to 7 people per guide. For custom made walks, also one person only is accepted (Iwasaki, 2019).
The tour length (time and distance) varies depending on the tour, but walking for at least 2 hours is suggested and necessary as the movement happens slowly. There are five Forest Therapy roads in Okutama, the shortest one being 1.3km, the longest one 12km. One of the five roads including a monorail for wheelchairs, has been designed by a the staff of Chiba University. The other four roads were originally hiking roads, and are now registered as therapy roads. Most Forest Therapy activities consists of a day tour that combines walking with some other activities. The secretariat that is also registered as a travel agent, organises regular tours for tourists, but also custom-made plans are also available upon request from customers.
Becoming a Forest Therapy guide
Hiroko Itoi (49), is an editor and proofreader turned Forest Therapy guide. Hiroko lives in Tochigi city over 2 hours train ride away from Tokyo. She moved there after living 20 years in Tokyo and missing greenery around her.
A few years ago, Hiroko was still taking the train to Tokyo at 7 in the morning to return home at 10 in the evening. After some heavy contemplation, Hiroko stopped her editorial work that was consuming all her time and energy and started thinking about new ways to make a living. An avid nature lover, Hiroko looked around and heard about the Forest Therapy bases. She trained to become a Forest Therapy guide through a correspondence class that one could complete by distance learning only.
Those interested in becoming a “Forest Therapy Guide” or receiving the certification as a “Forest Therapist”, can follow the course in Japanese offered by the Japanese Forest Therapy Society and get their certification through mail. The course for a “Forest Therapy guide” costs about 350 euros (41,580 yen） and for a “Forest Therapist”, one needs to pay another 170 euros for the certificate as well as 250 euros for one overnight training. To be able to operate as a Forest therapy guide or a therapist, one needs to pay 42 euros a year and you are limited to work at the trademarked “Forest therapy road” or “Forest therapy base”. The certification of “Forest Therapy Guide” and “Forest Therapist” needs to be renewed every three years.
Hiroko´s not the only one who has left the city and its demands. Also Mayumi Ehara´s family moved from Tokyo to Matsumoto, a town of roughly 240 000 people in Nagano prefecture to bring their children up closer to nature. Mayumi´s move to a smaller town came with a lucky twist, and even more nature closeness for her children. Mayumi´s oldest son has Asperger syndrome and was having problems functioning in the class of the regular school. Mayumi heard about the Kujiragumo (the Whale Cloud), an outdoor school in Azumino, and decided to give it a try.
The change was immediate. The only challenge that Mayumi´s son experienced in the new school was the freedom of choice – in a forest school, a child can self choose what to do during the free play time. This can be challenging for a child with Asperger´s. However, at Kujiragumo there is time to try things many times and do things slowly and the the teachers wait patiently until a child manages to get things done, something that in a mainstream school there is not always time for.
Mrs Keiko Yoda started the forest preschool after working as a preschool teacher for 13 years. She wanted to move towards outdoor pedagogy as it was her dream. With the help of some of the parents of her to-be students, she was able to get a space in Azumino, another small town close to Matsumoto.
Keiko learned about the Swedish outdoor pedagogy approach that is popular in Sweden and Finland, Skogsmulle and i Ur och Skur, and learnt that “the things you can do indoors, you can also do outdoors”. There are nowadays some 500 registered Skogsmulle leaders working at about 50 pre-schools or voluntary organisations in Japan. They are altogether engaging some 12000 children a year following the Swedish Skogsmulle outdoor pedagogy.
Familiarising with Skogsmulle in Japan gave Keiko her the inspiration to do whatever she wanted outdoors. She built a base in the forest, cutting down as few trees as possible and created a circle with four logs around the fireplace. She started with 15 children who were between 3-5 years old.
After three years, the number of applicants to the school increased. Keiko had her colleague take over the first forest preschool and went on to start another one, the Kujiragumo, the Whale Cloud.
Nowadays, the school has 43 students, all under the age of 5. All children who enrol come from families in which the parents want their children to experience nature and value the development that happens in children when they get to play freely in nature. The majority of parents also say that their children have increased their strength, communication ability, understanding the circle of nature, have become more environmentally aware and have become more self-assured.
Keiko is convinced that simply being exposed to nature is not enough. Children need to understand the circle of nature first hand and through experiences. If children meet nature in their everyday lives, they have it as a basic understanding which will influence their future behaviour. “Learning about nature later on in school is good on its own, but not enough without direct experiences”, Keiko believes.
Many adults are becoming strangers to nature which further alienates their children from nature. What’s more, parents find it safer and more convenient to keep their children sitting in a stroller in the city, even when they could very well walk already.
However, sending one´s children to an outdoor school such as this one, is not a decision every parent can make. The school asks for extra engagement from the parents. The school day ends already at 14.00 after which time the children are tired and should go home. Most parents are not able to pick up their children at that hour. Also, in Japan the school payments are dependent on the family’s income. For low income families school fees are nominal. However, the Kujiragumo, although receiving subsidies from the Nagano prefecture, charges 36 000 yen a month (equalling about 295 euros a month) per child. This is an equation that for many parents requires more commitment to bringing their children to nature.
Commitment to nature was never the problem for Keiko. Her decision to start her own preschool was guided by her years of experience in education but also her own life and childhood that was lived close to nature. Her parents had and she continues to have a rice paddy to tend to, and tending to this paddy has been the introduction to the circle of nature for Keiko. According to Keiko, this is one of the ways a Japanese child living in the city can still be connected to nature – through the family´s rice paddy. Keiko is convinced it is good for children to learn and grow in “the environment of the past”. That is why they created Kujiragumo in a “Satoyama” environment, i.e. a forest near humans where people utilize the resources from forest like wood, mushrooms and plants while simultaneously taking care of the forest. Now, many of Satoyama are abandoned.
Caring for the forests, caring by the forest
These abandoned forests are the working grounds of professor Iwao Uehara working at the silviculture lab of Tokyo University of Agriculture. Dr Uehara teaches about tending to forests, but as a compulsory class, he is also teaching students how to conduct, shinrin ryoho, also translating as forest therapy.
Dr Uehara is a former special education teacher who used to take his students to forest and saw remarkable results in his students who suffered from diverse ailments. Later, Dr Uehara changed his field and studied forestry. He combined his former profession with his knowledge in forestry and in 1999, and introduced the concept of shinrin ryoho to the Japanese Forestry Society. According to Dr Uehara, his type of forest therapy is holistic and contains the idea of interaction between man and nature: while the forest cares for humans, humans also care for the forest.
Dr Uehara has conducted case studies on forest therapy´s effect on different target groups: children with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with dementia, people with depression, and teachers with stress. Dr Uehara´s studies have taken place in different forest environments and based on his empirical evidence, he also finds that the most beneficial benefits of forest therapy are in the wild beech forests which are richest forest in terms of biodiversity in Japan.
Dr Uehara believes in tending to artificial forests, not only for the aesthetic value that is valuable for us on a deeper level, but also for the timber that grows in a healthy forest with lots of light. Furthermore, there is therapeutic value in commercial forest or what Dr Uehara calls “artificial” forest. It is simply gained through a different pathway.
The artificial forests have overgrown over decades and have now become dark forests with little diversity in plants and animals. In these forests Dr Uehara´s engages in some light forest management works according to the health status of the patient. Patients get to thin the forests, carry the felled timber to locations which are turned into communal gathering spots, and plant new seedlings. Such physical activities outside can have a therapeutic effect especially on stressed out employees. Furthermore, for anyone, but especially people with depression, a boost to one’s self-esteem is welcome and this can be gained from the simple realisation of having helped a forest to heal.
Though Dr Uehara comes from the smaller town of Nagano, he also appreciates the parks in Tokyo e.g. the forest rich park around Meiji Jinguu in Harajuku.
Kou Hattori (40), the Chief Operating Officer of a Finnish design company located in Tokyo, is born and raised in Tokyo. “Shinrin yoku is a concept known to all Japanese”, he suspects. “The term is used just like sunbathing – Nikkōyoku” he says, and explains that everyone has their own interpretation and way of doing shinrin yoku.
Though Kou was not aware of Forest Therapy Bases in Japan, he has his own regime of nature “therapy”. He makes it his business to spend some time in nature every 2 weeks at minimum, at sea in the summer, and at the mountains whenever possible. There´s something moving about the sight of the mountains, which one cannot see behind the tall buildings of Tokyo. Though Kou tries to escape the city to the mountains every so often, he also enjoys the parks in Tokyo, his favorite one being the Shinjukugyoen, the national imperial garden and one of Tokyo´s largest parks. The park area is so big it keeps the noise of the city away. Not only is the area rich in species, everything is well taken care of. “Everytime you go there, you can actually feel the season around you”, says Kou.
Takeshi Sasaki (40) is sales manager of a Japanese trading company. He comes from the smaller town of Nagaoka but has lived in Tokyo for 20 years now, after finishing his studies. Of the two friends, Kou admits Takeshi is the one who is “closer to nature”. “He is the one to catch and hold a frog in his hand”, says Kou, adding that he would have less interest in touching the frog.
Takeshi paints a picture of shinrin yoku as “going to a forest on a sunny day where one would can soak in the high density of oxygen generated by the leaves and the air full of the negative ions generated by a stream of water. In the background one will hear nature sounds, like leaves moving and various birds and insects singing”.
Spending time in nature is important to Takeshi, and fortunately for him, he has found nature in and around Tokyo. “Although I live in a massive concrete jungle, I can feel nature when I run in the park, watching street trees. Trees and sunshine give us the feeling of the season”.
Takeshi plays golf. He´s been told by many that the nature on the golf courses is “very artificial and broken”. But Takeshi´s experience is different. Where he plays, he experiences being close to the forest, hearing the birds and seeing moles digging their way out from the ground. He has even witnessed a crow playing with a wild boar and monkeys on the cart road. “Some trees are in bloom, while the others’ leaves have fallen down. Clouds are moving, the wind is cold, but sunshine gives me energy”.
In late November, snow has already reached the mountainous parts of the country. Persimmon trees in the gardens and the temple yards carry ripe fruit and the peeled fruit of the season are hung outside to dry sending a message of winter approaching.
In Oku-Nikko, the autumn foliage is over and the tourists have left. In April, the town will fill up with tourists again, in search of peace and quiet and natural beauty. They will be lured in by the many natural wonders of this mountainous area: the temples, the onsen (hot springs), the waterfalls or the marshlands.
Plenty of opportunities and ways to immerse oneself into these healing environments exist, for those who need guidance and are willing to pay for it, and for those who look to walk their trails independently. The many ways in which this immersion is attempted, should make nature accessible to more diverse groups of people.
Japan´s culture, design and arts have been influenced by the country´s spectacular and abundant nature. Nature is seen as a valued source of restoration to which the well maintained and plentiful city parks also testify to. The Japanese have been able to capture in a word what many forest and nature lovers from all over the world intuitively understand. Shinrin yoku calls for immersing oneself in the healing environment of a forest by tuning in to the sights, sounds, textures and smells of forest, in order to return to our daily lives a little bit better.
Text by: Katriina Kilpi, Heidi Korhonen
Pictures: Nitin Das, Katriina Kilpi
Hosaka, T., Numata, S. Spatiotemporal dynamics of urban green spaces and human–wildlife conflicts in Tokyo. Sci Rep 6, 30911 (2016)
Huusko, Jukka.2019. Vihreä Kylpy. Published in Helsingin Sanomat, 16/11/2019.
Forestry Agency. 2017. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Annual Report on Forest and Forestry in Japan Fiscal Year 2017 (Summary).
Iwasaki, Keiko, 2019. Correspondence with Okutama Forest therapy base.