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When your world feels out of control, can forest therapy help?

Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

LOS ANGELES -- It was a particularly chaotic time. As the war in the Middle East raged on, sparking relentless and horrific news headlines, a family member unexpectedly landed in the hospital here in California. Visits to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, doomscrolling and sleepless nights left me drained.

Perhaps that’s why an invitation to Forest Therapy — something I might have previously dismissed as silly — piqued my curiosity. I’d have tried anything to slow the incessant whirl of concerns in my head.

So on a recent Saturday, I found myself laying in a cool, dewy patch of grass, early in the morning, in a lush palm grove at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. The San Marino gardens weren’t yet open to the public and the grounds were eerily quiet but for the whooshing of leaves in the wind and the intermittent trilling of wild parrots.

The two-part class ($60 for members, $80 otherwise) — led by forest therapy guide Debra Wilbur over consecutive Saturdays — promises to help participants “discover pathways to restore emotional and physical well-being” during a guided nature immersion.

I was skeptical, but game. Seeking refuge in nature is hardly new and need not be exclusive — why pay for it? And how was this therapy?

Turns out, Forest Therapy is a revamping of Forest Bathing, which became especially popular in the early days of the pandemic, when people sought refuge outdoors. The practice — immersing oneself in nature, while utilizing all the senses, to promote mindfulness and reap calming benefits — grew out of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which was popularized in Japan in the ’80s. Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bathing” — but that presented a branding problem when the practice picked up steam, decades later, in the U.S., Wilbur explains. “People had concerns: ‘do I need to wear a bathing suit in the woods?’” she says. So the term Forest Therapy is now more commonly used, though the trained practitioner is considered more of a guide and the forest, the actual therapist.

 

Wilbur’s particular spin on the practice is heavily focused on “therapeutic circle sharing,” in which participants reflect, in groups, as they go along. “It’s intimate. It’s powerful. You’ll see,” she says, promising an experience that’s both communal and individualistic.

About 18 of us show up for Wilbur’s class that Saturday for different reasons, but we’re all seeking the same thing: to get out of our heads and into the moment. To feel grounded and to slow down.

Wilbur — who looks every bit the quintessential earth mother, with her salt-and-pepper hair pinned into a messy bun and wearing an aqua cape, cactus-print socks and hiking boots — gives a short talk about the origins of forest bathing. Then she has us relax in the grass for a 30-minute, guided body scan meditation. Her voice is soft and soothing: “Just imagine that anything that’s clinging to you is falling off,” she coos. We close our eyes, or stare up at the blur of drifting clouds against the pale morning sky.

Afterward, Wilbur leads us on a series of walking “invitationals,” calling upon our senses to help us more deeply connect with the natural environment. At each new location, in a different part of the Huntington’s gardens, she asks us to move slowly and intentionally — “wander directionless” — while focusing on her newest sensory request.

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