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Alternative Healing, A Walk in the Forest

As a part of her forest therapy sessions, Darlene Rollins guides clients down to this part of Horsepen Run. Image by Catie Liebeck. United States, 2016.

While walking along Horsepen Run, a tributary that meanders through the brilliant green of Virginia trees and flows into the Rappahannock River, Darlene Rollins explains that the radiance from the natural world has immense healing powers.

Rollins is a forest therapist. As such, she takes clients who are experiencing stress in their lives and facilitates sensory immersion in nature—through slow and guided walks in the woods. Forest therapy has existed since the 1980s when the Forest Agency of Japan promoted forest therapy, or shinrin-yoku as it is known there, as a practice for healthy living. In the United States, forest therapy is a relatively new profession but has grown tremendously in popularity. Over the last 10 years researchers have found significant benefits of outdoor activity, spurring the growth of the field.

Some critics disparage forest therapy and eco therapy for its fragmented nature and non-standardized practice. The lack of clarity on accepted practices and differing approaches has lead to a variety of theoretical positions including conflicting emphasis on the role of the practitioner and environmental stewardship. Many others caution research results suggesting time spent outdoors is significantly beneficial for those with mental illness because of the multiple variables that could influence the results.

For Rollins and others like her, who make up a larger movement of eco therapy, nature is the key to healing. Studies have found that forest therapy can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve concentration, and increase vitality.

“Forest therapy provides communion with nature and connects us to our true self,” said Rollins.

Forest therapy is just one part of a larger movement. Eco therapy is a comprehensive category that encompasses a wide variety of treatment programs including nature reconnection practices, animal assisted therapy, horticultural therapy, forest therapy, park prescriptions, wilderness therapy, outdoor meditation, and much more.

Rollins has worked in alternative healing methods for over 25 years. She founded Earthwalk Ways in 1988, a retreat location offering a variety of intensive programs to connect the soul with nature, including vision quests and communal sweat lodge ceremonies. She recently founded the Forest Therapy Institute to offer forest therapy sessions and train others to become forest therapy guides.

During her forest therapy sessions, Rollins guides clients into the woods for a sensory oriented walk. Moments after starting one recent walk, Rollins stops near a large tree, which she considers the gatekeeper to the forest. Beyond this tree is the decent down to the stream.

“Take a minute to lose your mind and come to your senses,” she said. “Close your eyes and listen, feel your body and the space around you.”

She explained that people start to experience a subtle shift in consciousness while standing at the opening of the forest and asking permission to enter. The response, as Rollins explained, comes without language.

“Does anything call to you?” asked Rollins. “If an area becomes somewhat more attractive, then it is a yes.” The answer is a sensation of nature, a feeling flowing from itself.

Rollins, like other forest therapists, encourages her clients to open themselves up to the sensory stimulation from nature. Ultimately, she hopes that her clients will reconnect with nature.

Mental health has been brought to the forefront of public awareness and alternative healing practices have received recognition for their contribution to the field of mental health. In conjunction with the increase awareness of mental health issues, researchers have examined the relationship between mental health and the environment, such as access to green spaces and time spent outdoors.

Numerous studies have shown contact with nature is associated with improved mental health; people experience stress reduction, improved cognitive functions, increased positive emotions, and relaxation.

A 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found when people walked through a wooded area the participants experienced a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

Elevated cortisol levels prepare your body for movement and physical action; however, not releasing this reaction through physical activity or a mindfulness exercise can cause long-term damage to the body. Persistent high levels of cortisol are linked with lower immune function, increased blood pressure and cholesterol, and increased risk for heart disease, depression, anxiety, and mental illness.

The study also found participants had a lower overall pulse rate, lower blood pressure, and an increase in relaxation.

People are seeking alternative forms of healing such as eco therapy because of the indoor lifestyle the western world lives. Most people spend a great deal of their time indoors, sedentary, engaging with electronic devices, and removed from fresh air. In fact according to the Environmental Projection Agency, Americans on average spend 93 percent of their time indoors or in enclosed vehicles.

Eco therapists understand the link between time spent indoors and the need for alternative healing practices.

Zoë Presley is an eco therapist who practices in Portland, Oregon, and has seen the impact indoor lifestyles have on her clients. “Most healing environments, doctors offices, therapists offices, occur in similar environments that [the clients] are already living in,” said Presley.

For some individuals, these indoor environments remind them subconsciously of the issues they are going to therapy to address. Presley believes the outdoor environment and the opportunity for physical activity creates a comfortable environment that is more accommodating for sharing and vulnerability.

A 10-acre apple orchard surrounds Presley’s office, and the office itself is a yurt. Presley considers all the work she does with clients eco therapy because of the environment where the counseling takes place.

“I feel that as animals we crave stimulation and engagement with the natural world. And that is built into our ancestral fabric,” said Presley.

Dr. Michael Cohen is the founder of Project NatureConnect in Friday Harbor, Washington. This therapeutic program offers certifications, masters, and doctoral degrees in the field of applied eco psychology. Project NatureConnect is associated with Portland State University and Akamai University.

Cohen teaches that there are 54 natural senses. The senses as he described them are broken down into chemical, mental, feeling, and radiation senses. Some of the senses are familiar, such as smell, and others include a sense of emotional place, community, and belonging.

Cohen argues humanity has lost connection with nature and these senses. These senses, like nature, are abstract because “nature is not literate, it is not articulate,” said Cohen.

Cohen has developed a training curriculum to educate professionals how to utilize these forgotten senses in their own healing practices instead of what he calls stories. Stories are substitutes from nature, whether that is cellphones, the physical home we live in, a book, or photographs of nature. Stories come from human intelligence and the technology driven and materialistic society of the western world.

Eco therapists prompt their clients to open their mind to these abstract feelings and senses and to separate their thoughts from their feelings. Eco therapists believe absorbing sensory stimulation from nature can spark a renewed relationship with nature.

Cohen has created activities that eco therapists can use to “create moments that let the earth teach you what you need to know in those moments,” said Cohen.

The moments happen in the present. Immersing in nature, letting go, is essential practice for staying present. Living in the moment reduces mental fragmentation and increases happiness.

“When you are thirsty, water shows up, if you are craving community, community shows up” said Cohen, describing the present moments.

Eco therapy and forest therapy prioritize feeling connected with the body and nature. Rollins describes this process as being aware of your body and surroundings without commenting on it—no unnecessary thoughts about emails or dwelling on the mistakes of yesterday—but purely experiencing direct sensory perception. Not everyone can open their sense on the first try, but that does not deter from the benefits of nature.

While eco therapists agree spending time in nature has immense benefits, future directions are uncertain. Dr. Ed O’Malley, founder of Your Optimal Nature and Academic Director of the Graduate Institute, described the field of eco therapy as a new and uncharted field that lacks standards of practices. Across the country, therapists and other health professionals are developing their own practices within eco therapy, leaving the field of eco therapy fragmented and without unified consensus on best practices. The Graduate Institute and Project NatureConnect together are beginning to offer professional programs in eco therapy leading the way towards professional standards across the field.

“The physical act of walking is allowing something to move in the body,” said O’Malley.

O’Malley walks outside with clients and uses nature to broaden and shift perspective from their issues. Encouraging patients to engross themselves in nature allows the patients to understand there is more to life than just their problems and issues.

O’Malley recalled one time when he was with a client out in nature and they stumbled upon a tree with three trunks coming out of one place and O’Malley prompted the client to express and relate to the tree.

“Even though there is one major tree, it has three ways of expressing itself, three different ways of being,” said the client.

Looking at the tree broadened her view and showed her that she had many different choices.

***

After a short time in the woods, Rollins encourages clients to immerse themselves further into the natural world. “Just coming down that bit of trail, did you notice a deepening or a greater connection to what is around you?” asked Rollins.

Rollins continues to encourage clients to open their sense. “From here, notice what calls your attention,” she said.

Perhaps the rushing water just beyond sight. “Staying connected with the sound of the water, what else calls your attention?” asked Rollins.

Forest therapists push their clients to notice their surroundings, which is fundamental to opening up to the sensations of nature.

“Breath it in, then notice what else touches you? Are there associations and thoughts to what you are seeing or are you purely experiencing direct sensory perception?” asked Rollins.

The trained mind will be experiencing electromagnetic and chemical radiance from the earth. Others may experience a deepening in relaxation.

“Begin to walk in a world of beauty, not just a visual beauty, but a felt sense of beauty,” said Rollins.

This felt sense is the real stimulation from nature, and its healing power for eco therapy patients. The connection to nature is the medicine for the soul according to eco therapists. Rollins argues there is a difference between connecting with nature through the mind and through feeling.

Rollins teaches that different parts of the natural world, such as an individual tree, have their own radiances pulsing from them because they are a distinct presence.

“Perceiving how that tree makes you feel and what does that tree feel” are two essential and differing aspects of sensory perception. Rollins explains perceiving through the heart is understanding those feelings and argues the understanding leads to spiritual healing.

Truly in tune with the sensory perception, Rollins maintains individuals can sense how the organism itself feels. “It’s a unique expression and it is something that might not be able to be translated,” said Rollins.

A major part of forest therapy for Rollins is giving back to nature—reciprocity between humans and the natural world. For example, Rollins incorporates music into a variety of programs she offers. She believes that music is giving back to the forest and giving appreciation.

Often during her forest therapy sessions, Rollins sings and encourages clients to join in. Rollins has written several songs including In the Shady Forest, which is a summer hymn. The song describes the healing powers of nature and the importance of having a relationship with nature for good mental health. One lyric depicts the reciprocity between humans and the earth:

Oh what a glory is your depth and radiance
Another forest bird, I praise you with my song.

Ultimately for Rollins, nature is the real healer, and the healing powers come from the reciprocal relationship with nature.

“I do believe the forest receives the energy of our life force, our love, our singing,” said Rollins.