St. Catharines Standard article published August 9, 2017. Article in full pasted below.
Cheryl Clock, St. Catharines Standard
The women follow a narrow dirt path into a community of towering white pine trees. The pin-straight trunks, bare lower to the ground, erupt like green fireworks exploding into a blue sky.
The group is slow, deliberate, quiet.
A few minutes ago, they noticed a mother deer and her fawn, peering motionless, ears tall, at them from not too far away.
Their footsteps are hushed by years and years of fallen browned needles.
Melissa Bollinger Seiling, their forest therapy guide, explains the first of several exercises – called invitations — that they will participate in tonight to calm the busyness of their thoughts and soothe the general chaos that is life. All the everyday stuff that barrages our minds much like being pelted with hail. Work. Kids. Family. Bills. The list is long. They will practice being mindful. Being present. Their thoughts will remain here, grounded in the woods.
Forest therapy has its roots in Japan, where back in 1982 the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries called it Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. It’s not hiking but more about taking in the atmosphere of the forest.
In general, forest bathing is said to have many health benefits: a lower heart rate and blood pressure, improved immune system, less stress hormones and overall feeling well.
The practice has spread worldwide. Training was introduced to Canada last year by the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. The organization provides an eight-day training course followed by a six-month apprenticeship where beginners are mentored as they guide groups of people. It has trained 25 guides in Canada, 100 worldwide in 15 countries.
Bollinger Seiling is a registered social worker who counsels people in her clinical practice at the Welland McMaster Family Health Team. She also takes some patients into the woods, in small groups.
They might be living with mild anxiety and depression. Grief and loss. Stress. Many are overwhelmed by the unrelenting, inescapable connectedness of life with technology.
The forest is part of their healing journey.
Other times, like tonight, she offers private sessions to small groups of people intrigued by the idea of being mindful under a canopy of trees.
In the woods, Bollinger Seiling is not a counsellor. “The forest is the therapist,” she says. “The guide is the door.”
She asks the group, paused in the heart of the pines, to be aware of their senses. To listen, turn to face another direction, then listen more. To smell. Even, to taste the air. In her words: “To really bathe in your senses.”
Their eyes are closed. She suggests to the women: “Pretend it’s the very first time you open your eyes here.”
Afterwards, they sit in a circle and pass around a stick, signifying whose turn it is to talk about the experience. The only rule: speak and listen from the heart.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt the air like that,” says one woman. “The breeze was calming.”
Another woman thought about the trees. How many other people have walked under their branches.
LeeAnn Pocknell, a 46-year-old registered nurse, talks about hearing sounds that she otherwise would not have noticed. The wind, trees, birds, and hum of cars. “At a different time, I would have experienced silence,” she says. He thoughts would have been too loud. Too distracting.
“It was like an awakening. It was awesome.”
They will be in the woods at Short Hills Provincial Park for three hours. Sunlight will fade to dusk. A few lingering mosquitoes will dance in the breeze. Unlike the world beyond, there are no goals that must be achieved in the woods. No success or failure. No target destination. They will end their journey by sitting on the rocky shoreline of a creek, sipping tea infused with cedar and spruce needles in small glass cups, and talking about the experience.
They discuss how they feel safe in the forest. Even vulnerable, but in a good way. “We’re all on the same journey,” says Tina Lanzillotta, 40.
“In the forest, we bond together.”
Melissa Bollinger Seiling has been wandering through the woods since she was a young girl growing up on a farm in Minnesota.
Her playground was a state forest that backed onto a neighbour’s farm. “It went on and on and on,” she says. She could head off in the morning with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, water and a granola bar — maybe with a girl friend or maybe by herself — and spend the day amongst the trees with no specific destination.
She climbed over rocks. Discovered new streams. Followed trails made by cows and deer. It was about being free and adventurous. Sometimes she pretended that she and her friend were the last two people left on Earth.
In the winter, she hooked up a sled to her Norwegian Elkhounds and journeyed across the expanse of snow-covered field, imagining she was on the Arctic tundra.
Her family hiked trails at the nearby Whitewater State Park, where the river cut deep ravines into the bedrock and created stunning bluffs of limestone. As a teenager, she found peace wandering the trails.
“It’s where I felt at home. Where I felt myself,” she says. “Being outdoors has always been my touchstone.”
Near the farm, there was an old walnut tree with a hollow in its trunk. In it, she left hand-written notes. The tree was her natural therapist, a friend who listened, without offering advice, and who held on to her teenage musings so she could feel free. Lightened.
One spring, she discovered a robin family had made its nest in the hollow. Always a poetic, admittedly dramatic girl (she is laughing at herself as she tells this story), she immediately imagined a profound symbolism. “New things can be built on top of pain and secrets,” she says.
Indeed, she has always felt a special kinship with trees.
And yet, there was a time in her life without trees. After university, she lived in Manhatten, then in the Bronx with her husband. “We felt like trapped animals,” she says. Desperate to escape, they’d ride the train north to Bear Mountain State Park and other spaces with open sky and trees.
She has hiked and canoed backcountry, in places like Algonquin, Killarney and Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota.
It was after a stay in Germany, returning to Canada, that her need to connect with nature deepened. By chance, she had learned about forest therapy and enrolled in the program. Last year, she introduced it to her social work practice in Welland.
Indeed, studies have shown that forest bathing is good medicine.
In one study done by researchers from Chiba University in Japan, 280 people had turns walking in and viewing both a forest and city scape. The results were clear. The forest environments lowered cortisol in their saliva, an indicator of reduced stress. Pulse rate and blood pressure was also lower in the forests. There was greater parasympathetic nerve activity which regulates everyday body processes such as digestion. And lower sympathetic nerve activity, which activates our fight or flight response in times of crisis.
In the forest, people have a different relationship with their brain, she says. Rumination – repeatedly cycling through negative and worrying thoughts – stops or diminishes. People have described it as having a “vacation” from their brains.
There is also great symbolism that can give meaning and explanation to different experiences in people’s lives. One woman in another group had been unable to grieve the death of her husband until she found two trees, one living and one dead, together in the woods. Seeing life and death together, as so often happens in the woods, she was able to cry in a good way. And heal.
“Taking in what is reflected in nature is very healing,” she says.
“It reflects back if we’re open to it, what’s going on internally in us.”
A tree clinging to the side of a rock might help a person find inner strength. A woman from another group sat by a stream and watched a bubble flow away and disappear. She was able to let go of something troubling her in life. Sometimes watching a leaf flow downstream helps in the same way, says Bollinger Seiling.
During one exercise, the women meander down a path, through the woods, noticing everything that moves around them. In another, Bollinger Seiling asks them to find a tree, introduce themselves and listen in case it has something important to say. It might sound silly, she says. But it has often been a moving, powerful experience for people. Some people have had conversations with their tree that they could only have with a close friend. People have cried with their tree. Touched its bark. Felt its strength.
LeeAnn’s tree clings to the side of an embankment by the creek. She noticed it’s enormity and appreciated how its exposed tangle of moss-covered roots kept it secured to the earth.
“I feel like I was breathing in the life of the tree,” she says. She wrapped her arms as far as she could around it’s truck and pressed her cheek to its bark.
“I could feel my body breathe in and out.
“It was spectacular.
“I was breathing in the tree. Like I was absolutely, 100 per cent connected to something else just as alive as I am.”
Niagara Nature and Forest Therapy
For more information on forest therapy and Melissa Bollinger Seiling, visit her website at www.nnft.ca