Kate Rentz is leading a group of friends on a trail between fern patches and pine trees in the San Bernardino National Forest. “Wander around the forest and explore what’s in motion around you. I wonder what you’ll notice,” she says with a soothing voice like a yoga teacher.
Exploring forest details up close in the versatile Hurricane XLT2 in Sesame.
One person observes a budding tree, still in its seed and growing in a decomposing tree. Another person zeroes in on a trail of ants on a fallen tree branch. Someone else notices the wispy clouds above and how quickly they change in form. Another person notices the textures of the tree bark and touches the surface—it’s much rougher than they imagined.
“I’ve never thought to get that up close and personal with the earth,” says Liam, a first-time forest therapy participant. “To smell the soil and to press it against my cheek. To listen for the farthest noise in contrast to the closest one. It offered a completely new perspective and appreciation for what’s always above and below.”
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As a certified nature and forest therapy guide and founder of Explore Sanctuary, Kate leads solo and group sessions inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” a therapeutic mindfulness practice of walking through a forest or being immersed in nature. The open-ended sensory invitations are intended to help establish a connection to the present, to the body and to the natural world around them.
“Each invitation is different and is always inspired by the forest,” Kate explains. “Sometimes I’ll invite participants to explore textures with their sense of touch, other times to explore the shadows and highlights of the forest using their sense of sight.” After each invitation, which usually lasts 15-20 minutes, Kate calls participants back to their meeting location with a personal “owl call.” They gather in a circle and can volunteer to share what they noticed.
“Engaging with the forest through guided invitations allowed for a deeper connection to the land, especially by beginning each session with gratitude for [the Indigenous people] whose land we were on—those who came long before us. I truly appreciated that part of the ceremony,” says Jess, a forest therapy newbie. “Being in a group allowed for a playful take versus my usual solitary trips into nature. To be honest, I felt nervous about being in a group, but the way we were guided was gentle and inviting.”
Anyone can practice nature and forest therapy—no matter their physical ability or outdoor experience—and the physical and mental health benefits permeate deeper than walking alone. Research shows that nature therapy helps reduce cortisol levels, lowers depression in adults, and increases our production of NK cells, which kill off virally infected cells and detect and control early signs of cancer.
Through nature and forest therapy, Kate invites participants to notice the textures of what’s around them.
Before Kate discovered nature and forest therapy, she was practicing its mindfulness principles and feeling its benefits. As a photographer and director whose daily life was often overwhelmed by chronic illness, depression and OCD, taking time to lay on a salt flat and observe the clouds or hike solo in the mountains became necessary for her mental restoration.
“I found that every time I went into the forest or explored nature around my home, I always felt better,” she explains. “It was like my body instinctively knew that nature helped me heal. I felt like my true self. Immersing myself in nature felt spiritual.”
The end of the forest bathing experience is celebrated with a tea ceremony as a way to show reciprocity to the land.
Getting certified as a nature and forest therapy guide (and founding Explore Sanctuary holistic nature retreats) provided language and a framework for Kate’s time outside—an answer to the many requests from friends that wanted in on her hikes and camping trips that prioritized awareness versus achievement.
“When I normally hike, I do it with the goal of reaching the end and getting exercise,” said Isaac, a forest therapy regular. “Forest therapy invites me to slow down and notice my surroundings. It puts me in a contemplative space and asks me to consider my relationship with nature.”
Last year—more than ever—Kate realized how nature was essential to her mental health. The deprivation of gatherings and cancelled events reminded her of the importance of human connection for her mental health, too.
“I share this example with those I guide each time I end my forest therapy walks,” Kate said. “The roots of a redwood tree only run six to twelve feet deep. Instead of growing downward, they grow out, extending hundreds of feet laterally and wrapping themselves around the roots of other trees. When rough weather comes, it’s the network of closely intertwined roots that allows the trees to stand strong.
COVID-19 really felt like a storm and oftentimes, I felt like I was going to blow over with anxiety or fear, but I was able to lean on my communities—my community of people and my community in nature: the trees, the birds, the bees, and the flowers.”
Nature and forest therapy guide Kate Rentz.
As American society emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and her schedule fills up with the busyness of life, Kate is holding onto the lessons she gained in the forests to develop her own new normal.
“One thing I’ve learned while practicing and guiding, is the importance of slowing down and just ‘being’ without purpose or direction,” Kate said. “My personality type is one that loves activity and stimuli. Forest therapy has shown me time and time again that there’s magic and healing to be found in stillness and being in the present.”
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