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Forest Bathing & Healing With Nature with Daniel D'Appio


Forest Bathing & Healing With Nature with Daniel D'Appio

Felicity Cohen: Hello, I’m Felicity Cohen. I’m so excited to introduce you to my Wellness Warriors podcast. For over 20 years, I’ve been a passionate advocate for helping thousands of Australians find solutions to treating obesity and health-related complications through surgical intervention and holistic managed care.


My podcast is dedicated to all the people past, present, and future who have helped shape my journey and continue to inspire me to work consistently to achieve a healthier Australia for both adults and future generations. I hope you enjoy it.


Welcome to the Wellness Warriors podcast today. It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Daniel D’Appio, welcome Daniel and thank you so much for joining me here today. So, Daniel, you’re a certified forest therapy guide and I’m fascinated, first of all, you know, what is a certified forest therapy guide? What do they do? 


Daniel D’Appio: So, forest therapy is a kind of the name that we use now. You might have heard other names like Shinrin Yoku, which is the Japanese word that means forest bathing, or you may have heard other kinds of things like that. A forest therapy guide is somebody who helps to facilitate that nature-based connection for people in a kind of natural environment. So, in that sense, the forest is the thing doing the therapy and some as a guide, I’m taking people on that journey while nature and they have the therapeutic intervention. If that makes sense. 


Felicity Cohen: Absolutely makes sense. So I know that the concept of Shinrin Yoku, I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly, or forest bathing first evolved around the 1980s in Japan. And it became acknowledged as a solution to support and treat people who were really highly stressed and to manage their mental health. Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution of the whole concept and also the transition from the Japanese cultural implementation of forest bathing and how it also became adopted into the Western world? When did we first notice that this was something effective for us? 


Daniel D’Appio: I think, there are a lot of questions. So I think the best way to answer that is to start, I suppose, hundreds of thousands of years ago when we all were much more deeply connected to nature. I suppose, if you look at the kind of timeline of humans on the planet for probably about a very, very, very small percentage of the time 0.00001, something, we’ve not been in close proximity to nature or directly living in nature. So I think if you look at it from that way, you can see that we’ve always done it and for this last kind of, I don’t know, a few thousand years we’ve been sticking ourselves in concrete boxes a little bit more and separating ourselves more and more.


The Japanese in particular and I’m not going to speak too much about their culture, I’m not Japanese, so it’s not for me to really go too much into detail, but that they have always had a really deep connection to nature. They have a, most of the islands of Japan, about 70, 75% are forest or mountain. So you know that there is much more of that deep connection and historical connection to nature. Trees in particular play a big role in kind of the history of Japan and their cultural kind of spiritual traditions as well. And I think what was happening is that we kind of, I mean if you remember the stories in the eighties of like Japanese businessmen going to work and falling asleep on the train because they were working 27 hours a day and you know, that this concept of like having to always be switched on and always working, and what was happening is that people were getting more and more unwell. Mental health kind of declined significantly, you were getting a lot of people that were heading down pathways of self-harm and a lot of really bad things, so I think really dark stuff. And I think what happened is that the Japanese then started to remember the connection they have to nature and from that kind of memory evolved the kind of more administrative nature of creating forest therapy kind of base centres. 


So in Japan now there’s something like 60 or 70 of these places where you can go and the path and the whole area is specifically designed to have a really strong, relaxing kind of deepening and connecting an effect to the person who engages on it. Now, whether that’s someone just going for it, these parts in Japan or these kinds of nature reserves tend to, you know, you can either just walk it yourself and, you know, have that experience yourself, or you can do that with a guide. And, you know, then that kind of gives you that concept of what, why the guide, like, why bother if we can all just go for a walk in nature? And I suppose if you kind of consider, you know, I can put the yoga on the TV and then do the yoga in front of the TV, but that’s very different to doing it with a bunch of people, they’re two very different effects. And definitely the, I think the kind of compounding effect of the healing nature of the experience is doing it with other people, and that connection that we have with nature, but also sharing it with each other is part of the power. How does that sound?


Felicity Cohen: I love that! And you really taught me something new already because I kind of saw this as something that people would practice in solitude, and having that connection with trees and with nature to experience better mental health.


But it’s really interesting to note that this is becoming something that people are doing in communities. And interesting to note as well that the Japanese have set up hubs where it becomes accessible for communities and hopefully that’s something that will also transition here in Australia. And I know that there are now all these community opportunities where you can actually join a group to participate.

Can you tell me a little bit more about, you know, what that looks like and how has this evolved in terms of its popularity and understanding of the benefit? 


Daniel D’Appio: I suppose, like looking at Australia. If we look at Southeast Asia and Japan, Korea, and China have much more of a history and a much more advanced, I suppose, in that process, you know, Japan with its mini for base centres, China is just currently has a huge push to make sure that everybody is with an hour or so of some kind of natural environment. Korea has now kind of made an act of parliament that people are entitled to a certain amount of time with nature as kind of, almost mandated as a way of, you know, encouraging wellness. 


You know, Australia as a country tends to always lag a little bit behind in these exciting innovations, but we still have a lot of passion and we have an amazing natural environment. So organisations like INFTA, the International Nature Forest Therapy Alliance, that is also an organisation that have the certification of forest therapy guides. They’re like a global organisation that has kind of, that are doing a lot of work to really bring forest therapy in and kind of encourage it to be seen as a public health practice, kind of dragging it in front of, you know, government departments and things to kind of really showing its benefit. So, you know, and part of what INFTA is trying to do is also kind of, has these connections now with the Botanic gardens in both Victoria and in New South Wales. 


So in New South Wales, we have the three gardens in around Sydney and in Melbourne, I think I have two, and then what we’ve done is like kind of set up a schedule of regular forest therapy events. Like in the Melbourne Botanic gardens, they run every week, in the Sydney ones, they run once a month in each of the three gardens and they’re always full. So always a maximum of about 12, 15 people coming to these groups. They sell out in advance. It’s really exciting to see that. And I think a lot of those people that are coming to that don’t really know what they’re in for, which is kind of the, almost the fun part. Whenever you deliver one of these walks because these people are like, “Ooh, I want to experience forest bathing, but I don’t even know what it is.” so I think it’s cool that there is that. So I really think that’s a good indication of how the name and the kind of, maybe some of those articles, maybe different Instagrams and all those kind of things that are kind of showing what it looks like to get out in nature are drawing people back to nature.


Because I like to think of it more of as a, it’s not, we are not doing something new, we’re just really calling on this really deep memory that we have inside that might be maybe even hundreds of thousands of years old, that kind of reminds us that we are meant to be sitting under trees, we’re meant to be smelling leaves and touching the dirt. You know, we’re meant to be barefoot on the grass, that’s where we’re meant to be. 


Felicity Cohen: Yeah, it is such a multi-sensory experience as well. And there are so many documented benefits of getting out in nature and forest bathing. Let’s just talk for a moment through what are some of those benefits and the top ones that you’ve seen, even in some of the people that you’ve worked with and that you’ve guided through walks.


Daniel D’Appio: So when we talk about benefits around forest therapy, it really draws on, there’s quite a significant body of research around the effects of forest therapy or forest bathing, Shinrin Yoku, on the body and the mind. So these aren’t just kind of like, you know, I warmed up my chakras and I kind of felt the energy coming through, but there’s actually quite a significant amount of research around that. And that research, you know, like your kind of basic things are reducing heart rate and blood pressure, and you’ve got like another big one is a reduction in cortisol levels, so your stress hormones, and that’s been measured with like devices that have been done in a lot of studies and you can see measurable differences in cortisol levels. 


There are a couple of really interesting studies around natural killer cells and the effect of being connected to nature are natural killer cells. So there are those anti-tumour kinds of anti-cancer cells floating around our body doing great work, they increase in their proliferation and also their activity. And that activity can last for almost up to three or four weeks, according to some research, so fascinating stuff there. 


That’s a very physical kind of way of looking at things, but then also you see increased levels of happiness, decreased levels of anxiety and the effects of some of the symptoms of depression. And then you also have this other kind of aspect of the research and the experience too, around these things called phytoncides and phytoncides are the volatile organic compounds that the tree releases into the kind of canopy and down through the forest, it’s the immune system of the tree. So these chemicals, when we inhale them also have the same effect that they have on the tree, and that’s very much antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal effects, which are really important for our own health, as well as the health of the forest. And these chemicals, we might know them because they’re like the components of some of the essential oils, and actually, if you ironically look at, if you have a kind of a bottle of perfume at home and you look underneath, you’ll see things like Linalool, or Citronellol, or Limonene, or those kinds of things, so those are part of those chemicals released by the trees. So we get exposed to that and that actually has incredible health benefits for us. There’s some really good research around actually just breathing in some of these compounds, and actually how that makes a difference in our wellbeing.


So there are all those kinds of things in terms of the direct effects that you’re having from being in that forest. Then, you know, connecting to that, you’re going to have all stack of indirect effects from indirect benefits. So, you know, just by going for a walk, you will increase your fitness levels, albeit forest therapy is not about adventure and not about walking fast, but still walking is beneficial and walking, in particular, can be really helpful, especially in this way, slow and mindful and on an uneven surface can be really helpful for older people who might have mobility issues or might be at risk of falls because there’s a lot of research around those that at risk of fall, you know, they can decrease that risk by walking on uneven surfaces, quite simply. 


You also got like kind of immune system enhancement from the fight on sides from the natural killer cells. You’re going to lower your risk of heart disease and respiratory diseases just by, again, being active. And also an interesting one is that kind of emotional stability or emotional regulation that is really encouraged by being outside, being quiet and still, walking slowly and really connecting in a mindful way to the experience with nature and with other people as well.


Felicity Cohen: What you’ve just described is so many health benefits that make me think about, you know, holistic wellness. It will be so nice to think that all we need to do is engage in forest bathing, maybe you’ll never need to see a doctor again, imagine it! You know, you’ve lowered your blood pressure, you’ve improved your cortisol levels, you’ve addressed your mental health issues, and you’ve also addressed your functional fitness and mobility and ability to cope with those uneven surfaces. It’s just quite amazing to think that something so simple has potentially so many benefits and then you’ve also got the other benefits you’ve described earlier, connecting with the community and doing this as a group with other people. And for so many people, that was a, I guess, you know, lost opportunity to be involved, engaging with others as well as getting out in nature. So I just love that there are so many, so many benefits and it’s multifaceted once we start diving into this a little bit deeper. What it can actually do for us, such a simple concept really, isn’t it? 


Daniel D’Appio: Yeah, incredibly simple. And I think that almost makes it look too easy, it’s that simple? I mean, obviously, you know, it’s not magic, it’s not going to cure everything, but I think we’ve again, forgotten that it, you know, when we sit there on our phones with the, you know, screens in our faces all day, or the answering to hundreds of emails and always on edge with cortisol and you know, all the stuff that’s going on separately, all the stuff that’s happened the last couple of years in the world, you know, all that stuff bombarding us and we just kind of, I think I’ve forgotten a bit. And I think just simply remembering that there can be more to existing than that and that always being switched on can be really helpful.


Felicity Cohen: It can really help us to remain grounded. And I love the idea of getting out and leaving your phone behind when you’re doing it as an opportunity to really switch off and take that time to be more mindful, to be more present and to experience nature.


Daniel, we are seeing these trends in Australia, and there’s a huge demand for mental health services. I know some practices in this space have waiting lists for up to months. What do you think are some of the factors that are driving this? 


Daniel D’Appio: Yes, This is a very, very interesting question. I think there are lots of different parts to the puzzle. I think when you, like government plays a role, if you look at how a government kind of filters down through different organisations through primary health networks to get money out and to the people to do things that sometimes that doesn’t really hit the mark where it’s needed. Our Medicare system isn’t, you know, it’s only the last couple of years, it’s really kind of shifted to allow more psychological intervention, you know, it’s always been a bit more of a medical driven kind of approach. We don’t have things like counselling or other kinds of therapies like that under Medicare, you know, those things like that might be affecting the increase or the challenges with accessing mental health benefits. You know, if you don’t have enough money to go and see an expensive counsellor, and you can only do it through better access or through your GP mental health plan, you know, that can sometimes kind of make it difficult.


I think too, the last couple of years has probably had a really significant effect. I mean, obviously, it’s had a significant effect on mental health, but I think trying to unpack that and see how to actually make a difference with that is probably a value rather than just looking at it as a mental health problem. You know, if you think, we were asking people to stay at home continuously, you know, talk to people through phones when, you know, we never really did that before, and I think we forget how damaging it can be to lock people up in a house or to keep people isolated from each other. You know, to cover people’s faces so we can’t see our faces when we have communication. There are a lot of challenges, you know, like the permissions and requirements to do things, that all have a significant effect and impact on our wellbeing. And I think we have to balance the danger of other kinds of things that might be affecting our wellbeing with the danger of the solution, because the solution may not have been or, may or may not have been as bad as the problem. I think there’s something interesting that needs to be unpacked.


I know, like in my kind of other roles in life, you know, I look after the services over the mental health charity across both New South Wales and the Gold Coast, and as part of that work, even when a lot of services were all shutting down and, you know, no face to face and nothing, we always still made sure that we had a space for our clients, even if it was in small numbers. To still come together in a safe way, you know, following whatever rules were in place on the day, to still make sure that there was a social connection and physical connection, because we still kind of need that, I think we’ve forgotten that. I think getting us, you know, I know that when some of the more complicated times, especially in Victoria, there were some of our guides that were doing like virtual forest therapy. Which you know, it’s lovely right, it’s cool, but I don’t know. I think there’s something weird about sitting in front of a computer screen, watching someone else walk you through a forest. There is separate to that, there’s some wonderful research around just by simply putting a picture of a tree up on a wall, you have like a health benefit. That’s the health benefit of that and the health benefit of me being next to a tree are vastly different from each other. So, yeah, okay, we can watch a video of nature and feel good, but it’s completely different when I get there and I put my hands on a tree or I touch the leaves or, you know, I smell something in nature, completely different experience. And I think that’s what we need to get more of that, that kind of stuff.


Felicity Cohen: You mentioned earlier that Australia is quite a long way behind countries, such as Japan, China, and Korea, who’ve implemented and created the opportunity for people to access forest bathing a lot more easily. What do you think is needed at a government level here to really provide this as a solution to support mental health and to provide communities with access to this as a solution?


Daniel D’Appio: Look, I think there’s a lot of really cool research happening now. I know like I’m involved directly or indirectly with a few different institutions who are really trying to look at what happens whenever you kind of apply nature-based interventions to things like mental health, to things like diabetes, to things like mobility for older people, and we really need, there’s so much around that. But, you know, often it’s like hard for the government to see the things that are very obvious ever out there in a lot of contexts. So look, it probably needs more and more of that research, it needs people like us to talk about it more, it needs people to go out and experience it more too.


So, you know, we can talk about how wonderful this is, but there probably aren’t many forest therapy guides in Queensland. There is probably only a handful that has been through our certification process. There are a lot more in Victoria, New South Wales, but still, we’re still talking about a handful of people. So more people should do the training, more people should experience and want to share that experience with other people, should drag people along to those events when they’re on, you know, that kind of thing. I think it’s only by us talking about it does it make more noise, I suppose.


Felicity Cohen: Yeah, and I love that we are raising that level of conversation today. What are some of the other adjacent therapies that might work well or integrate well with forest bathing? Are there any other nature-related therapies that you might recommend to include? 


Daniel D’Appio: I suppose just one of the other things about forest therapy which then I will lead into that is that forest therapy is about like, let’s say doing a one-kilometre walk, but doing it in three hours, right? So it’s a very slow experience, punctuated with different types of activities, punctuated with sitting quietly for a bit and sharing with other people for a bit. So it’s a gentle, very relaxed experience. Now you compare that to something like hiking, which is full-on and intense, you know, you can see they’re very different experiences, but they’re two different ways of also interacting with nature. 


So I think there’s a kind of adventure-based nature-based intervention school, which is really quite an interesting set of activities. And that works really well for young people, you know, to do kind of adventuring things outside young people with lots of energy, you know, that’s really good for that, you know. And then that kind of thing, you’ve got adventure therapies, you’ve got, kind of hiking and camping and a whole range of things around that, mountain biking, that kind of thing. But, you know, from the other side, you could think about doing things like yoga or Tai Chi or another kind of mindfulness meditation practices out in nature that could also be coupled with that kind of work. I know a couple of forest therapy guides who are also qualified yoga instructors and so, you know, they might do a forest therapy walk, but then they might also say, “oh, well, let’s do half an hour of yoga in the middle of it as well” as a kind of activity that might be punctuated. Depending on the type of people that want to, you know, what the people want in that. 


I know in a lot of our forest therapy walks that we do, we incorporate some really gentle Tai Chi like exercises or, you know, Tai Chi Qigong kind of exercises to kind of get our bodies ready for the walk. So, you know, there are little bits of that, but maybe some more into the integration of that would be helpful.


Felicity Cohen: Interesting. I’ve actually experienced a yoga instructor doing something like this on a nature walk. So, you know, typical traditional forest bathing, but done as a silent meditation with a group at the same time, and that was a really unique and very special experience. So what about you, how did you come to this style of wellness?


Daniel D’Appio: I think I’ve tried lots of different styles of wellness over my time! Probably the last 20 or 25 years, lots of different things that I’ve tried out, and some things that I really enjoyed and some things that I didn’t enjoy so much. I suppose a few years ago, I was kind of looking for something else to do, something else to kind of enhance the stuff that I was thinking about all the time and I personally have a love of nature and being out there and just sitting amongst the trees. So I was like, what kind of brings that together? And you know, a bit of research and I learned more about the Shinrin Yoku kind of forest therapy stuff, I was like, actually, this sounds like really cool because I love taking people on a journey. 


You know, whether that was my kind of background or my own kind of work is around clinical hypnotherapy. So, you know, I worked as a hypnotherapist for about 10, or 15 years. But you know, inside that there’s mindfulness, there’s meditation, there’s a whole range of interesting fun and games inside that. So, you know, I love that kind of mindfulness, that kind of sharing things that meditation stuff with groups. And forest therapy is not mindfulness and it’s not meditation, but it gently incorporates and allows people to experience nature through some of those kinds of approaches. So, you know, it’s not, we’re now going to do a 10-minute meditation outside, it’s we’re now going to sit down and listen to the sounds of nature, smell the air coming through, listen to the rustling of leaves, and in that process, there might be as a side effect meditating, but it’s not a kind of, we’re now going to meditate kind of idea. 

So that’s kind of how I got to it. You know, my connecting, how do I connect that love of nature with the kind of love of taking people on a journey and helping them to relax and really helping to kind of have that effect


Felicity Cohen: Love it! And finally, Daniel, our listeners are all Wellness Warriors, we know that wellness is worth fighting for, and once you lose your health, you spend the rest of your life fighting to get it back. Whether that’s physical or mental or spiritual health and something that’s always inspiring is to learn about how others are going on their wellness journey.

So my last question for you today is, can you share with us a time when you were struggling with your own wellness and what did you do to fight for it or to reclaim it? 


Daniel D’Appio: I think we all have a bunch of those things in our lives! But maybe for me, something that was really important was what probably prompted me to go down a path of looking at alternative approaches to wellness some 25 or so years ago, a long, long time ago. And as a child growing up, I used to experience significantly bad allergies to the point where, you know, living in Melbourne, you know, I’d have three months of antihistamines and like constant sore eyes, sore nose, sore everything. It was really intense and I tried lots of different approaches. And I think what I started to notice was how that for me, that kind of standard Western medical approach, didn’t really kind of hit the mark with what I needed. And I was like, “I’m sick of this! You know, I’m sick of being snotty all the time. I’m sick of not being able to kind of function and constantly feel like I’m sick.” 


So you know, like I did my research and I learned a little, I learned a lot more, just kind of like by reading and by talking to people around different approaches to things, and I hadn’t really had much exposure to different kind of things. Ultimately it led me down a pathway of kind of heading towards a lot of naturopathies, naturopathic study, learning about herbal medicine, and homoeopathy and nutrition, a whole range of different things. But really, I found this amazing homoeopath who did never actually tell me what remedy was given to me, but I tell you it was the thing that tipped me over the edge and made me as it sent me to that place of wellness that I had not experienced before. And you know, I tried a few different people, a few different things, but it was just like that one person, that one kind of set of remedies that really made a difference. To this day I still don’t know what it was that made a difference, I don’t even know if that dude exists anymore! But if not for that kind of, I will tenaciously kind of, I will try everything and I will find the right one to really make a difference, you know, and it’s never been as bad as, you know, I had many years of like kind of nothing and it’s never really been as bad as it was before that.


So, and I think that again, that’s what kind of pushed me down a way of like looking at different ways of thinking about things, you know, that there are alternatives, and that not every kind of therapeutic approach, which works on everybody, which is why there are so many therapeutic approaches. So, I mean Chakra realignment or, you know, surgery works for you then whichever one is the one that works for you is the one that works for you. But I think it’s about being open to different approaches. And I think that’s probably the thing I learned the most too. 


Felicity Cohen: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the Wellness Warriors podcast. 


Daniel D’Appio: Thanks so much Felicity, and I just want to make sure that everybody gets out to nature.

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