Forest bathers walk in the woods bringing peace and healing to the Houston region

When Diana Markuson steps into the forest, she feels better.

“It’s just my happy place,” the Conroe resident said.

The retired psychiatric nurse wanted to share that feeling with others. After reading articles about “forest bathing,” she was convinced she’d found a means to do just that.

“It was outdoors. It was health and wellness,” Markuson said. “And it also had that meditative type quality. It just made sense to me.”

“Forest bathing” is a literal translation from “shinrin-yoku,” the Japanese practice of spending time among the trees and taking in all of the sights and sounds in the woods.

It’s basically a mix between a walk in nature and a mindfulness practice. Think yoga without the poses or guided meditation with the addition of scenery, chirping birds and the scent of pines.

Markuson said forest bathing is synonymous with forest therapy. Both describe a means to develop emotional and mental healing through immersion in the woods.

In the Houston area, there are a number of forest therapists certified through the global training organization, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. The organization has certified more than 2,000 guides, practicing now in 60 countries.

Markuson is one. She started Nature’s Embrace after receiving her certification during the pandemic. She now leads groups regularly, even a few that welcome canine companions.

Markuson also hosts a free session each month, and asks participants to donate to an environmental association in exchange.

Gabriela Guedez, a resident of The Woodlands, is also certified with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. She runs Houston Forest Therapy, with sessions in Spanish, and even offers to guide groups on kayaks.

Other forest therapists include Lisa Lyerly, owner of These Roots Run Deep, who guides near Kingwood, and Jammie Schmunk, owner of Recovery Untamed, who leads sessions in W. Goodrich Jones State Forest in Conroe, near her home in The Woodlands.

“The forest is the therapist,” Schmunk said.

She said the role of the forest therapists is to act as guides, and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.

A walk in the woods

Forest therapy is not at all like traditional therapy, Schmunk said.

“It’s a slow, sensory walk through the forest,” she said. “When our body slows down, our mind can too.”

Before gaining her certification, Schmunk noticed that she depended on nature to deal with challenges in life. She would return to certain spots and spend time in the forest.

Now, Schmunk passes that on to others in her group sessions, which start with a walk into Jones Forest and a brief discussion about the land.

Then, Schmunk then invites the group to awaken their senses.

“I help guide you into your body,” she said. “We get comfortable, close our eyes and go through every sense.”

Then participants find a spot in nature to sit down and take it all in.

“We do it solo and then we come back and gather in a circle,” Schmunk said. “We take turns sharing.”

She ends the session with a tea service. “It’s just a fun way to bring it to a close,” she said.

Markuson also makes tea for participants on her walks, using plants that grow on the trails. She mainly guides in Spring Creek Nature Preserve and Montgomery County Nature Preserve.

Therapists work in various areas. There are also spots in Houston that offer sessions.

For instance, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, 4501 Woodway Drive offers a Mindful Mornings series facilitated by Heather Sullivan, a certified mindfulness instructor. The events are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Thursday mornings through April 28.

At the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Street in Bellaire, executive director DeAndra Ramsey said that while there are no forest bathing programs, guests can immerse themselves in the wilderness at the Nature Discovery Center without having to leave the city.

“Our mission is to connect people to nature,” Ramsey said.

Healing happens in the forest

The tangible health benefits of forest bathing can include improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, as well as better immune function and reduction in depression, according to the nature and forest therapy association.

Markuson said being in the forest can do wonders for lowering stress and blood pressure.

“It’s all about slowing down,” she said.

Schmunk agreed. “We’ve forgotten how to just be. It’s always do, do, do,” she said. “We live in a culture and a time, where we’re all stressed so much of the time. It’s the phone, the emails and the texts.”

Nature can serve as a teacher for how to reprioritize and take time for self-care, Schmunk said.

Forest bathing also fits with spiritual practice, according to Lisa Brenskelle, member of Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church.

She is organizing an event, open to the public, at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 16 at the Spring Creek Greenway and Nature Center, 709 Riley Fuzzel Road.

Markuson will first lead the forest bathing experience, followed by Brenskelle delving into the Christian spiritual discipline of the Earth Examen, a contemplative practice of prayer.

“It’s prayer with your eyes open,” Brenskelle said. “It’s really about using all of your senses to engage with the world around you. The idea is to be fully engaged.”

“Nature is a demonstration of the glory of God,” she said.

Forest bathing leads to conservation

There are two purposes of forest bathing — to heal people and to heal the planet, Guedez, owner of Houston Forest Therapy, said.

The practice is meant to promote a love for the Earth, she said, and that leads to conservation.

“We only protect what we love,” she said.

Environmental Protection Agency data says U.S. residents spend an average of 93 percent of their lives indoors.

“We’re part of nature, but we’ve lost our relationship with the web of life,” Markuson said.

Schmunk added that the innate connection with the Earth is a fact that is sometimes forgotten.

“We are nature. We cannot disconnect from nature,” she said. “It’s a remembering, when we walk in the forest. It’s a reminder that I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

Guedez recommends finding a guide to help reawaken that call of the wild. She remembers spending her childhood weekends on a ranch in Venezuela.

“I would walk barefoot, climb the mango trees, go to the river,” she recalled. “You get a lot from that kind of deep connection with nature.”

Getting certified in forest therapy two years ago has equipped her to help people manage trauma from the pandmeic through walks in the woods — or on guided kayaking trips.

“It was perfect timing,” she said. “People are dealing with anxiety and stress. Just to disconnect with the day-to-day issues and connect to a higher purpose through the senses, it’s just awesome.”

Anyone can start forest therapy on their own, Guedez added, whether that means heading to the backyard or looking out the window.

“Cultivate your love for Earth,” she said. “Pay more attention to the leaves, the trees. Go for a walk and leave your cell phone. You can take pictures later. Connect and rebuild your relationship.”

Markuson said that forest bathing is a practice, just like yoga or meditation. It takes time and commitment to make it happen.

“Start with five minutes and go as often as you can,” she said. “Then, increase it and increase it. You’ll find, sitting in that spot, just doing nothing, you’ll just become immersed.”

Schmunk added that each therapy session in the forest is different,

“The forest is a mirror,” she said. “It reflects back to you, whatever is going on with you.”

And each time is an opportunity for more growth and to find greater peace, Schmunk said.

“Do yourself a favor and sit in nature,” she said.

Peyton is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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