INSIGHTS: Personal Growth and Healing Through Ecotherapy
Christine Chen
May 28, 2021

How did you cope with the pandemic? Have you processed how this global health crisis changed our lives? Many new studies are underway to define the pandemic’s impact on our mental health and reveal how we can take better care of ourselves.

At Esalen, countless souls experience mental, spiritual, and emotional healing in a variety of ways and often credit their immersion on campus. A profound and sacred combination of water, earth, mountains, and sky, Esalen’s location is often considered therapeutic by nature. 

Sylvie Rokab, filmmaker and an expert guide of nature therapy (sometimes called ecotherapy), is especially fond of a Japanese version of this approach to healing called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Scientists found that shinrin-yoku calms the nervous system, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts the immune system. 

Rokab spoke with Esalen’s Christine Chen, sharing advice on nature as medicine, purpose-driven behavior, and the power of mindfulness as taught to us by earth, in advance of her summer workshop, Revitalize Sacred Purpose Through Forest Bathing, June 11-13, 2021. 

Christine Chen: Why is immersion in nature a form of therapy?

Sylvie Rokab: In our modern digital world, our attention is pulled in so many directions that stress and overwhelm can become part of “normal life.” Even our homes, offices, and built environments are designed for use, productivity, and a perpetual state of “doing.” 

When we are in nature, not only is our spirit liberated from the perpetual state of busyness, but also, it is a place of renewal and relationships with a myriad of beings, from rocks, to the ocean and the sky. Leaves might dance with the wind, the sunset painting golden hues through trees and creating soft rainbows through our own eyelashes. Mindfully relating to our wondrous world, our whole nervous system softens and what’s real, authentic, and timeless reveals itself as blossoms of bodily sensations rarely experienced in our screen-intensive, day-to-day lives.

CC: Your approach is Shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing” - a Japanese practice. Can you describe it? 

SR: Forest Bathing is the loose translation of Shinrin-yoku, the practice of slowing down to experience nature through the senses. In the early 1980s, the Japanese government sponsored studies which showed that forest immersion has a wide array of health benefits.

CC: What are the benefits?

SR: Scientists discovered that trees release volatile organic compounds (“phytoncides”), which significantly increase our natural killer cells, strengthening our immune system. Other studies showed that time in nature lowers the stress hormone cortisol, lowers blood pressure, and improves mood and cognition. 

Since then, the practice of Forest Bathing (aka Nature Therapy) has become mainstream in Japan and has been growing exponentially around the world, thanks in great part to Amos Clifford who founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT). His mission was to train guides worldwide to help heal our separation from the more- than- human world. 

CC: How does this type of practice connect us to ourselves, each other? 

SR: Mindfulness practices teach us to deepen our relationships with ourselves and others. When we take that practice into nature, the richness of natural events, stimuli, and sensations invites us to go deeper. With our senses fully alive, we become more aware of our bodies, sensations, and feelings, which encourages heart-centered authenticity.

We encourage participants to practice deep sharing / deep listening afterward to further anchor experience and relate with one another through the lens of caring, non-judgement, and compassion. 

CC: So many people strive to live with purpose, how can this help?

SR: When we “zoom out” from the microcosm of our daily preoccupations and let ourselves be fully present, our consciousness expands, allowing us to see the bigger picture of our lives. And when we slow down to inhabit the natural world, our ultimate source of wisdom and wonder, we are able to notice nature’s symbols, messages, and mirrors, which we wouldn’t otherwise perceive in our built environments or digital screens. 

Each of us have talents, abilities, gifts and a unique way to express them. The world conspires to draw them out from each of us. Staying open, practicing being present, and taking the needed steps to manifest those gifts can bring us a deep sense of meaning, purpose and fulfilment in our lives. 

CC: Does healing need to happen to move forward? 

SR: The healthier the soil, the more seeds can germinate and sprout. That is also true for our own bodies, emotions, and spirit. It’s no wonder that the health and wellness movement has exploded in the last few decades. We need moment by moment physical, emotional and spiritual healing to be able to fulfill our lives’ longing and purpose. 

CC: What is special about practicing Shinrin-yoku at Esalen? 

SR: While forest bathing can be beneficial nearly anywhere, a weekend workshop at Esalen makes it extraordinary. For one thing, nature at Esalen is a sight to behold. The Big Sur mountains dive into the Pacific Ocean and mesmerize us with its rich geological stories.  Ancient trees and three sources of water — ocean, hot springs, and fresh river — all converge here, which made this coast a favorite spot for the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County for thousands of years.  

CC: Your second workshop of 2021 is happening in June. What will people come away with? 

SR: Nature provides the medicine that is most needed at any given time, so experiences are very unique to each individual. That being said, the combination of purpose-focused exercises with nature therapy can create a beautiful alchemy.

Participants often share that their stress dissolves, hearts open, emotions surface, confusion lifts, and ideas spring — taking home with them a renewed sense of connection, meaning and purpose.    

Register for Revitalize Sacred Purpose Through Forest Bathing, June 11-13.

Learn more about Sylvie Rokab and her film, Love Thy Nature, narrated by Liam Neeson.


Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen’s social media talk shows, Esalen Live! on Facebook and YouTube, and Esalen Presents on IGTV. Christine is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, a best-selling author, and master yoga teacher (ERYT500, ERYT300, YACEP) who encourages yogis to practice and live with purpose. Learn more