Forest bathing coming to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado
Residents and visitors of Eagle County know how to spend time outdoors.
Whether it’s skiing down Riva’s Ridge on Vail Mountain in the winter or mountain biking Village to Village at Beaver Creek during the summer, the open outdoors is a place of retreat and refuge.
With so much to do and so much room to do it, it can be hard to stop and truly appreciate all the forest has to offer.
Forest bathing is a growing practice that first started in Japan, known as “Shinrin-Yoku,” following the basic principle of reaping the benefits of spending time outside. In the U.S., the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy operates under founder M. Amos Clifford’s realization: “The forest is the therapist. The guide opens the doors.”
It costs about $3,400 to be trained through the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy as a certified guide, a process that takes over six months.
“We basically offer invitations that help people to slow down and to notice,” said Kayla Weber, a local certified forest bathing guide who lives in West Vail. “Something we sometimes forget to do here in the valley when we’re outside all of the time is we forget to notice what’s around us. We here are very goal driven — we’re going to summit, we’re going to do this, and that — and we forget to stop and smell the roses, literally. Forest bathing is slowing down and becoming introspective and giving our minds and bodies time to slow back down as well as reconnect with our surroundings that we usually whiz by.”
As of the end of 2018, The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy has trained over 700 guides who are working in 44 different countries on six continents. The first guide training was offered in Spanish in 2018 and a trail certification program opened in Costa Rica.
Guides lead groups on short hikes, better known as walks, offering questions and mini-assignments to help connect with nature. Most walks take about two and a half to three hours.
“It’s not a hike by any means — not strenuous, not long,” said Jane West, a local certified guide. “The time is the longest part of the walk.”
But that’s the whole point of forest bathing — also known as forest therapy — to take time in nature.
“Every walk, in a way, is about health and also the awe that nature inspires in us,” West said.
‘Feel a connection’
With a growing following in California, the practice is expanding across the country, including Colorado — a perfect place to connect with nature, almost too perfect.
“What’s funny about Eagle County is that most of the trails can be pretty strenuous with the ups and the downs,” Weber said. “Because of the practice, we are trying to find trails that are flatter. There are some really great ones, but we’ve just had to take some extra time to find them.”
In Japan, certain trails receive a designation as a place for forest bathing. In the U.S., guides are working off a list of suggestions for the perfect hike, with things like water features present along the way.
“Have you really sat alone without seeing any other person and sat there for five or 10 minutes just observing,” West asked. “For some people that can be a little unnerving, for others they’re out there for days or weeks. We’re trying to make sure that people feel a connection to what we have and hope to preserve.”
The science behind forest bathing
On the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy’s website, multiple benefits of the practice are cited.
One of which includes a 2007 study that showed men taking two-hour walks in the woods over a two-day period exhibited a 50 percent increase in levels of natural killer cells — the body’s disease-fighting agents.
The idea is that forest bathing can lower stress hormone production and elevate mood states with benefits to the immune system.
The website also says that physical activity in the form of a 40-minute walk in the forest was associated with improved mood and feelings of health.
In the mid to late 1800s, two physicians set up in Germany’s pine forests, as did one in a forest in New York. All reported the benefit of forest air and believed pine trees to emit an unseen airborne healer.
Time in nature also improves mental performance and creativity, according to the website, citing one study that found participants performed 50 percent better on problem-solving tasks after three days in the wilderness.
“I have found that it’s great for kids as well. It’s for all ages,” West said. “It can work as a way to feel refreshed and get a new outlook.”
In September, a forest therapy guide training will be coming to Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge in Grand Lake.
Upcoming winter walks will be available through Walking Mountains Science Center later this winter, and Weber and West hope to have a busy schedule in the summer, too.
The two met with CBS at Maloit Park in 2018 to film a piece about forest bathing, airing soon.
“We’re just there to open doors and help deepen that connection that even some of us here in the mountains forget how to deeply connect,” Weber said.
While policymakers are celebrating a big drop in Colorado’s individual health insurance prices for 2020, they’re also scrambling to combat the sharp decline in the number of carriers in rural parts of the state where 22 of 64 counties have just one option on the Obamacare marketplace.