“We just completed our nature therapy training in May,” Helene Gibbons said when I met her last week at Origin Coffee in Saranac Lake. “We learned how to guide people to open their senses to the forest, to become immersed in the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the natural world.” As Helene is a yoga teacher, I saw how she could apply similar principles to meandering through the woods. She’s been guiding students through yoga poses and leading them into meditation for years.
“Suzanne Weirich and I traveled to Chicago for a seven day training at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois,” she continued. “With this Forest Therapy Guide Training we’re ready help people immerse themselves in the natural environment, called Forest Bathing.”
Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing, started in Japan in the 1980s, is now practiced world-wide. It’s more like a stroll in the woods, not a hike with a goal or destination in mind. The Washington Post calls it the latest fitness trend – where yoga was 30 years ago. The Kripalu Center in the Berkshires incorporates Forest Bathing in their wellness retreats.
In June I’d gotten a feel for what Forest Bathing meant in the context of Helene’s training, by going on one of her trips on the West Branch of the Ausable River – what she calls Riverwalking. A group of eight of us met at 8:30 am on a 75 degree sunny Wednesday and suited up by pulling waterproof river waders over our clothes, and changing our shoes for wading boots – gear she supplied, the same used by fly fishing enthusiasts. We were also provided a wading staff to steady us as we traversed the uneven rocks.
Helene tells of how great she felt after walking in the rivers while flyfishing with her partner and flyfishing guide, Bob Hudak. She did not like catching the fish, just being in the river. So she started her business guiding those of us who also love the waters of the Adirondacks.
On this day in June Helene provided practical and safety instruction on ways to maneuver around the rocks and stay steady with the moving current as we walked down the middle of the river. I loved traipsing upstream in deep water, especially when we were waist-deep, pressing my body against the current. We partnered-up and held hands to help steady each other going downstream, however, when the current came from behind. “This is like being in strong wind,” I thought. It’s easier to walk into the wind, rather than having it come from behind.”
We remained silent much of the time with periodic suggestions as we waded first up-stream, and then down river.
“Let’s stop at this gravel bar and explore life in the river. Bring back a rock that speaks to you. Feel it, smell it. Look at the bits that are attached that serve as homes protecting aquatic insects.”
I most liked it when she invited us to sit in the water or on the bank of the river for twenty minutes – the same amount of time often employed for meditation sessions. I selected a spot in a cove where I could park myself on the bank and still place my feet on the bottom of the river. I wanted to make sure I’d be able to get up without going for a swim. My preference would have been to sit in the middle of the river. Possibly twenty years ago I would have.
I sat on the bank with the water lapping against my legs and watched the ripples as they flowed and merged into the main current. After about ten minutes, my mind stilled. My connection to the water became more sensory than when I first entered the river. I could feel the rushing water hugging my calves through the waders. The temperature of the water seemed warmer when I dipped my hand into the swirling pool next to where I sat. I felt a flow within me, within my life.
“I want to do this again,” I said, as did the others. Exploring the river with a guide was a wonderful experience.
Pausing in my canoe on a quiet pond has brought similar experiences. Relaxing after a strenuous hike to a mountain peak and marveling at the expanse transforms me. I appreciate the inspirational, awe-inspiring aspects of our Adirondacks forests and waters.
I wonder if others might gain from the added dimensions offered by the practices of Forest Bathing and Riverwalking. An article in The Atlantic mentions the health benefits of Forest Bathing including the lowering of blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones. During an interview on National Public Radio, Amos Clifford encourages health care providers to incorporate forest therapy to reduce stress in their patients. Clifford is the founder of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, the organization that certified Helene and Suzanne.
In the Northern Adirondacks, they are offering excursions applying these principles of mindfully experiencing the forested areas at Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center this summer and The Wild Center this fall. Helene and Bob lead River walking trips just outside of Lake Placid.
Photos of River Walks, provided.