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"Forest bathing" movement promotes spending time in nature

Slowly walking through nature for prolonged periods of time has been proven to drastically increase quality of life. It’s called forest bathing.

The practice originated in Japan in the 1980s as a solution to revert the intense stress developed from working and living in an unnatural environment.

A few of the restorative benefits include: boosted immune system functioning with an increase in cancer-fighting cells, reduced blood pressure and stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level and improved sleep.

The Japanese call it “Shinrin-yoku,” or forest therapy, and it has become a cornerstone in preventative healthcare and healing in Japanese and South Korean medicine, according to a Sierra Club article.

There are many acres of forests in both Japan and South Korea entirely devoted to forest bathing, Sari Telpner, a forest therapy guide in Ashland, said.

Telpner is a certified whole health educator. She works one-on-one with individuals to improve all aspects of their health from spiritual to physical, and everything in-between.

After being diagnosed with a disease which caused her to have excruciating bouts of vertigo and eventually lose hearing in her right ear, she said she found herself spending more time in the forest.

“I started spending a lot of time in nature and something shifted, and I started really healing,” Telpner said. “I was called to take my (health coaching) clients to the forest.”

She is now in the final stages of her forest therapy certification and has brought the practice to the public of Ashland.

“In most of human history, we lived outside,” Telpner explained during a recent forest therapy practice. “When people connect to the natural world, we form relationships, and the more we care and advocate for the natural world the more we connect to our roots, literally.”

The guided practice lasts three hours and weaves the healing process of meditation with the awareness of the forest body. In a society filled with disconnection from one another and a daily dose of sensory overload, forest bathing forces the mind to quiet and connect with the earth.

It felt to at least one participant like yoga, in the way Telpner instructed participants to slowly open all of their senses over the course of various calming, yet purposeful activities. But it differed because, rather than focusing on one’s own body, the focus was on the body of the forest, in the miniscule details easily missed and taken for granted: the way the forest floor softens and hardens when walking with eyes closed, how the animals tend to settle and come around after you’ve sat still for about 20 or so minutes, and the sound of pattering rain on the fragile undergrowth.

Telpner instructed the small group to leave behind nagging thoughts of the past and embrace positivity of the future as they crossed bridges in the woods of Lithia Park.

She softly played a wooden flute to remind them to remain within the moment, and to gather for the next set of instructions as each activity encouraged wandering away from one another.

About halfway through the practice it began to gently rain.

“This is a good thing,” Telpner said. “We put ourselves inside and we don’t experience the sprinkling of rain.”

After the last activity — “sit spot” where participants were invited to choose a place near the creek to mediate and observe for roughly 20 minutes — she called everyone to sit under the somewhat sheltering canopy of a tree. In the middle of the circle was a teapot, a bowl of oranges, another of pistachios and several tiny cups. A simple tea of hot water and blackberry leaves steeped as the practice concluded. A cup was poured for the forest and each person as participants shared their experiences.

The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Program’s official website quotes John Muir in their description, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”

Telpner leads forest therapy walks once a month in conjunction with Ashland Parks and Recreation. She plans on leading walks through her private practice more frequently. Each session costs $33 and participants must be registered before the walk. Visit her website www.forestbathingashland.com to register.

— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.