Nature has the power to restore our physical and mental health, say forest therapy experts, encouraging city dwellers to experience this through immersive walks in parks and green zones. And they also awaken the love to preserve the natural spaces around our residential areas
The scent of greens tingles my nose and I take in deep breaths. My lungs are probably not used to this much breathing, stuck between my sagging chest muscles and ribs as I slouch for hours over my laptop. Now, as I sit cross-legged on a bamboo mat under a tree, my eyes closed, my chest expands, my shoulders straighten and I feel the green power. I am with a forest bathing guide, Dipika Sharma, in Noida’s oldest rose garden at the entrance, opposite the posh sector 15A.
The garden has lost its sheen. It was the city’s pride and joy when I moved to Noida in 1992. It wasn’t a thriving metropolis then, just a city in the making with no proper infrastructure, and a magnificent entrance. The clean air stemming from the abundant trees lining the roads, the lack of cars and the sound of birds filled the heart with joy. The neighbouring Okhla Bird Sanctuary was green, no gates or concrete. We used to take mobike rides on the muddy roads. The magnificent trees and the lovely garden were the sole entertainment for families; weekend picnics were common here. The neighbouring Nandan Kannan Park was destroyed to make way for the Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal that lacks visitors. There was a carpet of green grass to walk on, a fountain to sit by and a wooded area where peacocks and walkers enjoyed the fresh air. Now, this stone structure is a cordoned off area with no maintenance or parking. It killed the fresh breeze, the scent of fresh grass. The rose garden, too, is a dishevelled space. But it is still a large park and we cherish the green that we find here.
The Earth never disappoints. Its capacity to give makes us wonder from where it gets its revitalising power.
The little patch Dipika finds is helpful in reinstating some semblance of calmness. For a tired city dweller, even a little clean green is bliss. Dipika is discovering the garden for the first time. She normally holds forest bathing sessions in the pristine environs of Delhi’s Lodi Gardens on the weekends. And here we are, two of us, determined to find our centre in the green cover. After all, if we were in a real forest, there would be a bed of strewn leaves, slush, wild animals, even slithering creatures, spiders, cobwebs and more.
What is forest therapy?
Our relationship with Nature is genetic and part of our evolution. Forest bathing
re-establishes our connection with Mother Earth.Experts define the therapy as a restorative relationship between man and nature. The Japanese termed it as Shinrin-Yoku, translating as ‘forest bathing’. Research has demonstrated the healing power of Nature. And forest bathing, a.ka. enjoying a few hours in the city parks under the shelter of trees and connecting to nature, is one way of improving your health and lifestyle in the 21st century.
What happens in forest therapy?
As I wrap myself in the calming darkness of my closed eyes, I hear the birds more clearly. I catch the different scents floating in the air. I find the air cooler. The tongue feels coated and weighs heavy in my mouth. The soothing rays tingle my skin. The few minutes of silence take away the pressure and I feel like dozing off under the tree. But there is more to experience in the two hours with Dipika.
“The idea is to be wholly present and experience every bit of ‘this moment’ with all five senses,” she says, as we open our eyes. Without breaking the experience with small talk, she asks me walk around slowly, barefoot, absorbing the beauty of the green cover, to discover birds, butterflies and brave squirrels, plants, trees and even my own emotions.
“A forest bathing guide invites the participants to immerse in their surrounding and dive deeper into what they are feeling in the moment and really connect with themselves. This is usually done through small activities-to simply observe the surroundings, soak it all in, allow thoughts to flow, feel the different textures, experience the various smells and sounds and make their notes about what resonates with them or what triggers an emotion. It brings out an array of emotions.”
After a 20-minute absorption time, Dipika introduces me to a Qi Gong practice for building positive energy and strengthening my aura. This is standing Qi Gong or Zhan Zhuang meditation. This practice is common with martial arts practitioners and we have seen it a lot in movies where people throw others around with their energy. Some practice this for hours, staying in that pose. I do it only for a few minutes.
And then there is time for journaling, sketching. In my case, taking photographs. I write a letter to Earth, to myself, letting my thoughts flow out on paper. The ‘me time’, the green zone has peeled away the layers and I am no longer living in denial of my innate self. There is a visible clarity in thoughts. I only wish that it doesn’t go away as I drive through the crazy traffic.
With a small group of participants, Dipika also likes to include mandala creation and sharing. Hugging trees also unleashes the emotions and brings us in touch with our roots. I share about my outdoor art classes as she talks about her school and outdoor retreats in Uttarakhand. Dipika encourages people to write positive affirmations and practice them daily at home.
As we rest in a shady patch, she prepares the Earth table for a freshly brewed herbal tea. While I was walking around, she collected beautiful flowers lying on the ground and made a floral arrangement on the cotton cloth tea table.
Expressing gratitude for the beauty and the rejuvenating experience, she first offers some tea to Mother Earth. And we then sip from our little cups, along with bites of fresh brownies and cookies. The session ends with a reading from Nature cards, that leave a big smile on my face. I feel free, of what I don’t know, but something inside has broken free.
Benefits of Forest Therapy
Forest Therapy does not come with a prescription. However, experts say that this nature experience, if done regularly, helps in revitalising cardiovascular and immune systems. It stabilizes and improves mood and cognition. It also integrates us with Nature, and opes hearts to the beauty of things. It makes us eco-conscious, aware that the green cover is precious and each of us is responsible for our green space. We must keep it clean and green!
I call it being one with our true self, much like the movie Avatar, where the protagonist moves away from harsh, hard-core practices to the love of indigenous life that he discovers with the Na’vis.
Forest Therapy is a practice of developing a deepening relationship of reciprocity, in which the forest and the practitioner find a way to work together that supports the wholeness and wellness of eachnatureandforesttherapy.earth.
Reconnecting with Nature
Dipika spent her early years in the tranquil locales of Upper Assam and Darjeeling. The verdant environs and the clean air were her daily regime. “You could see me lying down on a green patch of soft mountain grass, eyes closed. a smile on my lips as the sun’s rays danced over my eyes, narrating a story in shadows. Years later, well-settled in Noida, my son became the reason for reconnecting with Nature and have him build a connection too. It started off as a Sunday walk in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary. And soon turned into a regular weekend adventure activity where we would walk in the woods and park for hours, identifying birds and plants.”
She decided to give this a formal shape and did a forest bathing guide training from the Forest Therapy Institutes guide training program in Ireland in 2019. This 7-day immersive experience was conducted in the beautiful Irish countryside, followed by a 12-week training and mentored practice through live online classes.
Other organisations offering the course are Forest Therapy Hub, Nadur Forest Therapy and The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guide & Programs, among others.
Benefits of a Certified Guide
The certification programme has a proper syllabus with important guidelines where wilderness trails assessment, first aid, understanding the participants basic needs and requirements are all looked into.
“Being a certified guide enables me to offer an experience where one is handheld and encouraged through the various curated activities to dive deeper and re-connect with oneself in a more awakened and aware manner,” explains Dipika. “A certified guide will assess the area, study the energies of the trails, take you through the experience step-by-step and allow you a well curated Nature experience. Being with a certified guide is like deep sea diving with an instructor by your side.”
Forest Therapy guide vis-à-vis Naturalist
A naturalist is someone who knows the wilderness, deeper understanding of species in the surroundings types of trees, critters, birds. He or she knows the trails and knows where to find what.
Who can go forest bathing?
Anyone and everyone! “I prefer small intimate groups which allow for a more meaningful experience. In each session we have approximately 10 participants. There have been times when we have taken on requests for groups or collaborated on projects for over 25 people. I also organise my retreats in the hills of Uttarakhand,” says Dipika.
I try and spend 30 minutes in Nature daily. It heals my troubled heart and it makes me aware that I need to take care of this space. It also develops a connection with the good things that are free for all.
Dipika says even if you spend two hours of immersive time in nature once a week, it helps a lot. “Personally speaking, spending any duration of quality time in nature, as long as you are fully immersed in the experience, is extremely beneficial. And by fully immersed I mean, engaging all five senses. One can do this any time during the day. Just make that ‘me time’ for yourself and you will experience an immediate shift and a sea change in the long run. It has given me immense personal fulfilment, unspeakable health benefits and over time I’ve developed a calmer and positive outlook towards life—a priceless value-add.”
The energy exchange for a two-hour session varies from INR 700-1,000, depending on the invitation and activities included.