Last summer, a good friend and fellow forest steward James Yancey turned me onto a program that trains people as guides in the emerging field of Forest Therapy. As he described the idea behind the practice, I was instantly intrigued. We decided to go through the 6-month training program together, and thus began a journey that would change my life in significant ways.
The overall premise of Forest Therapy is that humans benefit from time spent outside among trees, provided we slow down and get in touch with our senses. There are physical as well as psychological benefits to be had by spending time in the forest, and we don’t have to go deep into a wilderness environment to enjoy them. It turns out that a couple of hours in a public park or pocket of trees in an urban environment can do the trick!
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is the organization which conducts the training program. Its founder, Amos Clifford, is a kindred spirit that shares my worldview completely. From the ANFT website:
“Every guided walk is an act of power and beauty, cultivating deep connections with transformational impacts on people and nature. We are a mission-driven Limited Liability Company founded in 2012 as a response to global warming and other environmental catastrophes. Our mission: nurture heart-centered relationships between all peoples and the more-than-human world of nature.”
Anyone that has known me for any amount of time will no doubt understand why this training was such a perfect fit for me. I’ve spent over a decade working on climate change and other environmental causes, so the fact that global warming was front and center in the founder’s vision was an immediate signal that I had found the right fit. What many may not know is that back in my college years, I started the journey toward a degree in Forestry at UGA. I loved the idea of the forest being my workplace, and I had aspirations to be a park ranger of some kind. My path was diverted back then and I took a totally different turn into music and nightlife, which lead to my career in Marketing and Strategy.
With all that as context, I have shifted my attention back to the woods and forest environments in recent years, and my love of backpacking and wilderness has blossomed into a wonderful way of getting in touch with the present moment during times of craziness and a hectic lifestyle. Coming full circle and learning to guide others in their reconnection with the ‘More than Human World’ is a perfect fit.
This particular tradition of Forest Therapy has its roots in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing. In the 1980s, as technology-based careers became widespread, the Japanese people were experiencing elevated stress-related health issues, so the government was looking for a solution to help its people unplug and de-stress. The practice of Shinrin-Yoku was born. Multiple scientific studies have been conducted that show the psychological and physiological benefits of forest bathing, so it’s more than just a touchy-feely activity.
My journey toward certification as a Forest Therapy Guide began in August of 2020 and in the early days of the program, I developed an instant bond with the trainers and the rest of the training cohort of ~35 other participants. The training has historically been done with in-person immersive week-long experiences, however Covid-19 caused a shift in the curriculum to online learning and virtual guided walks.
Each trainee was taught to embody ‘The Way of the Guide,’ which is a conceptual framework that is intended to pave the way for the forest itself to be the therapist, while we as guides simply open the doors. It’s intentionally not a teaching practice or a healing modality; we are taught to embody the archetype of a guide, which accompanies people on a journey of their own making, while offering invitations to tune into the senses along the way.
When I consider the issues I’ve worked on to create a better world, every one of them can be positively impacted by more people getting in touch with the present moment and developing a deeper appreciation for nature. Thus, this feels like a calling to me. Guiding people through a journey into liminality and hearing people share about what they are noticing along the way is richly rewarding. I see, feel, and experience more in my own walks in the woods now as a result of the learnings I’ve gained.
Part of the training curriculum is to lead a series of ‘practice walks’ where we guide others through a Forest Therapy Walk. I had a chance to conduct 5 of these walks during my training and all of them were done at the Frazer Forest just around 3 miles from Downtown Atlanta. It turns out that I didn’t have to go far from home to realize the benefits of this deeper connection with the forest. I would never have imagined I could have such profound experiences in a city environment. This was one of the biggest opportunities for growth that I’ve had in many years.
During my time training in Forest Therapy and guiding others in this way, I’ve learned to slow down and notice the little things that are happening all around me that I had never fully noticed before. Hiking and backpacking (my favorite outside activities) are often more about getting somewhere than slowing down and just being in the woods. We miss so much of what’s happening as we zoom along on the trails of life, and having a structured practice that helps us reconnect to what’s happening in the present moment is invaluable.
My final assignment is to ‘harvest’ something from my experience these past 6 months, and this post is my expression of that harvest. I’ve cultivated a deeper appreciation for time amongst the trees and the larger web of life in forest environments, and I’ve learned to slow down and tune into my senses without having to go on an epic journey hundreds or even thousands of miles away. I have the ability to develop a deeper bond with the natural world and help others do the same on a short bike ride from home.
As my certification comes to its completion, I’ll be offering Forest Therapy walks to individuals and small groups in the Atlanta area. The walks themselves are typically 2-3 hours total and are accessible to most people with modest physical abilities. You don’t have to be a big hiker or fitness pro to go on a Forest Therapy walk. In fact, some walks only cover 1/4 -1/2 a mile from start to finish!
I can’t say enough positive things about this program and ANFT’s style of teaching. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I look forward to opening the doors for others to have a connection with the forest. Maybe the forest will be my ‘office’ after all!
For more info on upcoming Forest Therapy Walks, click here.