Under a canopy of trees, they met on the park trail and waited for instructions from their guide. In a gentle voice, Chris Brandt spoke to the eight adults assembled on a recent Sunday at William O'Brien State Park north of Stillwater.

"This is called 'The Pleasure of Your Senses,' " she told them, inviting them to close their eyes, tilt their heads skyward and listen closely to the surrounding sounds.

Leaves rustled in the wind. Water lapped against nearby rocks. And the faint sound of children's laughter echoed from far away.

Next, Brandt asked them to inhale deeply, taking note of what they smelled: the scent of pine, smoke from a campfire, damp soil.

Other trail hikers walked briskly past, but the group continued to stand still and soak their senses in nature — oblivious to the curious looks they were getting.

This, to the uninitiated, is what "forest bathing" looks like.

A wellness trend that takes nature therapy to new heights, the practice involves consciously absorbing the sights, smells and sounds of nature, usually in a wooded setting. It can be performed solo or with a trained guide. A hit on the West Coast already, it's just starting to catch on in Minnesota as a non-pharmaceutical treatment for ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety issues and attention deficit disorder. Several studies have shown that spending time in nature can lower blood pressure and production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as improving a person's mood.

"Imagine immersing yourself in warm water — you kind of melt," explained Brandt, a hospice nurse and one of two certified forest therapy guides in Minnesota. "Doing that in nature has a similar effect of feeling calm and peaceful."

Japanese origins

The idea of forest bathing as preventive medicine comes from Japan. In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the phrase "shinrin-yoku" — meaning forest bathing — to describe the practice of essentially showering oneself in nature for better health.

Though it was popularized in the 1980s, forest bathing actually has roots in ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices.

The modern version appeals in particular to the overworked urban dweller who flees downtown Tokyo to retreat to the pine forests to the north, where there are nearly 50 official "forest therapy trails." Hikers on these trails can have their blood pressure checked by park rangers for a forest-bathing research project funded by the government.

Closer to home, our industrialized lifestyle and increased reliance on technology have created what some are calling a nature deficit. Americans spend a whopping 87 percent of their time inside, on average, according to a 2001 survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We've worked so hard to make life easier for us," said Jean Larson, who teaches about forest bathing at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing. "Now we've got it so easy that we've separated ourselves so far from nature that there's something in us that is saying, 'No, it's not right.' "

Being outside in fresh air and away from e-mail and other pressures for at least 15 minutes is enough to start the healing process, said Larson, who also manages the nature-based therapeutic services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

"Just giving our brains a chance to reboot — that's what nature restoration therapy is all about," she said. "When we are directing our attention, we're behind the screen, we're working seven hours behind a computer, and our bodies are reacting like we're in the jungle, taking the time to look away makes a difference. Seeing leaves moving, we're looking at it, but we don't have to spend a lot of time to figure it out.

"It gives our bodies and minds a chance to restore."

Science of nature

How the body and mind benefit from nature is a question scientists worldwide are pursuing.

Some research has shown that even looking at a picture of a nature setting has a soothing effect on the brain. And other experiments have revealed that getting outside can spur creative thinking and improve the brain's ability to focus.

Japanese researchers are probing a possible connection between spending quality time in nature and an increase in a variety of white blood cells that can protect the body against diseases.

For Brandt, the evidence is apparent every time she leads a walk in the woods. She's been conducting shinrin-yoku walks around Minnesota for about a year, leading people on a "methodical, slow and contemplative" walk.

"It's not a nature walk where we identify plants and animals. It's not an exercise walk in which we're getting from point A to point B," said Brandt, of May Township. "It's about spending mindful time in nature."

Typically, the walks cover less than a mile and take three to four hours. Participants don't talk much, allowing them to fill all their senses with what's around them. Along the way, she offers a series of "invitations" to connect with nature more intimately.

As an example, she invited the men and women on her recent walk at William O'Brien to play a game called "What's in motion?" They were to look for things that were moving and reflect on them — the flap of a butterfly's wings, the river's current or a dog walking past on the trail.

"What they do is anchor you in the present moment," Brandt explained of the experiential-based exercises. "It's kind of like when you're in the zone and you lose track of time, because you're so present with what's going on that it feels timeless. That's what we try to provide and cultivate — a feeling of timelessness."

With her "talking stick" in one hand and her poem book in the other, Brandt has taken people on shinrin-yoku walks as a remedy for all kinds of ailments.

"I've taken people out who have lost their loved ones, people who are grieving and need help finding peace," she said. "I've taken people out who are in transitions in their lives and are trying to figure out which way to go next. People who have health care issues, like ADHD or high blood pressure, or they're just stressed out. After something like this they feel so relaxed."

Mary Jo Schifsky was among the attendees at the recent excursion. She said that day was the 10th anniversary of her mother's death, and being on the walk reminded her of how much her mother enjoyed the outdoors.

"She was sick for a really long time," Schifsky said. "I just have been thinking and appreciating what I have from my parents. It's a lot."

Brandt nodded.

Sometimes, she said, just observing how other living things respond to adversity is reassuring and instructive. "When we are in nature and things come up for people, they're able to find wholeness. You look at a tree and half of it's been struck by lighting but it continues to grow," she said. "Things happen in our lives and yet we manage to persevere and be resilient."

The afternoon walk in the woods ended with a tea ceremony on a small beach by the St. Croix River. Huddled together, the hikers laughed and munched on berries, nuts and chocolate while watching the water.

To make the tea, Brandt used ingredients she collected during the walk: pine needles, white clover, dandelion. When it was ready, she poured a cup for each of her guests. They sipped quietly and contemplated their return from the woods.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488