Shenandoah Valley

Shenandoah Valley

Can time spent in nature actually benefit a stressed-out mental state?

Of course it can. Numerous studies support the idea and almost anyone who appreciates the outdoors will swear to it.

Japan has taken this idea a step farther with a practice called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. There is a natural area in Japan– Iinan Furusato no Mori — where “Forest Therapy Guides” provide visitors with physical and psychological health assessments and custom “walking plans.” There are three options– Slow Walking, Walking, and Plant Observation. Bathing in natural hot springs is part of the program, too.

Other parts of the world are embracing the idea as well. Certified Forest Therapy Guides can be found in 48 countries, including many locales in the USA.

Advocates point out that forest bathing may lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, boost the immune system, and improve feelings of wellbeing. By inhaling the phytoncide found in the forest air (essential oils emitted by trees ), the human immune system may be strengthened as well.

Forest bathing differs from traditional outdoor recreation in that it is far less structured. You don’t hike, pedal, paddle or jog. You even leave your cell phone and your camera in the car. You don’t need to have a destination or follow a route (other than not getting lost).

The point is simply to immerse yourself nature and connect with it. It has been likened to a bridge—a bridge between ourselves and nature. Tune your senses into the babble of a brook, the wind across a mountaintop, or sunlight glinting on a shadowy stream. Be still and focus on the sights, sounds, touches and smells around you.

Dr. Qing lI, author of Forest Bathing—How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, says, “You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world – wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow.”

Although organized forest bathing sessions are beginning to catch on, in the Shenandoah Valley it is still mostly a do-it-yourself exercise. Here are a few locations to consider should you want to try it.

Shenandoah National Park 
The most obvious choice, Shenandoah National Park, has more than 500 miles of hiking trails; about 40 percent of the park—nearly 80,000 acres—is designated Wilderness. (The Park is in Phase 2 of its re-opening plan; see details here. ) Forest bathing here could exposed you to an abundance of calming experiences—tumbling waterfalls, quiet trout streams, or deep, silent forests. Forest bathing is probably best done without crowds, so try to visit during the week if possible.

George Washington/Jefferson National Forests 
Where better to forest bathe than a national forest? George Washington and Jefferson National Forests total 1.8 million acres to explore, extending from Winchester to Bristol. Here you can connect with over 40 species of trees and prowl one million acres classified as “generally remote” areas. Again, go during the week if possible. Stay up to date on re-opening of trails, campgrounds and facilities here.

Cabins
A number of rental cabins in the Valley, Montfair Resort near Crozet, for example, own more than enough private acreage and/or gardens where forest bathing can be easily explored.

Orland E. White Arboretum 
The State Arboretum of Virginia re-opened June 6. Also known as the Orland E. White Arboretum, is part of the Blandy Experimental Farm, a research facility for the University of Virginia. The Arboretum collection includes a Virginia Native Plant Trail, the largest variety of boxwood cultivars in North America, and more than 6,000 trees and woody shrubs including a third of the world’s pine species. The Arboretum is located in Boyce, VA.

Emerald Mountain Sanctuary
Guided walks are offered through this 58-acre hideaway in Highland County. Pastures, forest, and a few small ponds are conducive to forest bathing, as are wildlife observation and nature contemplation. Inquire: emeraldmountainsanctuary@gmail.com.

Banner photo courtesy NPS/Brett Raeburn