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The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku is making its way around the world. Watch as some Iowans try it in eastern Iowa. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

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Hiawatha, Ia. — Time to hug a tree.

It might seem weird, but get over it, said guide Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller.

I hugged the tree. It was weird. Cold and hard. But a calmness eventually arose in me. I did some heavy petting of the bark. It felt right. I got over it.

It didn’t cure my head cold, but on this guided two-hour slow walk in the woods called forest bathing, it cured the modern ills of a cooped-up, stressed-up life.

Forest bathing, or forest therapy, is a trend sweeping the country. Bartlett Hackenmiller, of Cedar Falls, is one of the first in Iowa to lead bi-monthly forest bathing at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, an eco-spiritual retreat center in Hiawatha near Cedar Rapids.

It’s not a rugged outdoor adventure, a brisk hike for fitness or nature identification with field guides and binoculars. It’s a slow, meditative walk, traveling less than a mile in two hours, stopping to look and listen, smell and hear and touch.

“This is a communion with nature, with air and trees and animals, in community with each other,” Bartlett Hackenmiller said.

“Some would say this is outlandish. Is this woo-who craziness?”

On the contrary, she says these mindful walks in a forest environment are preventive health care and mental therapy that research shows can lower cortisol levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and "fight or flight" nerve activity.  Another study showed improvements in depression, tension, anger and vigor.

Participants go a little nuts at first. We are a culture that zips at break-neck speed from car to office, office to car to home, and barely whiffs the outside air on a typical day, Bartlett Hackenmiller said.

So in the 70 acres of timber and prairie flanking the retreat center, we planted one foot at a time in painfully slow steps, each footfall so gentle, like coyotes sneaking up on a rabbit.

“It’s really difficult to start to slow down. It’s almost annoying to walk so slow,” Bartlett Hackenmiller said. “But pay attention to the way you feel and think about the way you feel.”

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Five deer stopped 100 yards in front of us. We walked so slow toward them that they did the same, barely moving. Our group of five looked at them. They gazed back, without fear.

“The way they were looking at us, it was like a connection,” said Diane Morris, 65, a participant who recently retired form a long career in nursing.

Bartlett Hackenmiller asked us to concentrate on our field of vision, to cup hands around our eyes and focus on what was straight ahead, not at our feet, not to the side. Then the group stopped to share their thoughts.

One participant saw calming neutral colors of the forest and the other noticed drops of moisture clinging to tree branches.

Something was going on here, a kind of in-the-moment presence that almost requires enforcement these days. That’s how forest bathing has grown.

Bartlett Hackenmiller was an obstetrician and gynecologist for 13 years. She has a son with autism and her then-husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which he eventually died from. She began to wonder why rates of autism and cancer have risen. She began to question the ways we treat illnesses and left her practice in 2012.

She enrolled in a two-year program on integrative medicine, a department she works in today at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. Interpretive medicine takes into account the body, mind and spirit and makes use of both conventional and alternative therapies.

The growing practice of forest bathing caught her eye. She read researchers' findings that chemicals emitted from plants boost the immune system, protect against bacteria and viruses, possess tumor-fighting properties, and improve mental health.

“Science is confirming these things we already knew, what we have known for centuries,” she said.

The Japanese have been practicing what they call Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) since the mid-1980s. It has grown in the U.S. in recent years, after a Californian started the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and Programs four years ago to train leaders in a hybrid American version of Shinrin-yoku.

There are 200 guides in the U.S., said founder Amos Clifford, with many certified in the past four years, including two in Iowa listed on their web page.

It has grown as a response to chronic stress and disconnection with other people and nature. We tend to live in more crowded urban environments centered on sedentary pursuits with technology, said Clifford, of Sonoma County, Calif.

His program aims to engage the senses, feeling the wind on your skin or hearing birdsong, to really notice where you are.

“Most of the time, people are on their way there instead of being here,” he said.

Clifford says the setting for the programs is evolutionary. People through much of time lived on the edges of forests, near meadows or more open savannas, so experiencing the forest is a “deep ancestral knowing in our bones.

“As an industrial species, we are very young. On a 24-hour scale, for the last three seconds we have been industrial,” he said. “The way our minds and psyches are constructed is optimal for the forest. So this speaks to a need of our times, a recognition that it’s a missing piece of how we as a culture connect with nature.”

Next, our group took magnifying glasses and got on all fours to look at sticks and deer scat and the curves in the bark of trees. The moss, said one participant, looked like a deep forest from that magnified perspective.

Then we cupped our hands on our ears to focus the hearing. Distant traffic gave way to a soft trickle, a creek flowing among the trees carrying chunks of ice. We stopped to observe motion.

“Can you feel it?” Morris asked. “The slightest breeze I’m feeling. It’s touching me.”

We touched things and smelled them. The moss smelled like mowed grass, one participant said.

“The smells remind me of my grandmother,” Morris said. “She used to take us to get a Christmas tree every year for $10.”

It’s about as deep as the group goes. No great life philosophies are expected, just a simple sharing of what your senses are telling you.

The final sense to experience is taste, and in warm months participants gather plants to make a tea.

We had traveled less than a mile in nearly two hours, but time flew.

“What it has done is made you conscious,” Bartlett Hackenmiller said. “Taking the time to touch things is being more conscious. It takes people back to childhood, when you spent time playing outdoors, carefree with no stress, no element of time.

“Just playing in the woods.”

Of the many groups she has led at Prairiewoods and elsewhere for people with disabilities since starting forest bathing in October, she said all have left her with surveys detailing the calmness and well-being they felt afterward that often lasted for days.

“It’s that feeling that comes to you when you hug a tree, smell the moss, when you look in a buck’s eyes,” Miller said. “There is a spirit of life to it.”

Upcoming forest bathing events

  • Prairiewoods, 120 E. Boyson Rd, Hiawatha. 10 a.m.-noon, March 6.
  • Jester Park, 11407 NW Jester Park Dr., Granger. 5:30-8 p.m., June 8. Fee is $15, ages 12 and older and pre-registrations is required.
  • Go to natureandforesttherapy.org to find certified guides in your area, such as Joseph and Julie Breshears of Lamoni, who said they plan to offer forest bathing programs this spring and summer.
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