County woman says achieving inner peace and tranquility may be as far away as own back yard

Taking advantage of the wooded property at her parents’ home on Rangeline Road on April 12, Christy Thomson demonstrates how taking time to sit and take in the sights, sounds and scents of the woods can help hikers relax and reap several benefits to their physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Taking advantage of the wooded property at her parents’ home on Rangeline Road on April 12, Christy Thomson demonstrates how taking time to sit and take in the sights, sounds and scents of the woods can help hikers relax and reap several benefits to their physical, emotional and spiritual health. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published April 24, 2017.

A rural Huntington woman says achieving inner peace, tranquility and spiritual renewal may be just as far away as your own back yard.

Christy Thomson, who may be better known as the music coordinator at the Parkview Huntington YMCA, calls it “forest bathing” or “forest therapy.” The moniker is derived from the Japanese word Shinrin-yoku, which is translated as “bathing your senses in the forest.”

Thomson, who holds certification as a forest therapy guide, has been leading groups of people as they take advantage of what Mother Nature has to offer. She will take between two and 15 people at a time on a meandering walk in the woods, moving at a more leisurely pace than a normal hike.

The idea is not to get from here to there, but to experience the in-between.

“Like, let’s go out and do this for 20 minutes in the forest, whether it’s lay under a tree on a blanket and just stare up through the leaves, or sit in the river with the water washing your feet,” she explains. “There’s all kinds of things we do.”

Other activities might include breathing in the scent from flowers, looking for things that are moving such as bugs or a blade of grass, or feeling the breeze caress the skin.

At the end of the activities, Thomson brings the group together to allow them to share their experiences or thoughts.

“There’s a multitude of things that come up in this council and it’s just not very exciting by yourself,” she says. “To do it with a group is really ideal … we do something called ‘pleasures of presence.’ We’ll stand in a circle and we will go through the five common senses briefly — four or five minutes each — oftentimes closing eyes until the end. That will be the last sense that we work with.

“We try to hone the senses in and try to relax all those things in your mind — get your mind to stop working — and just do one thing at a time and focus. It just slows everything down.”

She often takes advantage of the 65 acres of woods along Rangeline Road owned by her parents to conduct the walks. The property is replete with trees, creeks, hills, meadows and pastures — all of which can be used to stimulate the senses.

“When it comes to aesthetically pleasing, it is the most phenomenal place in Huntington County,” Thomson adds.

She also leads groups in walks at Salamonie Lake as well as the Botanical Conservatory and ACRES in Fort Wayne. The events are tailored to the seasons and conditions in the forest, as well as to the group that will be taking the trek.

Seniors, in particular, are one of Thomson’s favorite groups. She has led Silver Sneakers groups and other older adults to reconnect with the woods.

“They were really ready for it. They were really excited. They didn’t have any idea what they were in for, but there was a really great sense of excitement to explore something new,” she recalls.

“There’s a real youthfulness about the people that came. It was very fun, because they were ready to just ‘eat’ everything and drink it all in and really have the full experience that you can have.”

Children’s groups are also fun and playful, Thomson says, providing a much different dynamic. She will often take them to Clear Creek and put their feet in the water or do something called “marshmallow water,” in which they place  their hands just above the surface of the water to feel the surface tension.

“You get a real sense of gravity that you’ve never really experienced before when you’re just walking through the water,” Thomson says.

“We’ll sometimes have people imagine or pick up a leaf, and place a worry or something that’s bothering for them … and put it on that leaf, and send it down river …

“It might seem really simplistic, but there’s something about seeing that leaf go over those rapids and down the creek, and you see it float away, and you see the river and water giving you that gift of taking that away for you. It’s not magic. It’s a re-thinking, an unthinking and a re-sensing.”

Thomson says there is a lot of research on the health benefits of forest bathing. It’s different than hiking, she explains, because the activities won’t increase the heart rate as hiking might. But she says in 20 minutes, participants feel dramatically different.

“It really is more about stress relief; it’s really about a reconnection with nature in a lot of ways,” she says. “What that does to your body physiologically is raise serotonin, lower cortisol — which, of course is your stress hormone — it will lower blood pressure, it lowers heart rate oftentimes … and it will increase immune function.”

Thompson adds there are studies on how forest therapy affects cancer, finding that cancer “natural killer” or NK cells have increased as a result of the therapy.

She got involved in forest therapy as a result of her personal journey in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from her childhood.

“I have been using nature as a therapy for myself for years and years,” she relates. “People look at me and say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ Well, the problem is you can’t see people’s neurological systems and you can’t see what’s wrong with them …

“I noticed that if I felt stressed, if I could just go outside and walk through the grass with my shoes off, or if I could just get to Fox Island and go on a hike or go to my dad’s and go on a hike, just somehow it did something for me.”

She decided she wanted to help others gain the same benefits, and obtained certification in May 2016 through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, of Santa Rosa, CA. So far, she’s taken around 100 people on the walks.

One of those Thomson has helped is Susan Peppler, a rural Roanoke resident who went on her first therapy walk last fall.

“We do a lot of hiking and backpacking and stuff like that, but never something like this, so it was kind of cool to see things from a different perspective, as far as slowing down and taking your time and thinking about all kinds of things,” Peppler says. “You just really slowed down, took your time, slowed the pace of your thoughts and experienced everything through your senses. That was really cool.”

The change in perspective has not only been refreshing and relaxing, Peppler says, but has opened her eyes to new benefits she never gained when she was merely hiking from one destination to the other. She sees the woods differently now.

“You leave all your issues behind, and you’re just kind of in the moment of things,” she says. “It’s spiritual, in a sense.”