I was standing outside with my eyes closed, breathing deeply and listening––really listening––to the swish of breeze-rustled leaves and the rhythmic tumbling of a woodland waterfall. I’ve visited countless B.C. outdoor areas over the years but today––at Cliff Gilker Park in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast––I was learning how to experience it as a ‘forest bather.’
“So many people feel disconnected these days,” said my twinkle-eyed guide Haida Bolton, a certified forest therapist with a softly calming voice and an openly warm demeanour. “This is a way to slow down and reconnect to ourselves using the health and wellness benefits of being in nature.”
Encountering the outdoors with fully deployed senses is the foundation of forest bathing, an alfresco mindfulness method that emerged in Japan in the 1980s. It’s since spread around the world, with trained exponents from Scandinavia to South America. With its spectacular tree-lined back yard, B.C. is particularly well suited to the practice.
“The forest is the therapist and I’m just the guide,” said Bolton as she invited our small group to “let go of your spinning minds and consciously engage your senses.” When I finally opened my eyes, it was like facing the natural world for the first time. My shoulders unknotted as earthy aromas, cacophonous birdcalls and a panorama of dense trees with outstretched branches washed over me.
Preparation complete, we hit the nearest trail. Forest therapy is nothing like hiking. Instead of strolling along and occasionally stopping at scenic spots, we spent much of our time stationary. It was a shock to discover how much you can encounter without moving. Bolton gave us small tasks to complete en route, though, helping us to connect more deeply with the wild world around us.
Invited to “notice movement” in an area that seemed deathly still, I watched a single falling leaf whirling from above, a tiny insect flitting over a mossy carpet and, of course, the sinuous water racing across the glossy rocks of the waterfall. Asked to “touch the tiny things,” I gently stroked a miniature fungus and tweaked the damp tips of Gandalfian lichen dangling from a branch.
After each task, we were invited to discuss our reflections if we wanted to. Shy at first––I mentioned a croaking raven and some star-shaped ferns––I soon became surprisingly loquacious. I discussed my worries about human impacts on nature, mentioned a stinkbug I’d recently tried to rescue and even revealed how much I love my cat, briefly pricking my eyes with tears.
Later, Bolton told me that forest bathing sessions––hers typically last two or three hours––can bring unanticipated emotions to the surface. When you reconnect with nature, she said, you also reconnect with your inner self.
After several more tasks––including sitting between chair-like tree roots and gazing blissfully at the radiating branches above––it was time to pull the plug on our immersive bathing experience. Bolton spread a yellow cloth topped with foraged ferns and cones on the leafy floor and we all sat on canvas camp stools.
Pouring from a Thermos, she dispensed small cups of western hemlock tea made from steeped needles. Sipping the delicious, sprucy-sweet concoction, we chatted about our absorbing woodland wander. Each of us talked excitedly about features we typically would have missed, from new-growth ivy vines to glittering spider webs to the muddy footprints of little birds.
This freshly-minted enthusiasm for nature is a common effect of forest bathing, said Bolton as we packed to leave. And she loves that participants can use the tasks she teaches to enrich their own outdoor excursions back home. “It’s easy to feel the benefits of forest therapy for yourself. Just go into the trees, find a comfortable spot and give yourself permission to sit still for 20 minutes.”
If you go:
For more information on Haida Bolton’s forest therapy walks, retreats and events, visit her Nature With Haida (naturewithhaida.ca) website. Additional experiences around B.C. include:
Salish Sea Forest & Nature Therapy Walks (salishseaforesttherapy.ca) hosts experiences on Salt Spring Island, Vancouver Island and beyond.
Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours (rainforestnaturehikes.com) offers forest bathing walks on Vancouver Island.
Hollyhock (hollyhock.ca), a Cortes Island wellness resort, offers an ever-changing roster of residential programs, with forest therapy often on the menu.