Connecting with Mindfulness and Nature through Forest Therapy
Nature is healing.
It’s a phrase and concept that has been known for ages.
For Kim Ruffin, an associate professor at Roosevelt University, the power and pleasure of nature is something she’s felt since childhood. Some of her oldest memories are of climbing trees, playing on dirt mounds, and flying off homemade bike ramps in flip-flops. For the last five years, Ruffin has embraced the idea of nature’s healing power as a trained nature and forest therapy guide. Her company, Cardinal Encounters, offers nature walks in the Chicago area, in-person, and via audio guides that allow individuals to experience do-it-yourself insight into the healing power of forest therapy.
Forest Therapy Is an Immersive, Meditative Experience
Forest therapy is not simply a hike through the woods, Ruffin says. It’s also not an overly intellectual experience or scientific study of the forest. Instead, it's a full-body, sensory journey and exchange with the natural world around us all, be it a national park or a backyard in the city.
“Forest therapy falls under the umbrella of mindfulness,” she says. “Some people even use the phrase ‘eco-mindfulness.’ There are qualities of mindfulness but you are not silent or simply alone. You are with groups in nature. You have a guide. And you have moments of communicating with each other as well as moments to yourself.”
A Forest Walk Can Last Hours — Or Just Minutes
The ideal group size for a forest walk is about 15 people, and the walk is slow and deliberate. “As guides, we are trained in things like recognizing environmental hazards and creating invitations for people to interact with nonhuman nature. We’re trained in recognizing the different species in nature,” Ruffin says. “Walks end with a tea ceremony, which includes, when appropriate, plants selected from the site.”
The Practice Has a Long History
The practice is rooted in a Japanese tradition that is roughly translated as “forest bathing.” The phrase refers to the way participants immerse themselves in their surroundings, physically and spiritually. In Japan, “forest bathing” arose in the 1980s when national leaders documented a growing health crisis of overworked, overstressed professionals who were increasingly disconnected from nature amid their tech and industrial jobs.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries created certified trails and encouraged groups to reconnect with the trees around them. The government also studied how the walks improved mental and physical health. The concept took off. Today, forest therapy guides are found around the world. Many in the U.S. are certified by the Prescott, Arizona-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.
You Don’t Have To Be in the Forest To Practice Forest Therapy
“You don’t need to be in the remote woodlands. Humans are part of nature and you can have human made sounds — cars, traffic, people talking in the background — and still incorporate elements of forest therapy into your day,” Ruffin tells CircleAround, adding that “what may be perceived as a distraction can also be perceived as an experience of being outdoors.”’
Forest therapy — like meditation — includes the practice of noticing one’s breath as well as the sights and sensations that distract a person. Being aware of scents, wind around and the rustling of leaves is also a part of the practice.
Ruffin Is Also a Leader in ‘Outdoor Afro’
Ruffin, who says her goal is to help people celebrate “the joys of life on earth,” is also a local leader in Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that cultivates and promotes communities of African-American people who are involved in outdoor activities. While her work in forest therapy is open to all races and genders, Ruffin says that she as a African American woman recognizes the power of nature experiences for people of color.
“People who are marginalized stand to benefit immensely from a connection to nonhuman nature,” Ruffin says. “I’ve been very eager to share forest therapy with everyone, including other African Americans, precisely because of the way that nature is one of the few areas of life that doesn’t discriminate and is open to all.”
The Bottom Line
Ruffin’s work has helped expose so many to the healing power of nature and forest therapy. Her hard work has been recognized as she’s published a book called Black on Earth: African-American Eco-literary Traditions. More recently, she has been selected as a recipient of the Aldo and Estella Leopold Writing Residency, through which Ruffin will further research the relation of enslaved people to the Earth.