The tree that speaks to me is a slender and towering lodgepole pine with a jagged orangish-yellow gap where some precious bark has been stripped away. Dwarfed by the wounded tree, standing in the forest minutes from downtown Banff, I caress the scaly bark and semi-hardened bubbles of sap and admire how the light green lichen at the base contrasts with a smattering of fresh snow.
My task is to pick a tree and spend 15 solitary minutes connecting with it like a friend. “It’s just to get you to sit and be quiet for a little while,” advises guide Ronna Schneberger. I feel awkward whispering to an inanimate object so keep the conversation in my head.
Slowly, the tree’s singular beauty comes into sharper focus and I start to hear the rustling branches, chirping birds and melting snow in what seemed to my urban ears like a silent forest. Some of the stress of 2020 dissipates as the sun reaches through the pines and warms my face.
So, this is forest bathing—the Japanese practice of forest therapy known as shinrin-yoku (shinrin means forest and yoku means bath). And no, I’m not wearing a bathing suit. Nor am I naked. It’s October, -5 C and I’m fully dressed to “take in the atmosphere of the forest” under the guidance of Forest Fix owner Schneberger.
Ronna Schneberger. CREDIT: Jennifer Bain
Japanese scientists, she explains, have known since the 1980s that spending time among plants and trees exposes people to airborne, organic compounds called phytoncides that can combat stress, lower blood pressure and help them recalibrate. Forest bathing started to make inroads in North America in 2012 when Florence Williams wrote “Take two hours of pine forest and call me in the morning” for Outside magazine, but the practice still hasn’t hit the mainstream.
Schneberger, a naturalist who leads guided hiking, meditation, yoga and eco-yoga, became one of Canada’s first forest therapy guides in 2016. She has trained many of the 80-plus people now listed on the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs website.
Forest bathing isn’t like hiking and can’t be done on skis or bikes. You don’t even need a forest. During the pandemic, Schneberger has been leading virtual sessions with clients who can only step into their yards. Private walks in the Canmore-Banff area are socially distanced and run year-round with “a -8 C cut-off.” It’s best to forest bathe with a guide once or twice before moving on to DIY.
We stay within a small patch of forest as Schneberger leads me through five “invitations.” First, I sit on a log for 10 minutes with my eyes closed to “wipe away the road dust and come back into the present moment.” Then I spend 15 minutes meandering through the pines noticing what’s moving. Next, it’s 10 minutes to notice which direction I’m drawn to and what I feel compelled to connect with. Schneberger prompts me with questions, but I don’t have to share the answers. When I connect with that lodgepole pine, I remember being a carefree kid romping through the bush at the cottage and letting my imagination run wild.
For the final invitation, I find a place in the trees with a view and spend 20 minutes marvelling at the Bow River while becoming aware of the sensation of standing on Earth. Forest bathing is “like the low-hanging fruit of mental health,” says Schneberger. “It is so easy to do and there are so many benefits.” After just 90 minutes among the trees, I’m starting to feel like myself for the first time in forever.
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