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Need some time out? Take a forest bath

Associated Press Associated Press 20/09/2016 Beth J Harpaz

In Japan, it's called ``shinrin-yoku'', which translates as forest bathing. It's the practice of immersing yourself in nature to improve your well-being, and interest in the concept is growing, with spas, resorts, retreat centres, gardens and parks offering guided ``forest bathing'' experiences.

These programs take participants into the woods for a slow, mindful walk to contemplate nature with all the senses. It's not a hike, because you don't go far or fast. And while the term forest bathing may lend itself to jokes about nude hot springs, rest assured: You don't take off your clothes.

``We walked through the woods and were just able to absorb what was surrounding us: the beauty of nature, the beauty of the world, from the smallest details, the pebbles under your feet or the branches and the bark on the trees, to how the air felt and listening to the sounds around us,'' said Rona London, who participated in a forest bathing experience at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. ``It was absolutely wonderful.''

The benefits of shinrin-yoku were formally recognised in the early 1980s by Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. While it might seem obvious that a walk in the woods is good for you, there's also research on the physiological effects showing that it can lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones.

Amos Clifford, who founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs , leads a variety of forest bathing experiences, from walks in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood, California, to programs at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California, and The Lodge at Woodloch, a resort in Hawley, Pennsylvania.

Clifford, who has a background in Zen meditation and in marriage and family counseling, also trains guides in forest therapy. But he's careful to say that forest therapists are not qualified to diagnose or treat mental health issues.

``We say the forest is the therapist,'' he said. ``The guide opens the doors.''

Clifford's three-hour guided walks might cover only 400m. The ideal trail, he says, is two-thirds covered by a forest canopy but also has ``some meadow open to the sky", along with a stream and plant diversity. But it doesn't have to be a wilderness area. He's led walks in retirement centre gardens and in city parks near freeways.

Clifford compares the experience to a guided meditation, in which participants are prompted to consider, ``What are you hearing, seeing, smelling? We invite people to notice what's in motion in the environment around them: the swaying of trees, the flow of water, butterflies or birds or whatever it might be.''

Charles Leary, a co-owner of Trout Point Lodge in Kemptville, Nova Scotia, says the lodge has ``always believed in having our guests immerse themselves in nature. Then we discovered the research on forest bathing and formalised things a little. Now our nature guides who take people into the wilderness areas explain the concepts of forest bathing along with the local ecology.''

The National Park Service in the US doesn't offer formal forest bathing programs, but the agency does have a ``Healthy Parks Healthy People'' initiative to promote the restorative qualities of spending time in nature, and some groups organise programs in the parks on their own combining nature and mindfulness experiences, according to Kathy Kupper of the NPS. A recent report done for the NPS by Fatimah Jackson of Howard University looked at ways to experience ``mindfulness and spirituality'' at the Grand Canyon.

Terri Henry leads forest bathing experiences on the Caribbean island of Dominica for guests at Secret Bay, a boutique property with eight private villas. ``We go for a mindful walk, very slow in pace, like a walking meditation,'' she said. ``The whole idea is to become super-aware of the senses. A lot of the time, people have so much going on, they've got sensory overload, they have to shut it down.''

She helps guests ``open up'' the senses as they smell wild herbs, listen to birdsongs, feel the textures of leaves and even create artwork from foraged materials. Henry also helps people find ways to integrate what they've learned into their everyday routines.

``If someone has a garden, I might say, `Well, you can do this in the garden.' Or maybe they have a park nearby,'' she said. ``Everybody feels great after a vacation. Then you go back to the grind. So when you get home, how do you apply it in simple ways?''

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