In the early 1980's, a national health crisis emerged in Japan that resulted from increasing industrialization and a culture of overwork. During this time, researchers in Japan discovered that trees released certain chemicals to protect themselves and the forest around them from diseases and pests. They discovered when humans were exposed to these chemicals known as phytoncides, they too demonstrated increased health and vigor as evidenced by elevated moods, lowered stress hormones, increased immune responses and more. Government officials in Japan encouraged people to practice “Shinrin-yoku” which translates to “bathe in the forest atmosphere” and thus “Forest Bathing” was born.
Since that time, there has been a global movement in Forest Bathing. There are now organizations around the globe that certify instructors to lead Forest Bathing , also known as Forest Therapy Guide Certification.
Caitlin Williams has spent more than twenty years teaching the practical aspects of wilderness survival, place-based ecology skills and environmental science in conventional and alternative educational settings. She is a trainer with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy’s Guide Certification Program. She holds certifications as a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide instructor, Wildlife Tracker with Cybertracker International, and in Permaculture Design. In addition, Caitlin continues to guide forest bathing walks and teach bird language, wildlife tracking and wilderness survival skills locally, nationally, and abroad. When we set a good tripwire trap, we can occasional snare her for a wildlife tracking course with Pathways Dojo.
We recently tracked her down to dive into the amazingly aware mind of someone who trains instructors in the art of Shinrin-Yoku.
Pathways: For people not familiar with Forest Therapy or the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, could you describe this practice?
Caitlin: At the most basic level, Forest Bathing is simply engaging your senses in nature. There are different schools of thought on how to best do this. One school of thought is an extractive health and wellness approach such as, "Stand here. Look at that tree. Take three breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth." Another approach is a more eco-psychology approach. For example, "The trees are releasing their leaves. What might you need to let go of?"
My preferred approach, which I use to train guides, is a more holistic approach. By this I mean— let's engage nature as a congress of living beings, of which we are a part, and from which we get many physical and relational benefits. For example, "today the forest is offering us fall colors, lie on your back and watch the leaves fall." It's a simpler, more self directed approach that assumes a person and nature have their own unique relationship and way of knowing and meeting each other's needs.
Pathways: What are the benefits of forest bathing?
Caitlin: There are so many benefits to forest bathing and simply spending time in nature. There is a growing body of scientific research that confirms what seems like an obvious truth— human beings benefit from engaging with the natural world. The list of well documented benefits of forest bathing is quite extensive. Benefits include lowered cortisol and stress hormones, reduced inflammation, elevated mood, lowered blood pressure, increased focus and attention, and enhanced creativity. There are many more documented benefits. One of the most exciting discoveries, which sparked the movement of Forest Bathing, is the discovery that chemicals released by trees to protect themselves and their forest communities from pests and diseases also dramatically enhance immunity in human beings. When we spend time in nature, and specifically amongst trees, we are exposed to these chemicals and it causes our immune systems to produce a special white blood cell called a "natural killer cell". It's a scary little name for a highly beneficial cell that has the ability to find and combat disease in a cell before the cell has any signs of damage. In a sense, the forest has the potential to heal us before we are even sick.
Pathways: Are there significant changes that you see in your students as a result of this training?
Caitlin: Yes. It varies from person to person. There is quite a range of things that we cover in the six month course to prepare people to be guides. Because each group has its own special character, the areas of focus can be a little different from group to group. However, some typical outcomes are increased confidence, greater cultural sensitivity and increased sense of community and purpose as a guide.
There are two outcomes that are most universal and profound for people. One is the increased understanding of how to create a non-coercive experience for others. Learning to do this is a big part of the training and it is also profound because it is something that is rarely modeled or experienced in the western world. The other outcome that is closely tied with this is an increased faith in nature to give people exactly what they need, when they need it.
Pathways: Do you have a favorite experience in nature that you have had while practicing Forest Therapy?
Caitlin: One of my favorite experiences with Forest Bathing was my first experience of being a Forest Therapy Guide. As someone who has spent decades teaching in outdoor and environmental education settings, I had become burned out on this style of teaching. Part of what was contributing to my burn out was the pressure to know, to have all the answers, to be able to scientifically explain every phenomenon and observation. It was so refreshing to be allowed to let all of that go and to just be in nature. It helped me reconnect with the simple body-based love of the world that had inspired my outdoor career in the first place.
Recently I had a delightful experience with an owl. I had chosen a barred owl call as my auditory cue for participants to return to a group I was leading. At the end of the walk, as we were all sharing our final thoughts and experiences, a barred owl flew from a tree down to the ground right in front of me. It was magical, not only because it was broad daylight, but also because it was as if the forest was responding and participating with the group. It was a very special moment.
Pathways: Why would a practitioner of ninjutsu (or any martial arts) benefit from this practice?
Caitlin: I think one of the coveted gifts of this martial art is the ability to blend in and to be invisible. Besides the obvious health benefits that I already mentioned, I think this practice may be of particular interest to a ninjutsu practitioner for one simple and esoteric reason—you do not become invisible by hiding in the forest. You become invisible by being hidden by the forest. It takes attunement and relationship-building with nature to understand how to let the land fold you into itself. Attunement with nature is at the heart of the forest therapy guide training.
Pathways: What’s a way to begin this practice for someone with limited nature experience or who lives in an urban environment?
Caitlin: A good starting point is to begin with the simplest form of forest bathing, which is to engage your senses with the natural world. Sit outside with your eyes closed and spend five minutes just paying attention to sound. Just notice the different sensations on your skin. Another option is to use your sight in new and novel ways. You could wander in nature while paying particular attention to colors or to light and shadow. You could also try spending five minutes with water, either in your home or in an outdoor setting such as a fountain, just gazing at the surface. As you do these simple practices it doesn't matter if your mind wanders but, when you notice it has, simply return to whatever sense you are engaging with.
Pathways: Anything else we should know about forest bathing?
Caitlin: Beyond just engaging the senses in new and novel ways, one is also engaging a being. This being is the land, the water, the trees, the rocks, etc. Being cognizant of this, and approaching that being with the presence you might offer another human can greatly deepen and enhance the experience of Forest Bathing. There is an animate wonder to life on Earth that modern humans rarely engage with. Doing so is deeply nourishing. We rarely consider that all that we observe in nature is also observing us. Science is now providing evidence-based research to confirm what probably seemed obvious to early humans— the world is alive.
There is a little book I love called "What a Plant Knows" by Daniel Chamovitz. It's all about the sensory experience of plants that science has confirmed thus far. The first sentence of the book says "Think about this: plants see you." I think it is important to take this type of understanding with us into our forest bathing experiences because not only does it increase the benefits that we as humans get from the experience, but it also increases the likelihood that we will develop a sense of stewardship and reciprocity with the natural world. It matters that we understand we are not alone in this world, for our own health, and for the health of this world we co-occupy with other life.
To train with Caitlin or to learn more about the Forest Therapy Guide training programs that she leads, check out https://www.natureandforesttherapy.earth/
As Caitlin mentions, a good way to enter the world of forest bathing is to tune-in to your senses. One technique that we teach at Pathways Dojo to train peripheral vision awareness is a practice called "owl eyes." Check out the video below that demonstrates this skill. Then, head outside and find a place in nature to practice this skill. Owl eyes can be practiced on your back porch, while sitting quietly in nature, while walking down a trail, at a busy bus stop, and of course when training in the dojo. When you sink into the "zone" of owl eyes, it will change the way you see the world around you.