Getting started with nature therapy
Layla Kadri // Columnist
Growing up in urban Calgary, the Rocky Mountains were my escape. As a young troubled adolescent, many programs, counsellors and therapies were recommended to me, but looking back, I wish someone had simply told me to take a hike.
What I found in the forests and peaks of the Rocky Mountains has fully shaped my sense of self and my life. I found a release and a feeling of belonging. An understanding of myself as a simple and minuscule vessel of life, contrasted against the magnificent mountain and landscape. I found a passion for learning about the forest and its creatures, for the simplicity of boiling tea over a fire I made for myself, and for the sweat of one step in front of the other, upwards on this slope.
As I grew up and my life unfolded me new troubles, I returned time and time again to those mountains and forests. I quickly realized what I found in hiking was something no therapist or youth at risk urban program could give me. I found nature therapy.
Nature therapy is a broad term for multiple streams of outdoor-based therapy such as Adventure, Eco or Forest Therapy. In Japan, Forest Therapy is called “Shinrin Yoku”, which translates to “forest bathing.” It includes several aspects, a few are the immersion in a ‘wild’ area away from urban or human-made sprawl, a connection with the natural surrounding engaging your senses and the exchange of education.
The practice is meant to promote personal growth, healing and wellness. The big picture hope is that the practice is beneficial for both the participant and the natural environment.
This past summer, as part of my Outdoor Recreation Management Practicum at Capilano University, I had the opportunity to co-guide a four-day backcountry-hiking trip across Gambier Island. We worked with youth ages 14 to 16, some of whom were youth at risk and I hoped to incorporate nature therapy and wild plant knowledge into our trip program.
I watched the group struggle through the physical and emotional challenges that come of backcountry trips. Eventually, as I cheered them on through elevation gains and reminded them to stay hydrated, I noticed the friendships that were beginning to grow. Then, curiosity about the bioregion blossomed, as the group started to ask about the berries and plants that we hiked past. Lastly, the safe space the forest gave us allowed for group members to heal in their own way.
On our last night, I led our campfire workshop and asked the group if they now felt a sense of protection over Gambier Island. Over the forests that they had hiked through, the creeks that gave us drinking water, the wildlife that lived alongside us peacefully – the natural environment. The discussion was tentative, honest, emotional and comically young.
Wild places present opportunities and space for us to grow and heal. Returning to our roots of this natural earth can be beneficial not only for our wellness, but also our joyfulness. Reflecting back on the week, I am so honored to have been a part of the trip that helped this group of youth foster a sense of protection for the wild places they now love. Nature therapy is a chance to educate on sustainability by first creating a true love for the outdoors.