Forest bathing in the Canadian Rockies: how trees can help you find health and happiness

A nature-surrounded journey in Alberta's mountains explores an ancient art of wellness

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Crunch, crunch, crunch.

There’s something entirely satisfying about the sound of fresh snowfall underfoot. For a moment, I almost forget the piercing cold air jabbing angrily at my nose and cheeks.

“I invite you to notice movement,” says Adele, a forest-bathing guru who is guiding me through my first experience of the activity.

We’re in the depths of an alpine forest on the shares of Moraine Lake in Canada's Banff National Park. Despite it being October – typically shoulder season in Alberta – a cold snap has blanketed the Rocky Mountains in thick snowfall, sending most travellers scurrying for the warmth of the region’s hot springs and nudging much of the wildlife into early hibernation.

All around me is stillness.

There’s no wind to rustle the leaves of the Canadian pine trees and no breeze blowing through the spruces. Even the typically hypnotic cyan waters of glacier-fed Moraine Lake have stilled – darkening to a steel blue as the water begins to freeze over.

Following Adele’s invitation, I continue forward, treading at a sedate pace into the forest. I focus my mind, setting an intention to concentrate solely on detecting movement. Taking another step, I hear the snow crunch underfoot again, but this time I notice the drifts beneath my feet shift as my hiking boots crush down upon the ground.

Looking up, I see a wispy cloud pass slowly across the clear sky, its billowy edges blurred by the tallest branches of the surrounding Douglas fir trees. I step forward, pausing to gaze at leaves that seem defiantly stubborn in their stillness.

After what seems like an eternity, I finally sense movement as I near a quaking aspen whose leaves flutter silently in the air. A piece of snow drops from a branch above, landing soundlessly on the powder-covered trail below where it sparkles like a raindrop after a sun shower.

As if from nowhere, a white-breasted grey jay soars past, stopping to perch on a barren tree branch. He jerks his head from side-to-side, as puzzled by this unseasonal weather as I am. Seconds later, he takes flight, disappearing from the winterscape.

I realise that there is indeed movement in this stillness; you just have to dedicate time to finding it. And that, in essence, is what forest bathing is all about.

Connecting people with nature

“I’ve always been interested in connecting people with nature,” says Ronna Schneberger, chair of the Canadian Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

A professional naturalist, interpreter and hiking guide, Schneberger has been wandering Canada’s mountain parks for 25 years. She also teaches yoga and coaches mediation, but it’s her role as a forest-bathing guide that compels her.

“Forest bathing is something that I feel I’ve been working towards my whole career,” she explains. “I can slow people down so that they can have these timeless experiences in nature. It’s something that we don’t know how to do in our culture, and we don’t value it.”

Forest bathing allows people to be in the moment. And in that moment, it can bring forth a host of natural benefits.

These days, people are constantly plugged-in, connected to social media or sleeping with their phone under a pillow, forest bathing might be just the fix that's needed. It can also offer an escape from the unrelenting news cycle surrounding the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“We want to use our time as a technology break, so when I’m guiding I encourage everyone to put their phones on airplane mode. I even discourage taking pictures until we return,” says Schneberger.

How the world is suffering from a nature deficiency

The origins of forest bathing can be traced back to 1855 and the German naturopathic movement known as Kneipp Cure, says Guangyu Wang, associate dean at the University of British Columbia and the man that leads the university’s National Parks Research Centre.

It evolved further in Japan in the 1980s when authorities began looking into the health benefits of nature as a way to offset increasing stress, anxiety and depression across the country.

I can slow people down so that they can have these timeless experiences in nature. It’s something that we don’t know how to do in our culture, and we don’t value it.
Ronna Schneberger, Canadian Association of Nature and Forest Therapy

Studies have proven that spending time outside in forests and parks could make people feel better. The Japanese call this shinrin-yoku, explains Ben Page, director of training at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

“It stands among several Japanese modalities, such as shinrin ryoho and shinrin serapi, which are referred to under the umbrella of Forest Medicine.”

There are, however, distinct differences between the Japanese therapy and the forest bathing experience that the association offers, says Page.

“Most of the health benefits are the same, but the objective of forest bathing guides is not only focused on human health benefits, but also on the restoration of relationship between humans and the more than human world.”

But how does this nature therapy work?

“Trees emit an organic chemical compound called phytoncides designed to fight off attacks from fungus or microorganisms,” explains Page.

“When humans breathe these in, it triggers a process in the body that increases production of white blood cells known as natural killer cells. These seek out stressed cells in the human body that are susceptible to turning cancerous, and destroy them pre-emptively.”

So simply by spending time in the forest, we can boost our human immune functions.

Designated forest-bathing trails

In 1982, the Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest became the site of the first designated forest bathing site in Japan. Home to natural cypress trees more than 300 years old, the forest is in the Nagano prefecture on Japan’s old Samurai Trail.

Today, the art is seen as a vital part of the country's preventative healthcare system and there are hundreds of approved practice spaces. In addition to giving people a place to safely forest bathe, designated trails also help preserve Japan’s natural resources.

In North America, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is hoping to achieve a similar result and has already started marking official Forest Therapy trails, with several more due to be designated this year. This trip was organised by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a global network supporting sustainable adventure travel markets around the world, and shows that people are starting to take notice of the benefits nature can bring.

However, a designated trail isn’t necessary to reap the benefits of the practice. In fact, one of the best things about forest bathing is it can be practiced anywhere that has trees. And while cedar, oak and pine give off optimum levels of phytoncides, you can find some level of these essential oils in most plants and trees.

A study by Dr Liisa Tyrvainen, from the Natural Resources Institute in Finland, measured the restorative effects of forest bathing in participants who took part in the practice at different locations. Some did so in municipal parks, while others in a forest. Surprisingly, there isn’t much difference when it comes to health benefits.

And the gains of slow, mindful immersion in nature are huge. Studies have shown that spending time in woodlands and beside trees can improve rest and digestion, blood pressure and heart rate variability, respiratory health and much more, explains Page.

“From a relational and behavioral perspective, much more research is needed, but anecdotally, there appears to be strong indicators that forest therapy has positive impacts on the way people relate to themselves, their bodies, their communities, and the more than human world,” he says.

Health benefits for all

The benefits of forest bathing have been recognised in Japan for years and doctors regularly prescribe patients suffering from depression, anxiety or stress some shinrin yoku. In Scotland, doctors have recently begun prescribing time in nature to patients that they believe would benefit from it, and Schneberger is working hard to get similar recognition of forest bathing as a medical aid in the Canadian system.

As chair of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Canadian council, she already helps guide a Harvard professor who trains medical doctors. The hope is that he will then teach the practice to students to help prevent burnout and they, in response, will recognise it as a treatment for future patients.

In December, a new report funded by the Forestry Commission in the UK found that woodland walks save the country some £185 million a year in mental health costs. This is because spending time in nature can result in fewer doctor visits, reduced hospital and social service care and less lost days of work.

“It demonstrates just how vital it is to invest in healthy trees and woodlands,” Sir William Worsley, chair of the Forestry Commission told The Guardian.

The same research also calculated that street trees in towns and cities cut an additional £16m a year from antidepressant costs, proving we don’t need to be in a pristine forest to reap nature’s benefits.

And while Schneberger would recommend people try a guided forest bathing session in order to get successfully orientated in ways to slow down, refocus and calibrate, she says if that’s not an option, it can be easily done alone.

“I’ve done yoga and meditation for years, but like most people I have to work at it. With forest bathing, there’s no being good at it – you simply have to be."

Unlike specific hikes or taking part in wilderness therapy where you have a goal to meet, forest bathing is just about immersing yourself in nature and allowing its calming scents and sights to wash over you.

Self-practice might not give you a deep dive, but spending even 10 to 15 minutes in nature is enough for a quick reset.

“Go out in your back yard and simply sit for a while. Calm down and relax, listen, and tune into your senses. Even doing this will allow you to connect with nature,” she says.

Page agrees, saying: “Find a place you like to sit, and take a while each week to simply be there. Leave the phone off and don’t bring something to do, just be curious about the place that you sit, curious about who lives there and what your senses can discern about the nature of that place? Notice how things look, how they sound, how they change from day to day, and in different seasons.”

And as the world rolls towards another year of the coronavirus pandemic, there has perhaps never been a more poignant time to take the opportunity to reset and walk among the trees – it might just be the mental health boost you have been waiting for.

Updated: December 13, 2021, 3:07 AM