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I acknowledge that the forests and parks I mention throughout my article are located on the Treaty Territories and lands of the Anishinaabeg, Anishininewuk, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota Oyate, Denesuline and Nehethowuk Nations and is the Homeland of the Red River Métis.
I looked through the canopy of snow-covered branches sheltering me from the world.
An overwhelming feeling of comfort and reassurance held me. The wind rustled in the trees and sparrows sat singing on the swaying branches. Their song rang out, calling down to me below. I sang back, harmonizing with their chorus. My breath hung in the air like an early morning fog.
I had forgotten my mitts. Unarmed against the winter conditions, I rubbed my dry hands together.
Snow fell from the starving branches onto the deer and rabbit tracks on the forest floor. I touched the side of a maple tree. The bark was beautifully wrinkled, like my grandmother’s hands.
The sun was beginning to rise, and its light sifted through the trees.
The Forest is Calling
Forest bathing is the relaxing practice of immersing yourself among trees through your five senses.
The term shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) translates to absorbing the forest’s atmosphere. This phrase first emerged in Japan in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, a member of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. This was in response to a national mental health crisis and the need to protect the country’s diminishing forests. The idea was to intertwine city and green space to create a healthier work environment.
Japan has 62 forests designated for forest bathing and nature therapy — a practice now perscribed by medical professionals.
How to get started
The key is to not overthink. Go outside, get some fresh air, stand near a tree and bask in the beauty of the world around you.
The brilliant thing about forest bathing is that anyone can practice it almost anywhere — though being in a forest is ideal.
Find a spot
Start by looking for trees. This could be your backyard, a local park, or even a beach. It’s important you find a place that works for you.
Turn off all distractions. Disconnect from technology and the business of your day-to-day life and step into the woods.
Follow your senses
Feel the sunlight on your face. Listen to the wildlife welcome you into their home. Breathe in the fresh air and let it flood your senses.
You already know what to do. The forest is there to help guide you. There’s no rush, so take your time. Stay as long as you can.
Why Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is particularly helpful for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, or burnout. More than a third of Canadians are experiencing burnout and should seek healing in the trees.
A 2019 study conducted in Japan took 155 people and investigated their feelings after multiple forest bathing sessions. Thirty-seven per cent of respondents had depression. Those with depression found one 20-minute session of immersing themselves in a forest uplifted their mood.
Happy Little Trees
Whenever I am overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious I try to bring myself back to the forest (if not physically, then mentally). It’s the place I feel the most centered. Entering a treed universe protects me from my worries, even if only for a little while.
When you walk into a forest, your lungs and senses are flooded with phytoncides. Phytoncides are an invisible medicine and a chemical found in nature. Breathing in these chemicals can reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and improve attention span.
Certain trees, like cedar, pine, and oak, contain phytoncides. Phytoncides are airborne chemicals found in certain plants that protect them from insects and other predators. These chemicals are antibacterial and antifungal, which help protect plants against disease. When we inhale these chemicals, our bodies use them to produce white blood cells to fight sickness and stress.
Terpenes are found in phytoncides and are some of the main components of the forest’s air. Terpenes are created by many plants like sage, thyme, conifers, and cannabis. They are a defense mechanism to defend the plant against its environment. Terpenes act like essential oils and give off distinct smells to ward off enemies. Common terpenes include linalool, myrcene, beta-pinene, and humulene.
Mind Your Mind
For the past 30 years, Bonnie Schroeder has been teaching people about mindfulness and connection.
Schroeder has always loved the forest and felt a strong connection to nature. Growing up in rural Manitoba made her adventurous.
After traveling the world, Schroeder decided to leave her corporate medical practice and start her own business as a wellness coach.
“Throughout my travels, I learned there was more to health and wellness than one standard model,” she said.
Schroeder dedicated her career to teaching an alternative way of healing and wellness.
“I help people live more meaningful and gentle lives.”
Through her practice, she hosts wellness retreats focusing on stress reduction. Schroeder incorporates nature into her practice and invites people into the world of forest bathing.
She says it’s easy to become narrow-focused and closed off.
“We tend to get caught up in our day-to-day lives. And at times, the connection between your head and heart can be lost,” she said.
Schroeder uses the forest and her teachings to guide people back to their more connected state.
If you live in Winnipeg, silence can be hard to come by. Thankfully, there is plenty of green space in our city. A wooded area free of industrial noise possesses restorative powers for your mind and body. If you take the time, you can learn to appreciate nature’s subtle sounds.
Located on Treaty 1 Territory, Assiniboine Forest is the largest natural urban forest in Canada at over 700 acres. Assiniboine Forest’s all-weather paths wind through the trees and lead to the Eve Werier Waterfowl Pond. During warmer months you can overlook the pond and watch for wood ducks and other birds while listening to croaks of a grey treefrog army.
Though this forest is moments away from busy streets, the thick forest creates a shield from traffic noise and the unforgiving winter wind. These trees will welcome you in and shelter you.
Guidance for Winter:
Manitoban winters can be harsh. At times, spending time outside can feel more like torture than a positive experience, but getting into a forest in winter can be peaceful and restorative. Though there are many downsides to the cold months, studies have shown that spending time in the chilly air improves focus, sleep, and heart function.
- Wear weather-appropriate attire — mitts, hand warmers, thermal pants and tops are all highly recommended.
- Pack a warm drink for the journey – I like hot chocolate, cider, or herbal tea.
- Look for animal tracks in the snow from weasels, rabbits, and beavers. Assiniboine Forest is home to many species.
- Look up into the snow-covered branches and search for owls, Baltimore orioles, and downy woodpeckers.
- Shelter yourself by practicing in more dense forests.
- Appreciate the hoarfrost on trees and the shapes of snowed-in shrubs and bushes.
- If the winter weather is too persistent, try staying indoors and listening to this playlist. Let your mind take you to a forest far away, somewhere warm with eternal sunshine.
- Make an effort to go outside and try nature micro-dosing — spend a few moments outside even if the winter is too brutal to bear.
We had to get out of the house.
My mum and I packed some sandwiches and hopped into the family’s royal blue SUV, Big Bertha.
At the time, we didn’t know where we would end up. It was the second year of the pandemic and we just needed to go somewhere else. Somewhere safe that wasn’t our home.
The weather was warming up and it was the perfect temperature for forest bathing. I suggested we go to Birds Hill Provincial Park. We had been the week prior, but after some convincing, my mum agreed.
The snow was beginning to melt, and the sun was bursting through the pine trees. The light gave our surroundings an angelic glow. The world seemed to be awakening from its winter slumber.
Stepping into the forest, I watched as squirrels frantically climbed up the trees. Deer tracks were pressed into the icy ground. Nature’s hues peeked through the snow, attempting to break free from the chains of hibernation.
An eagle sat atop a large pine, surveying the land. He looked like a statue, the wind swaying his tree from side to side.
We walked into a clearing facing the lake. I sat down on the cold path and looked out. I don’t remember how long I sat there, but I didn’t want to leave. Looking over the lake, I marvelled at the sunlight as it rippled across the water.
We are all Connected
Liam Gibson is an arborist and owner of Leaf It To Us Tree Service. Monday through Friday he spends his time wandering forests and taking care of all things tree related — pruning, removing, planting, and studying.
When Gibson first heard about forest bathing, he chuckled.
Like myself and many others, Gibson had been forest bathing for years without knowing it.
“I was introduced to the term a few years ago and the first time I heard it I laughed. Being in the forest had always been so natural to me,”
Gibson recalls his first time truly connecting to the forest when he was young.
“I’m sitting under our mugo pine and out from the corner of my eye I see this bumble bee.”
Gibson tells me it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky.
But suddenly, it starts raining. Looking back to the bee, Gibson sees that the insect has dug a pit in a pile of leaves and has created a shelter from the storm.
“It was the first time I realized how incredibly brilliant and connected everything in the natural world is,” Gibson said.
Bathing with Friends
The wonderful thing about forest bathing is it can be done alone or with friends. Joining a club or group is easy in Winnipeg, as the city is home to many forest bathers.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is an organization that aims to protect the Canadian environment and wildlife. The group has a Nature Club at Assiniboine Park.
Boreal Fix is run by certified forest therapist, Brynne Maguire. She prepares unique experiences for groups among the trees. Maguire teaches people how to incorporate the benefits of the forest into everyday life. She offers public forest therapy sessions and virtual workshops.
Not every forest bathing activity you try will be a good fit, and it takes time to find your way to practice. Try practicing yoga, meditation, or Tai chi in an outdoor spot that feels relaxing to you — wherever it may be. Bring a journal and write about plant life you see or write poetry about your surroundings.
Birds Hill Provincial Park
Located on Treaty 3 Territory, Birds Hill Provincial Park is a perfect spot for basking in nature. Climb to the top of a lookout tower and see thick forests and over 30 kilometres of trails. This park features 35 square kilometres of forests filled with oak and aspen. Listen to the songbirds in the trees and gaze through the branches and feel the golden glow.
Forest bathing in spring can be a muddy mess if you aren’t prepared. This park offers many trails with wooden and paved paths to make wandering accessible to all.
Guidance for Spring:
- Notice the brand-new buds on once-barren branches.
- Listen for the birds returning home from a long journey.
- Wear waterproof clothing and shoes.
- Pack binoculars for bird watching — watch for black-capped chickadees and pileated woodpeckers.
- Bring a map.
I squinted into the sunlight. There they were. Wild blueberries. I hadn’t had any all summer and my mouth instantly watered. My cousin and I sprinted to them, our grandmothers following behind.
Staring at the juicy little fruits, I was mesmerized by their appearance. It had rained the night before and they were still covered in morning dew.
I wriggled my dirt-covered toes in excitement. The soft ground squished underneath my soiled, glittered pink sandals.
I had been waiting for this moment all year. We sat among the trees and ate our body weights in blueberries as we looked out over the lake.
My cousins and I got splinters from building forts, bloody knees and elbows from climbing trees, and callused feet from running around without shoes.
There was a rope swing attached to a huge oak tree. It swung across a ditch, about seven feet wide. Every time I swung from one side to the other, I felt like I was being transported into another world. The tree never bent from our weight; it held us steady as we flew into different dimensions.
These simple moments are the ones that shape and continue to shape my perspective of nature.
My mom’s side of the family used to visit Star Lake every summer. Though I’ve outgrown the annual family gatherings, these trips greatly benefited my formative years.
Star Lake is located on Treaty 3 Territory
Karolina Dressler is an avid Manitoban forest bather who finds solace in nature.
“When I have a really big decision to make in my life I always go out to the trees.”
Growing up with a property at Grand Beach, she began appreciating nature at a young age. The family spent their days foraging in the trees.
“We picked blueberries and mushrooms and spent a lot of time in the forest,” she said.
Now, she uses nature as a reset.
“I can clear my mind and that’s where a lot of my creativity comes from.”
Dressler is a mother of two and is the executive director of Brightling Childcare Academy and sees how important nature is to childhood development and well-being.
“At the daycare, we try to introduce children to the positive impact of nature and talk about forest bathing,” Dressler said.
Outdoor play is an essential component of children’s lives and needs to be incorporated into their daily routines.
When Dressler’s kids were younger, she would pile them into the car and take them on adventures.
“We would put sandwiches or something in the cooler and start driving”
But for some children, it isn’t second nature to be outside.
A 2022 study by The Canadian Pediatric Society showed that nearly all children are using screens by age two. Extended screen time during childhood development can lead to shortened attention spans, reading skills, and language development. This increased screen time means decreased attention spans and less time in nature.
The term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) has been used to explain the disconnection between people and nature in recent years. Richard Louv is an American author, child advocate, and journalist. He first used the term in his book Last Child in the Woods Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder 2005
“Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families and communities to nature.”
Spending time in nature encourages mental wellness, and emotional well-being and is a tool for managing stress. Outdoor play helps gain confidence and allows children to build healthy boundaries. This time in nature is fundamental to creating character and resiliency.
Members of Cornell University, Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies conducted a study showing children who spend time in nature are more likely to develop a life-long love and appreciation for the natural world.
Pembina Valley Provincial Park
Located on Treaty 1 Territory, The Pembina Valley Provincial Park is located southwest of Morden. Explore the Aspen forests and meadows filled with wildflowers and shrubbery. The Pembina River creates a barrier at the edge of the park, hear the streams and creeks flow over rocks as you walk the trails.
This park is secluded far away from the hustle of Winnipeg. If you are seeking a silent place of solace, look no further.
Guidance for Summer:
- Watch for Manitoba wildflowers like blue vervain, milkweed, and bull thistle.
- Lie down and explore the clouds above.
- Pack a picnic and include seasonal fruits like peaches, pears, berries, and plums.
- Savour the warm ground beneath. Take off your shoes and sink your soles (and soul) into the forest floor.
- Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing and appropriate footwear (sandals or hiking boots, depending on activity).
- Pack sunscreen and water to avoid heatstroke and sunburn.
- Throw stones into creeks, lakes, or rivers and watch the ripples run away.
With my nightly toke in hand, I walked into the forest; it had become a ritual. The tree’s branches were barren again. The poplar’s fallen leaves were shades of auburn and orange. They crunched underfoot as I travelled further through the woods.
I sat down on the forest floor. Inspecting the moss and plants growing out of a fallen oak. I held my breath, not daring to disrupt the peace. Everything was quiet, it felt like a sin to disturb it. I leaned in to examine the lobster mushrooms living off the dying bark. They had grown since the week prior.
Through the canopy of vein-like branches above, the sun slowly disappeared from the lilac sky and left me in the dark. I sat alone; the resident woodpecker whistled his evening song.
Lessons from the Forest
I’m living in Winnipeg after a childhood in the country. Being surrounded by concrete instead of nature is a weird feeling. I realize how vital forest bathing is to my mental and physical health. When I can escape the hustle of the city, I am grateful for the moments I spend in the trees and hear the silence differently.
The more I learn to evolve with the nature around me, I realize how much we can learn from the natural world.
The roots of trees connect them to one another like nerves in a body. Underground, trees are connected using fungal networks in conjunction with the root system. This is how they communicate and share resources with one another.
Scientists call this a mycorrhizal network. Fungi and trees have a symbiotic relationship, meaning they have a close, lost-term relationship. The tree provides food in the form of sugars while the fungus finds nutrients from the soil to give back to the tree.
A forest’s network is how it survives. A small sapling in a dark corner of a thick forest cannot survive without a strong network. As this sapling lacks sunlight, larger parent-like trees pump extra nutrients into the sapling.
St. Vital Park
In late September, you’ll hear fleeting geese and ducks as you enter this park. In November, you’ll see the stillness of the once-populated duck pond. Located in south Winnipeg on Treaty 1 Territory, this park is wheelchair accessible and has year-round washrooms. There are over 4 000 metres of paths in this park intertwined among pine and oak trees.
Guidance for Autumn:
- During the early autumn months, watch geese and other birds migrate.
- Listen to the trees — they have much wisdom to pass on.
- Collect and press fallen leaves and other dead plant life.
- Search for red squirrels or cottontail rabbits scurrying about the birch trees.
- Pick apples and other autumnal fruits at Purple Berry Orchard.
- Let the change of seasons guide you.
I love forest bathing because I don’t completely understand it. A whole other world exists underneath the soil. The trees can teach us a lot if we listen, and I still have a lot to learn.
Trees are made of magic. I’m convinced.