It’s mysterious and profound, accessible to all. Nature heals, whether through a tree outside a hospital window or through full-on forest bathing.
The growing field of forest therapy brings structure and support to this experience through the support of certified guides. Christy Thomson is one such guide. The Huntington resident has taken countless people into the woods since becoming a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. She traveled all over the world in her former role as retreat planner for the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Though 2020’s travel restrictions changed that aspect of her work, she now offers retreats and walks both in Indiana and elsewhere.
She particularly enjoys partnering with land trusts to take people out to nature preserves, where they can encounter a living, breathing ecosystem. She’s also led walks in botanical gardens and public parks. She’s offered outdoor experiences to groups of caregivers, cancer survivors, teachers, children and nature lovers of every stripe. Wherever she goes, whoever the clientele, the common denominator is a sense of quieting the mind.
She says, “For me that’s where the biggest value will always be: knowing how to access that mindset by getting the body involved and mind turned off. Forest bathing is an easy-access mindfulness practice.”
In possession of a mind “that moves way faster than it should,” Christy herself benefits from the quieting practices she teaches. For example, she guides forest bathers to slow their movements and deepen their breath. “Just walking slowly gets the brain slowing down,” she says. “If the body’s moving slowly, the brain will slow down too.”
“Forest therapy walks are about mental health,” she says. But unlike in conventional talk therapy, this kind of therapy isn’t generally about verbal expression. Words aren’t needed to find shifts through nature immersion. Often, Christy leads a retreat group in creating mandalas or paintings. She may give them time to create something with sticks and rocks and leaves and flowers. Creating an external representation of what they have experienced can open the door to more self-understanding.
With an educational grounding in both environmental science and theology, Christy doesn’t pretend to have answers, but she knows how to ask questions and listen. “The forest is the therapist,” she says. “I’m just a guide.”
Along the way, emotions come up from pride to joy to grief. But gratitude is always there.
Christy incorporates a land acknowledgement into these outings, honoring the indigenous people who originally stewarded the land. “That is really powerful for people who have not come across that,” she says. “When I started this practice, that was not part of my life. We’re farmers. The land was central to our life, but we never thought of who we stole it from, basically. It’s a beautiful practice because it feels like there’s gratitude imbued into it.”
“There’s no way to get through a walk without feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the land,” she says. “It’s such a powerful teacher.”
Find Christy on Instagram @wildcommunion or through her website, www.WildCommunion.org.