The Health Benefits of Being in Nature & Forest Therapy
My new friend Melissa Loken’s personal story of the potential healing powers of nature is so interesting and inspiring that I simply had to share it with y’all!
Melissa grew up in central California in the small town of Lodi. She became a massage therapist and managed her own business. After 12 years of practicing massage therapy, she had to retire due to the strain it was putting on her body despite how much she loved helping people feel better.
She has since moved across the country to Asheville, NC and is now a Forest Therapy Guide certified by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy. She also completed the Wild Leaders program, a 10 month program offered by SOIL, School of Integrated Living and Forest Floor and is certified Wilderness First Aid.
She is fellow cat lover and considers herself lucky to be living with two magical feline friends, Pazuzu and Poppy. Besides spending time in nature of course, she enjoys swing dancing, playing board games, and puzzles and crafting felt flowers and ornaments for her Etsy shop.
Keep reading to learn more about forest bathing, forest therapy (also called eco therapy or nature therapy or green therapy) and how Melissa helped heal a chronic back injury by spending several days in the forest in Costa Rica.
Namaste & Have A Great Day!
How/why did you come to Asheville?
My husband and I had been living in Los Angeles for five years. We were both looking for a change of environment and after accompanying him on a business trip to Asheville for a few days, I fell in love with the mountains, the immense greenery and the overall beauty of the area. He got offered a job while we were out here and we decided it was the perfect place the change of scenery we were looking for.
What is forest bathing and where did it come from?
Forest bathing originated in Japan during the 1980s when the government urged citizens to make use of the country’s 3,000 wooded miles for therapy. Tomohide Akiyama, then chief of the forestry ministry, understood innately that the woods do people good, while distance from nature makes us sick. In Japanese it is called Shinrin-Yoku which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”. It has become a cornerstone of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
Forest bathing is not a hike nor is it a strenuous activity, there is no goal to reach a certain location or walk X amount of miles. Also, I am not a naturalist so I don’t teach the names of trees or plants. And finally there is no actual bathing, no swimsuit required! Forest bathing is a completely different way to be in nature. It is an intentionally slow and relaxed walk or wander through the woods or any natural space, where the participant is invited to engage with nature and experience a deeper connection to natural world.
We spend about three hours in the woods where I offer a series of invitations that give the participant permission to experience the forest in their own unique way. I start with a guided meditation, then a slow wander of simply noticing what’s in motion. I often invite people to introduce themselves to a tree and spend some time sitting with it. Sometimes we play in the creek. One invitation I particularly like is inviting participants to pair up and find interesting items from the forest to gift to one another. After each invitation we regroup and each person has a chance to share what they noticed, if they choose.
I end the walk with a tea ceremony and snacks. The tea is brewed from a plant that I harvest from the trail. The idea behind the tea ceremony is to incorporate the entire experience into the body. By drinking the tea we drink in the forest and therefore we take part of the forest home with us. Participants frequently share that the forest bathing experience reignites a sense of awe towards the natural world that they haven’t felt sometimes since childhood.
How did you first discover Forest Therapy?
I was spending so much time indoors working on my Etsy shop and not outside experiencing this beautiful region so I began to search for naturalist or nature programs in Asheville. I wanted a job that allowed me to be outdoors or working with nature in some way. On a random June day I attended an event and got into a conversation with a woman about how I was looking for a more nature oriented job. She mentioned “forest therapy for kids” and I immediately got the chills! Before I even knew what it was I knew I wanted to do it! I researched it that night and found a program offered by ANFT, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Practices.
What is the science behind Forest Bathing/Forest Therapy?
Forest bathing has a lot of potential health benefits. Science has determined that trees give off organic compounds called phytoncides. These compounds are an important part of the trees immune system. It just so happens that phytoncides also support our natural killer cells. These are white blood cells that destroy cancerous or infected cells in the body. When we spend time in forests or around trees, we breathe in these compounds and they have a positive effect on our immune system.
Forest Therapy can also reduce stress and therefore reduce stress related diseases and conditions like diabetes, asthma, arthritis, skin conditions, and headaches. Participants often report an increase in their ability to focus, improved mood, better sleep, and accelerated recovery from illness or surgery.
If you’d like to learn more about the history and science of Forest Bathing, read Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li.
What kind of trainings and certifications have you completed?
I received my certification as a Forest Therapy Guide through the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (ANFT). The training consisted of a one week immersive program in Costa Rica and a six month practicum working with a mentor to deepen my own nature connection, develop my skills as a guide, and learn about plants in my area. ANFT developed it’s own program inspired by the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
I am a graduate of the Wild Leaders program, a 10 month program offered by SOIL, School of Integrated Living and Forest Floor , both located in the Asheville area. The program taught earth-centered, nature connected skills and activites to become a connected leader for positive change in the world.
I am also certified in wilderness first aid and CPR.
How did nature help heal you?
One potent healing experience I had happened during my week long training in Costa Rica. I have a chronic back injury. On the shuttle ride from the airport to the training facility I somehow aggravated the back injury. By the time we arrived I was in tremendous pain and could barely walk. I began to panic, thinking I wouldn’t be able to do the training and that I would have to go home.
I was in so much pain that I barely made it through dinner that night and I had to leave our first gathering early to go rest. I explained to everyone what happened and the next morning two of the other trainees showed up at my door announcing, “You’re healers are here!” They spent 20 minutes doing massage and Reiki. That helped the pain subside enough to make it to breakfast. However, I still had no idea how I was possibly going to go on a three hour forest bathing walk that morning. I told one of the trainers that I was going to skip the morning walk to give my back time to heal. She suggested I at least try to walk for a little bit and if it became too much I could leave. After all, she pointed out, forest bathing can support healing by speeding up recovery from injury.
I knew she was right so I decided to put my faith in the forest and go for it. Someone let me borrow a walking pole and another person gave me a stool so I wouldn’t have to stand so much. I set out on the walk, moving slowly. I participated in the invitations as best I could, being gentle with myself.
Even though I was in pain and I felt a little distracted, that first walk was magical. With each invitation the pain in my back became less severe. It usually takes days for my back to recover from this kind of injury but after three short hours in the woods, practicing forest bathing I felt 10 times better. I felt renewed hope that I would be able to complete the training after all.
By day four I was moving quicker and didn’t need to use the walking pole as much. By the very end of the training I was walking normally, able to sit on the floor and even able to run around a bit. Putting my faith in the forest was the best decision. I experienced first hand the healing power of this practice. The last day of our training we did a solo medicine walk and I climbed to the top of this hill that had been calling to me all week. My back didn’t bother me one bit!
How can people easily create a deeper connection with nature?
Spend 20 minutes sitting in a natural area and simply notice. This practice is called Sit Spot and it can have profound effects. By sitting still and observing you not only receive the benefits of being outside but if you visit the same sit spot location often you will become aware of the animals and plants in that area, Over time you will learn about them just by observing and they will show you things that you never would have noticed otherwise.
They may even have answers for you if you are feeling stuck with a decision. Your sit spot can be next to a tree, in a meadow, or by a river. Ideally you want to pick a place that is really close to your home so that you can go often. Sitting on your porch or in your backyard works too. You only need a little piece of nature to practice sit spot. I have three sit spots. I like to go to the Botanical Garden and sit by the stream under the bird feeder, I have a pine tree on my property that I sit under, and sometimes I just observe nature from my front porch.
What is the ideal Forest Therapy location?
The ideal forest therapy location is where ever you can find a natural space. It could be a densely wooded forest full of pine trees, a city park, your garden, a beach, or simply looking out your window at a tree in your yard. As long as you practice slowing down and getting in touch with your senses in the moment you can practice forest bathing almost anywhere.
What else do you do for self-care?
I spend 30 minutes every day in meditation, specifically Insight or vipassana meditation. Next to forest therapy this has had the second greatest impact on my emotional well being. I also journal, read for pleasure, eat well and stay hydrated, get massage, get plenty of sleep, and most importantly I practice being kind and loving to myself.
Are you an early bird or night owl?
I’m a night owl by nature but my current schedule requires that I be more of an early bird.
What is your favorite season & why?
Autumn, hands down. I love that shift in temperature, where the days cool down and the nights become a little more crisp. The way the trees change the color of their leaves, so gradually giving us such beautiful display before the bare months of winter. I have an unofficial fall bucket list and I enjoy experiencing as much as I can from the list - pumpkin carving, Halloween, and catching falling leaves are at the top of that list.
What is your spirit animal/plant/tree?
I have always felt a strong affinity for oak trees. They are my protectors and they keep me grounded and connected to nature. My spirit animal is the grasshopper. It shows up often to remind me to keep taking leaps of faith.