The point of Sari Telpner’s forest therapy is to teach people how to stop and smell the roses. And maybe taste them, too.
It’s all part of the healing practice, often called forest bathing, that aims to ground people in nature using each of their senses.
Telpner, who moved to the Treasure Valley several months ago from Ashland, Ore., is the only Association of Nature and Forest Therapy-certified guide in the Boise area. She began leading immersive nature experiences in the Idaho Botanical Garden this spring. There, she helps participants connect to the roses, irises, fir trees and — most importantly — to themselves.
“This is just a beautiful mindfulness practice,” Telpner said. “My practice is being in nature in a really intentional way.”
What is forest bathing?
A typical forest bathing session for Telpner is several hours of “invitations” — opportunities to interact with nature.
“Invitations are based on what the natural world is offering at the time,” Telpner said.
Sometimes that means feeling the grass beneath your feet or walking at “a pace that’s so slow it’s almost painful” while inspecting the scents, sights and sounds of the garden. Each session ends with a tea ceremony, using a brew made from plants like lilac and catmint Telpner gathers on-site in the morning. (IBG has given Telpner permission to forage for a small amount of plants each week.)
“The sequence takes people into a very deep place where they feel like they’ve left their normal world,” Telpner said. “With social media now, instead of being present, (people) are thinking, ‘This would be good to post.’ So how do we break that?”
It goes without saying that forest bathing is a phone-free time. Instead, Telpner wants attendees to unplug, slow down and simply talk to nature. It’s always there to listen, she said.
And while Boise has plenty to offer by way of outdoors recreation, Telpner points out that forest bathing is a far cry from the high-intensity activities that many Idahoans pursue.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’m in nature all the time,’ ” Telpner said. “But they’re on their phone or mountain biking, hiking, river rafting.”
And when you’re trying to set a new personal-best trail-running time or listening to a friend unload all the stressful details of their job, you’re less able to experience the healing power of nature, she said.
“Everybody really is playing hard,” she added. “They’re in nature, but they’re missing it all, even if they don’t think they are. Because I was one of them.”
Telpner aims to help all kinds of people. She offers corporate wellness walks for stressed professionals and private sessions for individuals or couples, and she hopes to receive permission soon to lead events at city parks. She’s also offering forest bathing in the Foothills as an Airbnb experience in addition to several events at the Botanical Garden through the summer.
Thus far, her Boise walks have drawn people like Ron Hixson, who said he had no idea what he was getting into when he attended one of Telpner’s forest bathing sessions in May. Hixson marveled at the beauty of the Botanical Garden, telling Telpner by the end of the session that he’d like to replicate the mindfulness practice at home.
Mary Johnson, who grew up in the Treasure Valley and recently returned after moving away for several years, said forest bathing is helping her process and adjust to the changes the area is going through.
“This place is so different, and I’ve been struggling with how to reintegrate with my hometown for months,” said Johnson, who has attended two of Telpner’s sessions. “Listening to nature and being intentional, it helped me on the level of being able to accept all the new people and sounds of my hometown.”
Part of a growing community
Forest bathing is just one part of a recent flood of natural health care offerings. The National Park Service launched its “Healthy Parks Healthy People” program in 2011. Insurance companies are incentivizing time outside. And ParkRx — an organization that partners with practitioners to prescribe time in nature — is creating programs across the country. (The only one currently in Idaho is through Kaniksu Land Trust in Sandpoint.)
In addition to working as a forest therapy guide, Telpner is also a whole health educator and Reiki master — someone who uses “hands-on healing” to transfer energy to patients.
“I got this sense with my clients that something was missing — nature,” she said.
Telpner knows some people can have reservations about holistic healing like forest bathing.
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘woo woo’ practice,” Telpner said. “I’ve never found something so powerful for calming the system and clearing the mind.”
And research is backing that up. Forest therapy is based in shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice that began in the 1980s. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy was established in the U.S. in 2012. Since then, research has linked forest therapy to lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol, as well as improvements in mental health and boosts to immune health.
Experts believe the effects may be caused by exposure to phytoncides, essential oils emitted by plants to ward off insects. The phytoncides have antimicrobial and antifungal properties that could benefit humans.
Not to mention, it can simply be soothing to slow down and practice mindfulness.
“In today’s medicine, there’s so much mind/body relationship,” Telpner said. “Your mind can make you sick, and this practice can help you get out of that thinking mind that can take you to places you don’t want to be.”
For some, forest therapy can be deeply emotional. Telpner said some attendees cry. She lets participants know that any reaction is welcome — everyone’s relationship with nature is personal.
“I don’t tell people what to look for,” Telpner said. “People come and they find what they need to find.”