What is “Forest Bathing”?

by Emily Marino, Executive Director of the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed.

I recently sat down with Dr. Katherine Fultz – an Environmental Anthropologist and Yoga Instructor who will be teaching our Yoga in the Woods – Forest Bathing program on July 15 and September 24 from 5:30-7:30pm on the trails behind West Elmira and Pirozzolo Park. Katherine moved to Corning with her husband and two children in 2019, after completing 13 years in undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Michigan, to receive her doctorate in Socio-Cultural Anthropology with a focus on the environment. I met Katherine through mutual interest groups focused on running, yoga, and the environment, and she brought up the idea of holding a program on “Forest Bathing”. I was honest with her, I had never heard of this concept, and thought it would be useful if I interviewed her about this upcoming program. Below are the conversations we had during an informal chat and lunch.

So, Katherine, tell me about Forest Bathing?

Forest bathing is the practice of immersing yourself in nature in a mindful way, while paying close attention to the sensory experience of being in a forest environment. It allows you to focus your your senses in attunement with your environment to derive a whole range of benefits for the entire body, mind, and soul. The term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). Our practice will incorporate yoga, and invitations to guide our walking meditations and observations, offering participants a way to reconnect with and protect our natural environment. We will pause periodically as a group to do a series of yoga poses, followed by the opportunity to sit in contemplative stillness and observe the space around us.

Wow! Interesting! Now tell me about your background, you are a doctor in Anthropology and a Yoga Instructor? I can see how Yoga connects to the environment, but how does Anthropology?

Good question! My research in anthropology focused on environmental movements in Latin America. I spent three years in Guatemala studying the impact of transnational mining projects on rural indigenous communities. There is a big cultural divide between the Guatemalan government and indigenous communities, where people often speak a Mayan language instead of or in addition to Spanish. Things are complicated even more by the history of the civil war in that country, which killed 200,000 civilians between 1950 and 1998. 93% of the casualties were indigenous people. There is a lot of distrust between indigenous communities and the Guatemalan government as a result. Then, these transnational companies come in with the support of the government and disrupt the local environment. Many people depend on the land for their livelihoods, and everyone depends on local streams and wells for water. Mining in these areas can damage the water table and cause pollution in local streams, putting people’s health at risk. Community members worry about a lack of oversight from the Guatemalan government, and the whole situation is very fraught and emphasized for me the importance of environmental stewardship.

That is terrible! But it sounds like your studies are the reason you support local Environmental Stewardship. Is this why you reached out to us with the suggestion to hold a program to increase individual connection with nature?

Absolutely! This region reminds me so much of my home in Northern Michigan with its familiar Northern forests and climate, and I know first hand how stressful this past year has been for so many people. It seemed that now would be the ideal time to hold a program helping us to connect to nature, and disconnect from the technology that was so crucial to our lives during COVID. Although it helped us stay connected while we were forced to stay away from each other, technology can cause feelings of burn-out and anxiety. Yoga, which I have been registered as a teacher for the past seven years, offers a way to connect back with your body as you move through each pose and breathe. And Forest Bathing will focus on the sensory experience of being in nature, and cultivating a sense of mindfulness while enjoying it. Studies have shown that paying attention to your senses – mindfulness, increases your happy hormones and decreases stress hormones. Studies have also shown that spending time in nature, trees and water, shows similar outputs in brain chemistry. The end result is a happier person, and a healthier environment.

I can see how reducing stress would make someone happier, but how does that make our environment healthier? What is the connect to Forest Bathing and a healthy environment?

When we forge a bond with something that improves our sense of well-being, we tend to want to take care of it. If nature makes you happier, you are more likely to respect and take care of your natural environment. It’s really a win-win! And regardless of whether we realize it, we are all dependent on our immediate environment. Maybe not to the same degree as the people I was studying in Guatemala, but we depend on our environment similarly for food and water. The food that we buy in our stores and the water we drink, comes from nature. Without which we would cease to exist. And again, so much of our research into mental health shows that our environment has an enormous impact on our mental health and well-being. Just think of how difficult it is to stay inside during the winter, “cabin fever” is a real thing, and people need to get outside and experience their environment. By connecting to nature through mindfulness and yogic movement, we are learning to respect and protect our environment.

Ok, so what can I expect when I come to this program? Do I need to be flexible, or be willing to “hug trees”?

*Laughs* No, hugging trees is not necessary, and neither is flexibility. Flexibility is something we will work towards, as well as quieting our mind to become more focused and calm. If you were already a yoga master, you wouldn’t need this class! This class is designed for beginners who want to become a little more flexible, a little more mobile, a little more calm, and a little more connected to nature. You can expect a lot of quiet thinking about what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and experience by the river. We will do slow walking and gentle slow yoga movements designed to make you more aware of your body in nature, to break away from habitual movements cultivated from desk sitting all day. This program should be fun and relaxed, and we will get to know our environment while focusing on our bodies and the breath. My hope is that people leave the program with the seed of an idea on how we are connected to and a part of our natural environment. Every action we take affects our environment, and every action our environment takes affects us. With the intention to breathe in calm and happiness and flexibility into our bodies, we can also breathe out a commitment to respecting and protecting our greater Watershed.

We hope so too! And we also hope everyone pre-registers for your classes on July 15 and September 24, which they can do from our website under “Programs” or by clicking here. Thank you again for your time, and for bringing this exciting new program to our attention. It should be a lot of fun!

**To learn more about Katherine Fultz – Yoga Teacher, check out her Facebook page.**

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