Japan: beyond forest bathing

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.

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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.

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People enjoying the autumn day at Shinjukugyoen, the national imperial garden in Tokyo.

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. 

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Tama river runs through Okutama town.

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).

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The Japanese cedars have been planted on both sides of the road on the way to the Togakushi temple in Nagano.

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.   

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This cedar tree along the trail heading towards Zenkoji temple in Nagano  was sanctified by a priest after it was threatened by the constant flow of people who wanted to be photographed in the hollow space in it. With the shimenawa rope and the shide ornaments hanging on it, the tree is protected by this sacred barrier from evil, including people wanting to pose with the tree.

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.

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In Nikko, a shinto shrine that is protected by two inari (foxes), representing what is important in life: food and knowledge.

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.

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Water is an important element of the Japanese traditional garden. In forest therapy bases, it is often abundantly present as streams, waterfalls, rivers or  lakes.

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.

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River Tama runs through Okutama Forest Therapy Base.

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. 

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After the peak season of autumn foliage, there are little to no services available along the Forest Therapy road in Okutama. 

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).

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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.

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. 

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The signs along the trail tell stories about the local history and nature as well as  folklore.

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.

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Hiroko Itoi

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.

Whale Cloud

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.

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The forest school surroundings seem simple, there are seemingly few amenities added for the children. The children seem constantly engaged in an activity and there is little bickering. 

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.

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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. 

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Keiko had attached some items made of different materials (plastic milk container, piece of onion, chicken bone, a piece of wood etc) on to a door that was dug out into the ground for months at a time, Every so often Keiko would visit the place with the kids and  open the door to see how well the different materials have decomposed. The little children were concentrating impressively long on this one subject.

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. 

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The children lead us on a little walk where there is little or no controlling of the children walking too close to the edge of the trail. The children stop frequently to explore different interesting items on their way. 
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The children help out by bringing in their own tables and chairs when it’s time for lunch. The children sit around the fire with their packed lunches. This is their daily ritual and nobody is complaining about the cold.

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.

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Keiko (left) and two mothers (anonymous, center and Mayumi, right) who volunteer at the school sit around the fire after the children have finished their lunch. The parents appreciate Keiko introducing traditional Japanese songs to their children. “The songs always talk about what´s special about the seasons. They  are nostalgic to us adults”.

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.

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Local schools in  some areas of Tokyo have the opportunity to tend to a rice paddy in the city as part of their school work.

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.

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Dr Iwao Uehara

 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. 

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Dr Uehara´s favorite place in his hometown Nagano is the hill of Haikus where stones with haikus have been erected. This is the place where Dr Uehara used to come to play in as a child. Nowadays the there is more ground vegetation to be seen, as the place is no longer as popular among people.

 

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Meiji Jingu, a forested park of 70 hectares, is Dr Uehara´s favorite location in the city. The torii gate in front of this forest signifies the entrance to a holy place, shrine and the forest leading up to it.

Green Tokyo

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.  

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Kou Hattori

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. 

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Takeshi and his wife,Hitomi.

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”. 

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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. 

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Another torii gate at the entrance of Oku-Nikko town.

 

Text by: Katriina Kilpi, Heidi Korhonen

Pictures: Nitin Das, Katriina Kilpi

References:

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.

Special thank you to:

Dr Iwao Uehera

Hiroko Itoi

Kou Hattori

Keiko Yoda

Mauymi Ehara

Takeshi Sasaki

 

PERSBERICHT: Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen ondersteunt NatureMinded bij de ontwikkeling van innovatief welzijnspad in Vurste

Woensdag 18 december 2019 — De Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen ondersteunt de ontwikkeling en de praktische realisatie van een ‘Veerkrachtpad’ in het bosgebied op de site ‘Borgwal’ van de zorginstelling Broeder Ebergiste in Vurste. De deputatie verleent een éénmalige toelage van 5 000 EUR aan het innovatieve project van het Merelbeekse NatureMinded. Het Veerkrachtpad bestaat uit een aantal individuele oefeningen om de mentale veerkacht van de gebruikers te versterken. Het pad zal ook worden opengesteld
voor het ruime publiek.

Gedeputeerde Riet Gillis, bevoegd voor Milieu en Natuur:
Steeds meer mensen worden in onze veeleisende maatschappij geconfronteerd met stress, burn-out of depressie. Veel recente studies tonen aan dat contact met de natuur een positieve invloed heeft op het algemene welbevinden en de mentale en fysieke gezondheid van mensen. Bovendien wordt het gevoel verbonden te zijn met de natuur steeds meer erkend als de basis van een evenwichtige manier van leven. Een veerkrachtpad kan een antwoord bieden op de belangrijke maatschappelijke nood aan laagdrempelige natuurervaringen.

Momenteel is het Veerkrachtpad in Borgwal in volle ontwikkeling. Het pad werd afgelopen maand uitvoerig getest. Er werden wandelaars uitgenodigd om een ‘gewone’ boswandeling te maken (referentiegroep). Een tweede groep volgde het Veerkrachtpad en deed de opgelegde oefeningen die beschreven waren op de (voorlopige) borden langs het pad. Ook gedeputeerde Riet Gillis was één van de testgebruikers. Na de evaluatie van de testresultaten zal het pad in het voorjaar van 2020 opengesteld worden voor het brede publiek.

Katriina Kilpi, van NatureMinded:

Onze samenwerking met de Provincie is vlot verlopen. We zijn blij dat de Provincie en al onze partners de waarde inzien in mensen en natuur dichter bij elkaar te brengen als preventieve maatregel. De natuur biedt veel potentieel om mensen te helpen zorgen voor hun eigen welzijn maar sommigen hebben meer begeleiding nodig dan alleen toegang tot groen. Daar spelen wij op in met ons Veerkrachtpad”.

Het project Borgwal wordt gecoördineerd en begeleid door Katriina Kilpi van het consultancybureau NatureMinded uit Merelbeke en wordt uitgevoerd met de medewerking van de CM (Landsbond der Christelijke Mutualiteiten) en Broeders van Liefde (OC Broeder Ebergiste).

Door actief te participeren in het project Borgwal, wil de Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen het onderzoek en de praktische ontwikkeling van dergelijke innovatieve projecten ondersteunen. Op basis van de bevindingen kan een dergelijk pad in de toekomst ook aangeboden worden in de eigen Provinciale natuurgebieden en domeinen.

Contact:
Riet Gillis, gedeputeerde voor Milieu en Natuur, tel. 09 267 81 49
Katriina Kilpi, NatureMinded, tel. 0484 74 09 86

Opening words of IFTDays 2019

Dear Friends of the Forest,

11 months ago we were opening the first IFTDays. Somewhat nervous, but driven by a need to arrange this gathering of people. A year later, we are still somewhat nervous but something is different. We have experienced how this community carries.

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Immersion day activity: Metsämörri came for a visit

Our team has grown from two stressed out women to 8 stressed out men and women (except for Nitin, who does not do stress).

Last year we came together with an audience of 90 people in the seminar and 44 in the retreat. This year, we have gathered here with 83 of you and are expecting 39 of you to the immersion days. You know it´s hard to top a good opening night.

We wanted to bring back the best of last year: community – expertise – time spent outside in nature. And also improve based on last year´s feedback:

We have changed the setting to include a workshop day, in order to make space for more talent and more stories to be told, and also to give more people the opportunity to participate, even if just for one night, in the feeling of community and bonding, that can be created when we come together as a group of forest friends.

This year, where we  are lacking in the indoor space, we make up in the surrounding environment. We’re currently at an old game research center, that used to be part of the natural resource institute. The estate has now been turned into a private holiday destination, rented to numerous different kinds of groups.

In a year a lot has happened. New schools of forest therapy have been started and new guides are being trained. Forest and heath themed conferences have been held, scientific papers and books have been published. The scientific research has told us that  roughly 20 minutes of nature a day is enough for healthy life.

Forest therapy guide is really becoming a profession that one can train in on several continents and countries in various price ranges. The curricula differ, as do the prerequisites for the trainees, as do the qualifications of the graduated guides.

Reflecting on the changes in this dynamic field, you have shared with us your hopes regarding forests and health. Majority of the themes you mentioned dealt with the equal access to forest healing, the possibility to connect with self, nature and each other. And our shared worry for the Earth.

You have also shared your fears regarding harnessing forests for health purposes. Many of you feared that nature would become another commodity, to exploiting others and to exploit nature. You worried that it would become an industry using “scientific tricks”; misinterpreting the effects of forest therapy on humans and exaggerating the effects of forest therapy, and collecting way too high fees for just accessing forest. Though it is generally hoped that forest therapy would become integrated  in the conventional medical system, it raises the question whether, in becoming fixed,  it loses its vitality. On the other hand, some feared that offering forest bathing without the appropriate training and experience, would be a risk to entire practice.

Last year we ended with the acknowledgement that there is need for this type of gathering, a safe space, if you will. This year, the need is perhaps even greater. There is much healing work to be done, with room for many kinds of thoughtful and sincere measures.  We are in the state in this field, where we need the we need the grassroots, the scientists, the practitioners, the ones new in the field, the experienced ones with deep knowledge, the certified and the uncertified guides, to exchange and learn and grow together.

We need to work on local levels, and internationally.

From our bubble it looks like the world is starting to believe in the power of nature – not enough, granted – but more than before. Even the royalty has been sold on the subject.

We have heard from many leading figures talk about the importance of nature. One of the influentials of our time is the Greta Thunberg. Greta has managed to mobilize the young and the old around the issue of climate change. It raises new kinds of hope and despair to see the young take to the streets to protect their future and demand us adults to take responsibility for it.

The youth and the children have not been forgotten in this year’s ́ IFTDays. In workshop and immersion days, we will hear from people working with children to help them sow the seed of nature connection. Equally important is allowing the childhood nature connection to flourish in the later years of our lives, especially when going to the forest is no longer as easy for us. Today we get  to hear about nature connection with the elderly. Finally,  we get to think about ways in which newcomers who have left or lost everything, can find support from nature and  grow roots in their new home.

We can all agree that we have the responsibility of enabling nature access and nature connection for all groups, even the smallest and the weakest.

But it is tricky to talk about responsibility when we ask people from different countries to fly, in some of your cases, halfway around the world to fly Finland and spend a week taking saunas in the forest? Where do we draw the line in what is worth investing in, and where are we being downright wasteful?

Like the leading artificial intelligence researcher in Finland , Timo Honkanen said, we have been able to model x, y and z, but where the artificial intelligence and ourselves are struggling is understanding cultures and individual differences.

Though the online world offers us a world of possibilities to keep in contact, support and exchange, it´s in those moments of experiencing together that the magic happens. Therefore, we will continue to meet in person once a year to share ideas, experiences, practices and research, to advance our thinking and synergize our efforts” . And within our means, we will do our best to limit and be mindful of our carbon footprint and reciprocal relationship with the natural world. We want to support grassroots initiatives and include them in our IFTDays community as message carriers, pollinators, local initiatives, carpoolers and treeplanters.

This year we launched the concept of IFTDays ambassadors. These people are individuals or organizations who share our mission and who have volunteered to be the message carriers of IFTdays in the world. Sini, who you can ask anything about the Finnish nature and how to light a fire without matches, among many other things, is one of our ambassadors. Sini will guide us to a refresher later in the afternoon.

On top of the annual IFTDays event, we support the satellite events that are like mini IFTDays with emphasis more on the experience. The first satellite event will be held in Belgium in October, the Bos+badweekend, where the emphasis is on experiencing different ways of forest based health promotion.

We have partnered up with BOS+, a forest loving organization active Belgian Flanders – one of Europe’s least forested regions – as well as in the world, by raising awareness for more and better forest. BOS+ aims to keep conservation of forests, reforesting and sustainable use of forests high on the political agenda and works to increase the amount of forests in Belgium and abroad.

Together with BOS+ we are able to do something concrete for the forests of the world. This year, we plant a tree for each seminar guest. Around 100 native trees will be planted in a corridor that BOS+ has started with local organizations in Ecuador. Your presence here will contribute to this corridor. Next year we hope to do something even bigger . We are excited about this collaboration.

So, warm welcome everyone for this 2nd IFTDays, and now for the practical items…

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IFTDay team 2019

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 –

Forest Bathing Pocket book – Zakboek voor het bosbaden

voorbeeld4Stapschoenen aan en het bos in trekken. Even tot rust komen in de natuur. Het is een efficiënte manier om te ontspannen in deze stressvolle tijden. Hoe langer, hoe meer ontdekken wetenschappers wat bosfans al langer intuïtief aanvoelden: het bos is goed voor je!

De natuurlijke stoffen die je binnenkrijgt tijdens een boswandeling maken je lichaam sterker en gezonder – en ook je hoofd heeft er (véél) baat bij om jezelf regelmatig onder te dompelen in het bos: een bosbad nemen, dus. In Japan heet dit shinrin yoku. Maar gelukkig hoef je hiervoor niet helemaal naar Japan en kun je ook bij ons prima bosbaden.

Uniek aan dit Zakboek voor het bosbaden is dat de auteurs Katriina Kilpi en Sarah Devos hun eigen draai aan bosbaden geven. Want wij zijn tot nader order nog altijd geen Japanners en bij ons groeien heel andere bomen dan in Japan. Daarom ontwikkelden ze ook specifieke bosbadoefeningen, op maat van Belgische en Nederlandse bossen én bosbaders.

Daarenboven geven ze heel wat concrete tips over hoe je zo’n bosbad aanpakt, waar je precies moet zijn, wat het beste tijdstip is, wat je er allemaal kunt beleven… – en néé, dat hoeft heus niet altijd zweverig te zijn.
Een bosbad neem je bij voorkeur alleen. Je gaat bewust vertragen en je neemt de tijd om je omgeving in je op te nemen. Zie je het niet zitten om alleen te gaan? Neem dan een vriend of familielid mee, maar las tijdens jullie wandeling minstens 20 minuten in waarin jullie even de tijd nemen om de natuur te observeren of gewoon — stil en zwijgend — op een bankje naast elkaar te zitten.
Dit Zakboek voor het bosbaden is een praktisch zakboek om meteen het bos in te trekken en te ontdekken. Met korte, haalbare doe-opdrachten, invulruimte voor je observaties en tips om het bos nog meer in het dagelijkse leven te integreren.

Over de auteurs

De Finse Katriina Kilpi is de oprichtster van NatureMinded, een onderzoeks- en consultancybedrijf dat de positieve link tussen natuur en gezondheid onderzoekt en mensen leert omgaan met de positieve effecten van natuur op gezondheid en psyche. Daarnaast is ze de drijvende kracht achter de International Forest Therapy Days in Finland.

Sarah Devos is de bezieler van de blog ‘Zondag Bosdag – Zondag Zeedag’. Ze schreef Het Bosboek en Het Zeeboek. Ze werkt als freelance schrijver en is Chief Adventure Officer van AS Adventure.

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How the wild child can save nature

Some weeks ago the biggest nature organisation in Flanders, Natuurpunt, shared an article that was titled “How the wild child can save nature” (Hoe het wilde kind de natuur kan redden). It got me thinking about how there´s still a knowledge gap between what we well-meaning adults think our children need and what they actually benefit from.  Here are a  few more things that are worth considering (I´ve roughly translated from Dutch the sections I am referring to).

  •  “It is just a matter of helping children fall in love with the outdoors as quickly as possible by offering them sufficient “nature stimuli”

I hope what they mean by this is to let natural stimuli of nature work on kids, instead of creating these stimuli. Nature in itself enough – you do not need to create entertainment. Don´t clean away the loose materials like leaves, branches, tree trunks but allow the children to play in a space that is big and versatile enough where they can run and hide and allow their bodies and minds to optimally develop by trying out their physical and mental limits.

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  •  “The alarm signals that something is seriously wrong with the current generation of children and their connection with nature reached us in 2005”.

This is the problem. This information may have reached Flanders only in 2005, but the truth is, this started much earlier than that. Skogsmulle started already in the 70´s in Sweden from the exact worry that children are no longer spending time outside. Environmental education started in the 80´s in Finland. I even wrote my final thesis on the topic of getting city kids out to play and referred to  “nature relationship” already in 2003. Tons of examples of environmental education are findable from around the world, I am sure.  Only in Flanders, the topic has started to live in the initiatives of some passionate individuals, like e.g. https://www.boschool.org, http://www.somaya.be, etc. Until now there has had to be something “wrong ” with the kid to be able to get to spend time in nature (time out projects traditionally are naturebased in Flanders). Prevention has been forgotten.

  •  “…spending two hours a week in nature is crucial to promoting your health and well-being”.

2 hours per week for children? It´s what they are getting at the moment broken into pieces (play time at school, biking to school, perhaps football practice after school). But that is not enough. Plus, it is not quality exposure. Though quality does not have to mean spectacular nature experiences in the wilderness, although that too would be positive, here we are touching upon the fundamental problem:

  •  “That it can be done differently is proven by the Scandinavian and German forest schools, kindergartens where children move in nature in all weather conditions and are allowed to climb trees without supervision, sharpen branches and cook their own mud soups”.

I am a big fan of forest schools. By all means, let´s turn them all to forest schools!

Yeah right, in Flanders. But it would be enough to realise the importance of outdoor pedagogy and invest in the school yards and make these places extensions of the class rooms. And allow the kids to play outside in any weather. Remember, no bad weather, just wrong clothes.
But what´s a big problem is the attitudes´of the teachers of the public school system and the regulations and rules they have to follow. Just this morning I biked my 5-year-old to school in his full rain gear because the long awaited rain was finally blessing us abundantly. But I took the rain gear back with me, as I know they will not let the kids out in the rain anyway. Why? Because “they cannot keep an eye on them inside and outside” and because when it rains, no teacher will sacrifice themselves and their brand new white sneakers to get wet and muddy. There´s an information gap right there.

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  •  “The first time to get an earthworm out of the ground, a butterfly that lands on your nose, ringing a baby owl: nature experience can be so intense that it brings about a lasting change”.

Regular nature contact in familiar environment is enough. Independent exploration possibility without an adult voice in the background constantly naming and explaining things is crucial for a child.

I have never had a butterfly land on my nose, let alone ringed an owl. Special, awe awaking experiences can be so much smaller and mundane too, especially when the kids are allowed to use their own inspiration and go out unhurried. Once a year to zeeklas/bosklas/boerderij klas is fun but by no means enough. As Dr Miles Richardson, leading nature connection researcher puts it: “Rather than ‘a meaningful’ visit, create a meaningful relationship. Once again there’s a proposal to ‘learn about nature’, instead, bring the enjoyment and wonder of the natural world to the fore. Find stars in the everyday, in the cobwebs, in the leaves, in the birdsong – in the nature children will find everyday at home”.

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Thoughts about the different approaches to Forest Therapy

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the definition of Forest Therapy and my approach to Forest Mind. What I realize is, my approach, which is inspired by Metsämieli is still my own interpretation and adaption of a highly Finnish approach to the Flemish soil.

At the moment when I was looking for a way to share my own experience of the importance of the forest in my life, Metsämieli was the only approach I found. Only later I found shinrin yoku, ANFT tradition of shinrin yoku, Natural Mindfulness etc. That does not mean they didn´t already exist, but I just happened to find Metsämieli first. That was my way into Forest Therapy that has now swallowed my life as a whole.

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In Metsämieli, I was attracted to its evidence based approach, the variability according to the guides own skills and, being a person who gets irritated by someone telling me what to do, the central notion of everyone being the expert of their own wellbeing.

In my Forest Mind approach, what I try to do is inspire people to experience the forest in a way they might never have experienced before. It is based on health benefits of the forest as it relies on the forest´s stress relieving properties, and the immune boosting effects of being in concrete contact with the elements in the forest (sitting on the ground, picking up things, smelling, even tasking things). This all makes it shinrin yoku/forest bathing – you are taking in the forest atmosphere and you come into a state of relaxation.

In Forest Mind like in shinrin yoku, the stress relief is aided by the exercises that are done to open the senses. After the stress relieving has kicked in, and people have more head space, more exercises are done to get some clarity and perspective into things that are occupying the mind. These exercises are inspired by mindfulness, positive psychology and coaching.

Here, however, the work is done on your own, it´s not the point that each walker confides in the guide. The guide does not even need to know what the people are going through atthe moment, unless they want to share. It can be a very personal practice, but often people do want to share. But then it´s with the group, not to be given advise by the guide. However, if you have the skills and qualificatons to take on what the people are carrying, which is sometimes “heavy stuff”, you can use the more advanced exercises for that as well. There are three levels. You can adapt it to fit your skills.

My main goal with my practice is to facilitate a positive, health promoting new experience that will inspire the people to go to the forest in a different perspective the next time. I want to open the eyes to see what all the forest can mean to us and what we, in turn can mean to the forest. Afterall, you will want to protect that which you love.
Read more about my approach here. To sign up fo the first international Forest Mind/Metsämieli training, go here.

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30/30 campaign: promoting physical and mental health through daily exercise in nature

The  naturalness of the residential environment has been associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress (Cox et al., 2017).  Furthermore, people who have access to green spaces in their neighborhood, use these areas more and tend to be physically more active (Pietilä et al., 2015). Finally, people with a strong connection with nature, spend more time in nature and thus become more exposed to the beneficial effects of natural environments.

In the Flemish provinces in Belgium, accessible nature is unequally distributed. The matter is rising higher on the political agenda, as the links between exposure to nature and health have received stronger evidence.

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Amount of accessible nature in Belgian Flanders, with the reddest tones depicting the least access, and dark green the most access. Source: Nys, A. 2014.

Three stakeholders based in Flanders, a health insurance provider (CM), a state agency for forest and nature (Regional public authority for Nature and Forests of Nature & Forests, government of Flanders) and a forest advocate organization (BOS+) partner annually to run a campaign to encourage physical movement in natural environments for 30 minutes per day during 30 days.

 

 

 

Since 2017, an assessment of the impact of the campaign on the participants´ subjective health and wellbeing has been conducted for the 30730 campaign. In the autumn of 2018, altogether 1720 participants started the campaign by signing up in the online diary.  They were encouraged to report their daily activities through the diary and through the three surveys that were administered throughout the campaign. The impact of the campaign on participants´ subjective health and wellbeing, their connectedness with nature and the level of naturalness of their perceived living and exercising environments, were measured by using a set of validated scales, an objective measure and qualitative questions.

The impact assessment measurement showed that:

  • The mental and physical wellbeing and sleep quality of the participants improved as they started participating in the campaign. At  the last impact measurement (2 months after the start of the campaign), the participants were still feeling mentally and physically healthier and sleeping better than they were before the campaign.
  • At every measuring point, being perceived  physically fit was the most important predictor of both physical and mental health and of sleep quality. We also saw that the level of naturalness of the sport and living environments were predictors of mental health (e.g. lower stress, better concentration and inceased happiness).

However, due to the constraints of self-reporting, no control group being included and little blindness in the procedures, these results are merely indicative. Nontheless, interesting insights were gained, e.g. into the way the participants experience their surroundings. Most participants deemed their living and exercising environments rather natural.

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How natural do you perceive your sport/living surroundings on a scale of 1 (totally artificial) to 10 (totally natural).

At the same time, a majority (70%) of the participants did not report to have to leave their home to start exercising. This suggests that the participants already live in green neighborhoods. Not surprising then, that these participants report being in a rather good state of wellbeing to begin with, as people in greener neighborhoods tend to be more physically active and hence, in better overall health. The most frequently mentioned exercise environment was the forest, followed by or in combination with agricultural landscapes, such as fields and meadows.

Another interesting point was that the majority of the people reported to be spending a lot of time in nature (42%) but wanting to spend even more time there.  A third of the participants (32%) did not spend much time in nature but were hoping to have more time for it.  About a fifth (17%) of the respondents spend a lot of time in nature according to their reporting, and find this time sufficient. Only a small group (7%) of participants spend a little time in nature and do not need any more time there.

Regardless of a number of constraints in the study set up and execution, the results of the 30/30 campaign show that participation in the campaign can promote mental and physical health and sleep quality. The campaign succeeded to attract and engage a rather homogenous group of highly educated women over 35 year of age. While the respondents had already found nature in their exercise and living environments, majority of them long for more nature in their lives.  They sought the encouragement of the campaign to remain physically active regardless of lack of time, tiredness or bad weather conditions, which were reported as the main challenges for exercising.  The 30/30 participants also used the campaign to monitor the evolution of their mental and physical health and due to the campaign they became more aware of the importance of movement in nature; how little time (some of them) spend in nature; and of the beneficial effects of physical exercise on physical and mental health.

Sources used:

Cox, D. T. C., Shanahan, D. F., Hudson, H. L., Plummer, K. E., Siriwardena, G. M., Fuller, R. A., … Gaston, K. J. (2017). Doses of neighborhood nature: The benefits for mental health of living with nature. BioScience. Oxford University Press.

Nys, A. 2014.‘Rapport Natuur op wandelafstand. Heeft elke Vlaming een natuurgebied op maximum 1,6 km van zijn woning? Rapport Natuurpunt, Mechelen.

Pietilä, M., Neuvonen, M., Borodulin, K., Korpela, K., Sievänen, T., & Tyrväinen, L. 2015. The relationship between exposure to urban green spaces, physical activity and self-rated health. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. Vol 10, s. 44–54.

Schultz PW (2002) Inclusion with nature: The psychology of human-nature relations. In: Schmuck P and Schultz PW (eds) Psychology of Sustainable Development. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 61–78.

 

How to add more nature to your workday?

A friend of mine poked me to write a sugesstion to a post on LinkedIn, where someone was thinking of how to add more nature into the workday. That became this post.

How to add more nature into your workday?

There´s plenty you can do, even at the center of city! Though there´s enough proof of already images of nature helping you to destress and the power of listening to audio tapes of birds, I tend to go for the real deal.

Starting from the working environment, switching to natural materials where possible and sustainable, can go a long way. Some studies show that we respond better to e.g. wooden surfaces than to e.g. metal. Remember to work with only sustainable forestry products! Add loads of plants (or as many as you can) to our surroundings to help pump your space with fresh oxygen and clean impurities from the air, not to mention, offering you the eye candy when you take a moment to refocus. Interacting with plants – someone´s got to water them – is also a wonderful way to get you out of your chair and moving. A mini break to water and prune the plants may offer you some micro restoration. Getting some blooming plants provides you with the wonderful details and also the opportunity to prune them (e.g. remove the dead flowers). Just make sure you get the non-poisonous plants! Don´t forget herbs like basil and thyme, that make a good addition to your office kitchen. The choices are endless there too. Ask around wheter there are any green fingers among your colleagues: the office plants also need repotting and changing their soil. Though it´s not exactly horticultural therapy, it definitely has some therepautic elements that can benefit anyone interested.

 

Now for the outside: depending on where your office is located, you could easily take a few short walks during your work day. Like smokers, we non-smokers also deserve to step outside once in a while. A mini break just outside the door to grab some fresh air and vitamin d, and to look at the leaves of the trees moving in the wind – without consciously focusing on it – or at the clouds if you have no greenery around you. For the duration of a cigarette, this mini break of not doing anything will recharge you. Just remember to step away from the smokers at the door!

During lunch break, you should plan as much time as possible outside. Walk around the block, or a certain distance, where you pass by at least some greenery or if that´s not available, anything that´s pleasant for you. Moving your body will get the blood flowing and help you relax; being exposed to the natural light, even if there wasn´t any green around, will still be good for your eyes and your sleep rhythm.

If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have plenty of greenery around you, then  – depending on your mood and stresslevel – you might want to do some  activities outside that will help you relax, refocus and refresh you. You might want to try focussing on a tree, a bush, a leaf or a stone one sense at a time and see how that makes you feel. Acknowledge the element you are connecting with and see how it makes you feel. Grateful? It´s okay to whisper your thank yous to the stones, the trees and the likes.

Before you head outside, take stock of how you feel. If you´d rather be alone than walk with the chattiest one in the office, make it clear in a friendly way. Scheduling in some alone, quiet time is a favour for the entire team, if that means you´ll be in  a better mood later. You might inspire others to walk alone to listen to themselves more often as well.

Don´t forget the possibility of taking meetings – walking meetings – outside as well. You´d be amazed how easily you think and talk while walking.

imre-tomosvari-712872-unsplash
Imre Tomosvari from Unsplash

Unless it is really loud. Avoid the loudest corners with lots of fumes from the traffic. If that´s all you have, you can still take these breaks inside and plan some inside the office movement to your day. If you have a stressful day, after doing some movements to get you out of the chair, try focusing on your favorite (nature) place. Close your eyes, imagine the place where you feel most at ease, and sit with that image and feeling for a while. See how you feel after.

In addition to requesting more greenery inside, why not discuss with your employer the opportunities to green your outside environment as well.  Plant a few trees and bushes as a team building effort? Where possible, the employer could make significant improvements to the quality of their employees´ working days by adding a green break space outside.

Think also if you could make your way to and from work more natural. See how much longer or shorter your way to work becomes if you take a greener route. When you take this greener way, be mindful about what you see: the trees moving in the wind, the bushes changing colors, the birds jumping on the lawn. Pay attention and you´ll start seeing changes day to day. You might not notice but it might just make you feel better.

Wow, I just wanted to write a few words 😉 But, as you see, there are many possibilities!

Relationship lessons from nature

What can nature teach us about relationships?

There’s this place in my favourite forest, where big old beeches grow. It´s a special spot, because at the bottom of those beeches, there grows a thick layer of moss.

This is the place where I go to when I feel like I can’t handle it alone. When I need to be held like a baby. I go and lean against one of those beeches, with my feet pressed into the soft moss, and I swear, the tree closes in on me, like arms reaching around to hold me.  I feel listened to, without any words being exchanged, and I feel consoled. There’s no judging. Only acceptance and compassion. As a thank you for listening, I value this forest, and do my best to protect it now and in the future. It’s probably exactly what the tree would want from me. A perfect exchange for our friendship.

Successful relationships are formed for mutual benefit.

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My son has also established a relationship with his nearby nature. One day he pointed out to me that of the two bushes next to his tree house, one was a nice one while the other was a naughty one. Maybe the thorns in the naughty bush has something to do with his judgement. So, according to this little man, the bushes not only have their own personalities, but he has also established a relationship with the bushes (one that is less close, obviously).

We quickly judge the personality of someone based on their behaviour towards us. A greater understanding would develop if we realise that personalities and qualities are shaped by the outer environment as well as the inner genetic make-up. In the design of nature, each and every life form has a unique role to play.

So for a deeper relationship to develop, one must start with a better sense of observation.

Kids

For the creatures or people, we do know, we often overlook their value and start taking them for granted. It doesn’t dawn to us that we are taking these people (or creatures) for granted before someone else recognises their uniqueness or, what’s worse, before we lose them.

When I was a newcomer in Hawaii, I found the myna birds, with their oversized heads and their yellow masks, rather comical looking. To me they looked funny and mischievous, always up to no good. I liked those birds. After some years, I had got so used to them that when my mother came to visit and wanted to photograph those little birds, I found it a waste of film. Sustaining a relationship requires a continuous effort, otherwise it loses its vitality.

Myna bird
Source: http://www.sandwichisle.com/blog/post/common-problems-caused-by-mynah-birds

And finally in nature and human nature, there are surprisingly many similarities. Though romantics often idealize nature, there is pain and suffering, continuous competition, sickness and loss in nature too. A relationship is incomplete without the acceptance of the imperfections.

Nature has a lot to teach us. Though we all fight for our survival: for sustenance, for shelter, for the possibility to maintain our species – the cycle of life would not be possible without interconnections, interdependence and impermanence.

Nature helps us to mirror our relationships within the human community and allows us to practice our relationship skills early on. Nature is a compassionate and patient teacher, as it doesn’t push us, but allows us to find it out ourselves. The relationship we have with nature, the backbone to our wellbeing, can teach us most about ourselves.