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Forest bathing: Using the trees as therapy in Missoula

Forest bathing
Posted at 5:04 PM, Aug 07, 2023

MISSOULA- Therapy, while a great tool for mental health, isn’t necessarily a very affordable or accessible tool for everyone.

Luckily, there’s a way to use Montana’s green spaces to aid in mental wellness.

Forest bathing is a practice with roots in ancient Japanese culture, but today it can be found almost anywhere.

Deborah Goslin is one forest therapist who leads sessions in Missoula to help heal people through nature.

Goslin has been a forest bathing guide since getting licensed in 2020.

She brings groups to various forests around Missoula County but is also hosting a few sessions at The State of Montana Arboretumon the University of Montana campus.

Forest bathing focuses on the five senses, calling participants to be mindful of the natural world around them.

“Finding a way to connect with nature, connect with a leaf, or connect with a beautiful insect that I'm seeing,” Goslin says. “The more that we can use our senses and really be in our body instead of just in our heads, I think that allows us to be in more connection with ourselves.”

Deborah Goslin
Deborah Goslin was instantly attracted to the practice of forest bathing. She got licensed as a guide in 2020.

Goslin’s recent Aug. 2, 2023, session at the University started with a short meditation, focusing the breath and opening up to the sensations of the environment.

She asked participants to close their eyes and use their sense of smell and touch to experience the earth beneath them.

Then, she told the group to make a short walk around the arboretum, focusing on the different textures in the plants and trees.

After about 10 minutes, the group came together to talk about what they felt and what they noticed. These steps were repeated three times.

Sharing with the group can connect the participants together. Oftentimes people feel compelled to talk about the struggles or feelings they’re experiencing in life.

“It's just astonishing what people are willing to share with strangers in a setting like that,” says Sylke Laine who took part in Goslin’s session. “And I would say that isolation is a huge mental health issue currently in our society and to break out of that… I think it's a huge benefit.”

The final step during Goslin’s session was a tea ceremony where participants drank tea made from pine needles and flowers.

Goslin asked everyone to say something about nature that they were grateful for as she poured the liquid into the grass.

The entire forest bathing session lasts about two hours, but it can be longer or shorter depending on the instructor or location.

Goslin says a common misconception about the experience is that it is simply a nature walk.

“It’s not a hike for exercise, and it’s not a naturalist walk, it’s a different way of being out in nature,” she says.

Sylke Laine
Sylke Laine moved to Missoula in 2008 from Germany. She loves the connection to others she feels after a forest bathing session.

Laine, who grew up in Germany, has always been drawn to nature, but only recently started seriously practicing forest bathing.

She also went through training in January and will soon start guiding her own groups.

“I'm looking forward to sharing it with people because I've felt it in my own body what it can do,” she says.

She feels a great sense of nostalgia while forest bathing, as she connects different plants and scents to her childhood in Germany.

"It was just a familiarity that I really can't put in words. It is something that my body seems to remember, and it brings me back to my childhood," she says.

Laine’s father was passionate about forest bathing, but it was until Laine’s later years in life, after her father died, that she opened to the idea.

“My mode of being outside was like hiking on a quick pace for exercise, and I had some years of pretty intense chronic pain and so I couldn't hike. I could hardly walk. And I think that's when this transformation of how I wanted to be in nature and with nature started,” she says.

Forest bathing was coined in 1982, and since then there has been quite a bit of research into the effects.

A 2019 study from the National Institute of Health found “Examining the physiological and psychological effects of a day-long session of forest bathing on a working age group demonstrated significant positive effects on mental health, especially in those with depressive tendencies.”

More than a reduction in anxiety, depression and stress, some studies have shown a correlation between forest bathing and increased immune system health and lower blood pressure.

Goslin has seen these effects firsthand in herself and those she’s able to guide.

“I think people are surprised that when they really slow down and take the time to really notice the things around them, I think they're surprised by what they find,” she says. “I noticed for myself, you know that it just makes me feel more peaceful, more even-tempered, more accepting of other things around me. You hear people say like oh, yeah, the woods are my therapy or the woods or my fun place, my happy place. And now there's research to show that.”

Goslin asked for $25 for the two-hour session at the University with a portion of the proceeds going towards the State of Montana Arboretum.

She will be hosting two more sessions at the campus on Wednesday, Aug. 9 and Sunday Aug. 13 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. People can register on by contacting Goslin at naturespeake@gmail.com

While she recommends going with a guide for a first experience, techniques can be self-taught through a variety of forest bathing books.

Once the technique is learned, people can do a session alone, for free, anywhere from their backyard to the Lolo National Forest.

More about Goslin and her work can be found here.