BOISE, Idaho – The point of Sari Telpner’s forest therapy is to teach people how to stop and smell the roses. And maybe taste them, too.
It’s all part of the healing practice, often called forest bathing, that aims to ground people in nature using each of their senses.
Telpner, who moved to the Treasure Valley several months ago from Ashland, Ore., is the only Association of Nature and Forest Therapy-certified guide in the Boise area. She began leading immersive nature experiences in the Idaho Botanical Garden this spring. There, she helps participants connect to the roses, irises, fir trees and, most important, themselves.
“This is just a beautiful mindfulness practice,” Telpner said. “My practice is being in nature in a really intentional way.” A typical forest bathing session for Telpner is several hours of “invitations” — opportunities to interact with nature.
Sometimes that means feeling the grass beneath your feet or walking at “a pace that’s so slow it’s almost painful” while inspecting the scents, sights and sounds of the garden. Each session ends with a tea ceremony, brewed from plants like lilac and catmint Telpner gathered on-site that morning.
“The sequence takes people into a very deep place where they feel like they’ve left their normal world,” Telpner said. “With social media now, instead of being present, [people] are thinking, ‘This would be good to post.’ So how do we break that?”
It goes without saying that forest bathing is a phone-free time. Instead, Telpner wants attendees to unplug, slow down and simply talk to nature. It’s always there to listen, she said.
And while Boise has plenty to offer by way of outdoors, Telpner points out that forest bathing is a far cry from the high-intensity activities that many Idahoans pursue.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’m in nature all the time,’ ” Telpner said. “But they’re on their phone or mountain biking, hiking, river rafting.” And when you’re trying to set a new personal-best trail-running time or listening to a friend unload all the stressful details of their job, you’re less able to experience the healing power of nature, she said.
“Everybody really is playing hard,” she added. “They’re in nature, but they’re missing it all, even if they don’t think they are. Because I was one of them.”
Forest bathing is just one part of a recent flood of natural health care offerings. The National Park Service launched its “Healthy Parks Healthy People” program in 2011. Insurance companies are incentivizing time outside. And ParkRx — an organization that partners with practitioners to prescribe time in nature — is creating programs across the country.
To Leigha Horton, co-founder and guide at Twin Cities-based forest bathing company, Silvae Spiritus, the practice is for people who feel a connection with nature, or who want to find one.
“It’s a mindfulness practice for people who struggle with seated meditation,” Horton said. “Instead of focusing on your destination, it’s the practice of being exactly where you are, but engaging with the natural world at the same time.”
There are no swimming or bathing suits involved, Horton said. She often takes participants to William O’Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix. Locally, she is a fan of St. Paul’s Crosby Farm Park.
“It’s really opened up the doors to developing a beautiful, reciprocal relationship with nature and with the land, and especially with the Twin Cities,” she said. “We have such an amazing park system, not only the national park system, but the state park system and the city parks, as well. There’s a lot of history here.”
David Motzenbecker, founder of Minneapolis-based forest bathing provider Motz Studios, has been taking others on guided walks for a year. His participants range from tourists who find the experience on Airbnb to students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“Everyone comes out of this transformed,” Motzenbecker said. “I haven’t had one person out of all the people I’ve given a walk to to date that has come out of it frustrated, angry or disappointed.”
Forest therapy is based in shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice that began in the 1980s. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy was established in the U.S. in 2012. Since then, research has linked forest therapy to lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol, as well as improvements in mental health and boosts to immune health.
Experts believe the effects may be caused by exposure to phytoncides, essential oils emitted by plants to ward off insects. The phytoncides have antimicrobial and antifungal properties that could benefit humans.
Not to mention, it can simply be soothing to slow down and practice mindfulness.
“In today’s medicine, there’s so much mind-body relationship,” said Telpner, the Boise-based guide. “Your mind can make you sick, and this practice can help you get out of that thinking mind that can take you to places you don’t want to be.”
For some, forest therapy can be deeply emotional. Telpner said some attendees cry. She lets participants know that any reaction is welcome — everyone’s relationship with nature is personal.
“I don’t tell people what to look for,” said Telpner. “People come and they find what they need to find.”
Staff writer Zoë Jackson contributed to this report.