Where do you spend more time these days: outdoors in nature, or inside in front of a screen?
“We go from our climate-controlled home to our climate-controlled transportation to our climate-controlled office,” says Jodi Trendler, cofounder of the Resiliency Institute in Naperville. “The average person spends seven to nine minutes outside.”
Reconnecting with nature can be a welcome way to detox from our very digital daily lives—and that’s where the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-yoku comes in.
DEFINING FOREST THERAPY
Shinrin-yoku translates to “forest bathing,” Trendler says. “You’ll hear it called forest therapy, forest bathing, or nature therapy. It’s teaching people the skills of mindfulness using, and in the space of, nature.”
In the 1980s, the Japanese government designated Shinrin-yoku trails as a preventative health measure. “It was based on the principle that spending time in the atmosphere of the forest would be … an antidote to the stresses of living in the urban environment,” says Brenda Spitzer, a certified forest therapy guide who leads walks at Morton Arboretum in Lisle and for the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association in Carol Stream.
Forest therapy walks differ from hikes, nature walks, or walking for exercise. “We’re more interested in having people just use their senses and feel the experience of being in nature,” Spitzer says. “Forest therapy is about slowing down. On a three-hour walk, we will go anywhere from a half to one mile.”
A number of studies have shown that exposure to green spaces improves your physical and mental health by reducing cortisol, a stress hormone that can contribute to depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Research has also shown that practicing mindfulness has similar benefits. “What Shinrin-Yoku does is combines and synergizes the effects of being outside with mindfulness so you’re getting a double bonus,” Trendler says.
“I think all of us can use a little stress reduction in our lives,” says Keriann Dubina, a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage, which recently started offering forest therapy walks. “It helps you stay in the moment and … forget the everyday [concerns]. It’s all about yourself and really being aware of your surroundings in that moment.”
HOW TO PRACTICE
Like yoga or meditation, you can practice Shinrin-yoku alone, or in a group led by a guide (see sidebar).
“What [guides] do is offer invitations … for people to engage with nature in a specific manner,” Trendler says. “And through doing that, you’re learning a mindfulness skill and using nature to learn it.”
When leading walks, one of Trendler’s favorite invitations is called “sit spot”: Find a spot to sit and observe what’s around you. “We have all these wonderful benches along our trails and you never see anyone sitting on them. Find a bench and just sit on it … and see what you notice,” she says. “Another common one we do is noticing what’s in motion as we walk.”
For a solo forest therapy walk, Dubina suggests starting with the five senses. “You’re really trying to see things around you that you’ve never seen before,” she says. “You can pay attention to all the different shades of green. … It could be feeling the leaves underneath your shoes and listening to them crunching.”
Trendler suggests visiting the same park or preserve repeatedly to take notice of what has changed. “[Or] the next time you walk your dog … take your time and notice what your dog is noticing,” she says. “You can’t be more in the moment than a dog.”
Want to learn more? Read Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M. Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, which has trained more than 600 forest therapy guides around the world.
WHERE TO GO
The Resiliency Institute (theresiliencyinstitute.net) offers forest therapy walks, including Shinrin-yoku, and free Friday walks through Sindt Woods in Naperville.
Morton Arboretum (mortonarb.org) offers 1.75- and 3-hour forest therapy walks year-round.
The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County (dupageforest.org) offers mindful nature walks for seniors in the spring.
DIY in Naperville and Nearby
Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville has 12 miles of wooden trails, including a 1-mile Tree Trek path with 11 different species of trees.
Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook offers both prairie and wooded landscapes.
Herrick Lake in Wheaton: boats, maple and oak forests, and a picturesque path around the lake.
Find location details and more info online at dupageforest.org.
Starved Rock State Park (starvedrockstatepark.org), a 1.5-hour drive southwest of Naperville, offers trails, waterfalls, and overlooks along the Illinois River.
Kankakee River State Park (dnr.illinois.gov), an hour’s drive south in Bourbonnais, features scenic woods, bluffs, and trails.
Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest (fs.usda.gov) near Herod, is a 5.5-hour drive south from Naperville and worth a weekend-long trip to see sandstone rock formations and the surrounding forest.