Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Nature-Inspired Therapy


Anne Markham Bailey is a poet, writer, forest bathing guide and leadership wellness educator. She has her roots in Birmingham, AL. On twitter @amb_writeson Instagram @amb_writes.

The woman was seated on a paisley cotton sheet spread across the deep green lawn of the Japanese Garden. She began responding to an invitation to share her experiences in this final part of the forest bathing immersion, while slowly gazing face-to-face in the circle of participants. “I just want to say that I feel so different than when I arrived this morning. I feel close to all of you and this place. I feel calm, grounded.” She finished and a silence fell. Another participant shared, then the next, until everyone had spoken. The birds chirped. The brook bubbled and sang. Cars drove by on the busy road alongside the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. It was midday, time for us to return to our everyday lives.

We had just completed a forest bathe in the Japanese Gardens at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Forest bathing is a confusing term for some, and new terms such as forest therapy and nature therapy have emerged. “Forest bathing” is a direct translation from the Japanese “shinrin yoku” and refers to immersion in nature. Such immersion is not performed in a bathing suit, as is sometimes required. Rather, it is a process of opening our consciousness through a series of guided invitations to connect. The forest bathing guide supports the participants in getting out of the closed cycle of thought and moving into open communication of the senses. We benefit when we move out of the closed loop of our thinking mind and enter into sense awareness of being a living body in the world.

Close up of green snail shell in Bankhead National Forest

In Bankhead National Forest | Image: Anne Markham Bailey

Many of us realize that we feel better when we connect with nature – the “more-than-human” world. We feel the freshness when we feel the breeze, see a rainbow, meet a turtle, smell honeysuckle in the wind or taste wild berries. We like it. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, the Japanese founder of the global forest bathing movement, noticed that being in a forest increased his well-being and he wanted to understand the science behind his feelings. He initiated evidence-based scientific studies showing how immersing in forest bathing for at least an hour leads to measurable mental and physical benefits such as a lower heart rate, increased immune function, and feelings of optimism and well-being. One of the most powerful outcomes of forest bathing is rooted in a feeling of deep connection with the more than human world and with one another.

As humans, we suffer from separation. This is called a nature deficit disorder and it manifests in a variety of ways, such as depression, anxiety, and feelings of alienation and isolation. Because the mental and physical benefits of immersing oneself in nature have proven effective in both children and adults, doctors worldwide are prescribing nature therapy, another term for forest bathing. In Japan, a doctor can become certified in natural therapy. The results of studies from medical schools, research centers and public health schools show that people are more likely to thrive when we connect with nature.

Harvard scholar and Alabama native EO Wilson researched biophilia, the innate human need to connect with nature and other living things. As human beings, we were made for such a connection. Our body is constantly collecting and processing the data we receive from the world around us. Much of this data collection is done through our senses. Our whole being connects and processes what the senses gather as we immerse ourselves in nature, moving out of the dominance of the unruly mind and into our connectedness. Participants consistently report feelings of deep connection with the planet, the elements and each other as a result of the forest bathing sessions. This process supports well-being.

In the practice of forest bathing or nature therapy, a trained guide invites the participant to move into the body and open the senses to connect. A dip can last as little as an hour, the minimum recommended for the connection, or a full day. Typically, the process involves core aspects such as inviting participants to step away from the wild mind and into a sense of being in the body, to open the senses and to explore the connection. Immersions often involve sharing circles so that individual experiences can be shared within the group in an intense listening context. The sessions end with a tea ceremony that completes the immersion.

A blanket used for a forest bath tea ceremony at Birmingham Botanical Gardens

The tea ceremony completes the immersion in forest bathing at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. | Image: Anne Markham Bailey

Forest bathing is flexible and can take many forms. It can happen in a forest, garden, yard, playground, yard or room with windows. It can appear in the snow, rain, or with houseplants or essential oils. An immersion can be for a corporate wellness program, part of an institutional education program, for a family or group of friends to mourn a death or celebrate a life event. Forest bathing can be a single person having a guide or involve hundreds of people in a guided online program which is also very effective.

Consider adding a forest bathing immersion to your wellness journey, wherever you are, and get ready to feel the power of connection in your life.

How to get started

BASICS OF FOREST BATHING:

  • Choose an outdoor spot where you can sit comfortably and decide on a length of time that works for you — maybe 30 minutes.
  • Put your feet on the floor and sit up as best you can. Lengthen your spine. Feel the crown of your head lift towards the sky.
  • Feel the weight of your body being called to earth in an amazing and lifelong relationship with the earth.
  • You could bring your attention to the feeling of your breath pulling the air outside of you into your lungs and then pushing the air back out into the world. As thoughts kick in, return to the sense of being present in your body.
  • When you move into your senses, what do you notice? What do you smell, hear, feel, taste and see? Continue to return to the feeling of being in your body as foreign thoughts invade your mind.
  • When your timer goes off, take a moment to notice how you are feeling and then return to daily life.
  • Consider working on this exercise daily or several times a week and see how you feel over time. You might even want them to write about your experiences.

Happy forest bathing!

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