For decades, any mention of “therapy” sparked the image of a patient lying down on a long couch, describing their dreams to a therapist with glasses and a notepad. Now, our broader definitions of therapy and its mental and physical health benefits allow us to push the boundaries of what is therapeutic, including our National Forests. Thanks to a Matching Awards Program (MAP) from the National Forest Foundation, community members and guides are currently designing and building the first certified Forest Therapy Trail on the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.
Forest Therapy, a modified practice incorporating the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku and a variety of guiding principles, was adapted in 2012 by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Forest Therapy implies a mutual relationship where both people and nature benefit from the other’s presence and life.
Many who stand by forest therapy as a way to improve mental and physical health are accustomed to a healthy dose of skepticism. However, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health compiled the results of 17 different studies and claimed “a harmonizing effect of Nature, especially on physiological stress reactions, was found across all body systems.” Researchers are still studying the role forests play in improving overall health but the current science points towards forest therapy as a valid and effective form of preventative medical care.
According to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), the core principles of forest therapy include opening all senses to communicate with the land, focusing less on miles hiked and more on time spent in nature, being fully present in order to give oneself the opportunity to heal, and committing to a long-term practice.
Tamberly Conway, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of Conservation Conexions, a small consulting firm that focuses upon diversity in conservation and creating meaningful connections between people and the land, offering guided walks to promote teamwork, resilience, wellness and creativity. She first heard of forest therapy while working for the USDA Forest Service in Washington D.C. One afternoon, she attended a lecture by Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a prominent figure in the urban greening and public health world and one of Conway’s “research superheroes”.
“During her presentation, she mentioned something called forest bathing and Shinrin-yoku out of Japan and some of the research showing the health benefits related to bathing in the atmosphere of the forest, bathing in phytoncides being released by trees … And I just thought ‘Wow’,” Conway said.
After Wolf’s presentation, Conway needed to know more. She found a guide in D.C. and went on a 3-hour forest therapy walk in an urban forest. She said she felt the sensory connections to the forest through the help of the forest therapy guide, whose job is not to be a forest therapist but to guide participants into invitation that opens the door of connection with themselves and their natural surroundings.
“The guide opens the doors through the sensory connections, and the forest and nature are the therapists because nature is what we need. Nature gives us the messages. We see a lot of parallels in our own bodies and our own lives in nature,” Conway said. Soon after this experience, while working for the USFS, Conway trained to become an ANFT Certified Guide.
Each walk begins with the guide initiating a sensory connection to the current moment, followed by connective invitations to engage participants with the natural world by slowing rhythm, through sauntering, meandering or sitting, sharing among participants what they are noticing, and ends with the guide and participants sharing tea made from local plants. In response to the global pandemic, ANFT certified guides are leading participants on guided virtual forest therapy sessions to engage with their own natural surroundings wherever they are.
While we were on the phone for this interview, Conway was sitting in her yard under a cluster of elm trees. This, she said, is the idea of guided virtual forest therapy walks. If everyone can’t be together, experiencing the same natural space, guides can encourage participants to find any source of nature near them, be it a tree in their backyard, a small garden, or any nearby nature. Through this method, the guide can lead participants joining together from places throughout the U.S. or even the world, into nature connection. As long as you can find a natural space to share your time with, forest therapy guides can facilitate a guided virtual forest therapy experience.
The first bilingual ANFT forest therapy training took place in November 2019 in Puerto Rico. Funded by the USDA Forest Service Conservation Education Program, the training included youth, educators, holistic health practitioners, U.S. Forest Service employees and veteran participants and others from Puerto Rico, the continental United States, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The program hoped to support the participants’ journeys of becoming ANFT certified guides, with the intent of these bilingual guides serving Spanish-speaking communities and many of these guides providing this beneficial service in natural landscapes, including National Forest lands .
Just over a year ago, Cristóbal Jiménez was introduced to the idea of forest therapy by Conway and knew he wanted to lead walks. As the Director of Puerto Rico Programs for Corazón Latino, a group that promotes culturally-relevant campaigns to empower diverse communities in conservation, Jiménez, who trained during the first bilingual ANFT cohort in November, now leads his forest therapy walks for community members on El Yunque National Forest primarily in Spanish.
We have a bilingual community and we want to make sure that everybody is involved … We all need to give our community the opportunity to experience something different and new. Forest therapy walks are a whole different way of seeing your surroundings and enjoying them.
Now, with funding from the National Forest Foundation’s MAP grant, participants from this training who live in Puerto Rico will be able to lead forest therapy walks on an ANFT Certified Forest Therapy Trail once it is safe to do so in-person. The project will engage members of the local Naguabo community and veteran community, with The Mission Continues as a primary partner, in the design and implementation of the Certified Forest Therapy Trail. As for the project’s overall goals after the trail and recreation areas are restored, Jiménez prioritized the usage of forest therapy by participants who also utilize other mental health services and accessibility for all.
“Our main goals are focusing on mental health for those persons in our community, to service our tourists … to make sure we can complement [psychiatry services] with trails, and make sure the trails are accessible to our community,” Jiménez said.
Preparations for the trail continue even after the Coronavirus pandemic delayed work crews from surveying and restoring the land. While ANFT guides, Corazón Latino staff members, and The Mission Continues volunteers scout out locations and bring back plans for the trail, Conway thinks back to the first bilingual training last November and how El Yunque National Forest is hers and many others’ first home as forest therapy guides.
“There’s been a lot of shared vision at Rio Sabana and on El Yunque National Forest. Anissa Hernandez, the first native Puerto Rican living in Puerto Rico to become an ANFT Certified Guide, and I guided the first forest therapy walks just over a year ago at the location where we are now working to implement the first ANFT Certified Forest Therapy trail as a result of NFF support. Three people who participated in those first forest therapy walks at that location just over a year ago were selected as participants in the first-ever bilingual ANFT forest therapy training and they will soon become ANFT Certified Guides and they too will likely be guiding on this certified forest therapy trail. Each time we guide a forest therapy walk there, we shared positive vision for the future,” Conway said. “Today we are seeing our shared vision coming to fruition.”