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Forest Bathing: Cleanse the Soul and Quiet the Mind

I have always believed that the upper loop of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Loop Trail, with its huge Tulip Poplar trees, was a healing place. I used to suggest to my friends that one of the best things that they could do would be to walk up there with a delightful book and just spend a morning reading. There is something about the quality of the air in a forest and the serenity of the surroundings that quiets the soul.

Recently, I was delighted to discover that my deep intuitive feeling has been backed up by scientific research! The Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” is scientifically proven to improve your health. It has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system and improve overall feelings of well-being according to an article written by Ephrat Livni in Quartz magazine. Since 1982, Forest bathing, literally just being in the presence of trees, has been a national pastime in Japan.

Forest bathing does not mean hiking without seeing, or checking your Fitbit every few minutes. It means appreciating. It means looking at the trees and strolling quietly through them, admiring their strength and tenacity. I have taken people on hikes through the forest and by the time the hike is over I have found myself trying to puzzle out why the people wanted to come at all. It must have been on their “Bucket List” and just one more item to check off on the list. They felt no joy and just wanted to get done so that they could move to the next item.

In California, they even have hike guides that advertise that they are Certified Forest Bathing guides! I had to laugh a little bit at that; however, there they ask the hikers to walk barefoot under the redwoods. I wouldn’t recommend you do that here, the underbrush and briars could be a bit of a problem, but if you know of a forest near you that would not bother tender feet, I’d try it.

Qing Li, a professor of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, measured the activity of NK cells in the human immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells respond quickly to virus-infected cells and react to cancer cells that are growing out of control. The amount of NK cells increased dramatically after a weekend visit to the woods and the positive effects lasted a month after returning home. Wow. It is believed that this is due to exposure of Phytoncide, a chemical that is emitted from plants and trees to protect them from insect pests and fungal infection. The air in the forest is filled with this chemical and current research supports that it seems to have a positive effect on humans too.

Japan is taking this research very seriously. They have designated 48 therapy trails based on the results of a 4-million-dollar study from 2004-2012. The trees seem to positively effect both physical and psychological health. Although California appears to be the first state to act on this new research, the mountains of North Carolina would be a wonderful place to designate therapy trails. In the meantime, now you know. Feeling stressed? Overwhelmed? Depressed? It’s time for a little forest bathing!

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There is a Forest Therapy Trail at Pinnacle Park, a Sylva City Park! I did a half day session with a small group at the Cullowee Native Plant Conference. Group started with a sniff of Hinoki (sp?) essence, relaxing breathing and yoga. Told to loose our analytical brain and NOT try to ID the plants. Stopped along the trail to do breathing or listening exercises. Early morning mist with glowing spider webs are memorable. Borrowed magnifying glass to look at moss, etc. Than spent personal time to find a spot to enjoy our experience. I sat atop a bolder near a creek. Finished with tea. Really was magical. I did find a patch of orchids and plan to visit again…

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