Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Green Therapy

Story by Malanie McLellan. Photo by Elyse Butler.

Before humans donned business suits and invented the daily grind, before fluorescent-lit offices and cubicles, our habitat was nature. “It’s only in the last two hundred years that we find ourselves walled in and stationary in offices; 99.9 percent of our time on this planet, we evolved in a natural environment,” says Phyllis Look, O‘ahu’s first (and still only) certified forest therapy guide. Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” developed in Japan in the 1980s, where close to 70 percent of the country’s landscape is forested. It grew out of a response to the modern phenomenon of death from overworking, which is common enough in Japan there’s even a word for it: karōshi.

Every weekend Look leaves her other day job as the director of marketing for Hawai‘i Public Radio and guides the overstressed on forest bathing walks through Mānoa valley’s Lyon Arboretum—“the United Nations of trees,” as she calls it—a two-hundred-acre rainforest that’s home to thousands of tropical plants from around the world. Unlike a hike, forest bathing is more of a wandering exploration. A three-hour session is at times quiet while bathers absorb the verdure; other times it’s playful, with Look prompting participants: “Face the wind! Imagine you’re a sail!” and engaging them in games where they’re encouraged to explore nature as a child would, with “play as the primary objective.” “Sometimes people ask me what kind of plant this or that is, but I’m not a botanist. That’s not why we’re here. I might ask instead, ‘What does it smell like? What does it feel like in your hands? Observe how you feel when you hold it. Listen to the feeling it gives you. Listen to nature.’”

It’s common for people to feel more peaceful in nature, but is forest bathing truly therapeutic? “Studies reflect what we instinctively know,” says Look, “that immersing ourselves in nature improves our health. Inhaling phytoncides [a compound released by plants] lowers cortisol levels and heart rate, boosts our immune system and calms the nervous system.” Wrapping up by serving māmaki tea and snacks, Look tells the bathers, “You are the destination, the forest is the therapist and the guide simply opens the doors.”