I loved my conversation with forest therapy guide, poet, and mother, Jess Ptak of The Sweet Slow, about the nourishing benefits of earth connection practices for all folx, but especially forest therapy for women and mothers. Are you inspired to practice more intentional time with nature? I would love to hear your takeaways in the comments! --Libby Hoffmann
P.S. We are hosting our next women’s RETREAT June 2-4, 2023, for nourishing forest therapy nestled in the wild and beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Find out more
What is Forest Therapy?
LH: Hi everyone! [Just so you know] this is an unscripted conversation. My intention is to ask a few questions, and just be open to having a chat and seeing what magic happens between us. Jess, would you like to introduce yourself?
JP: Yeah! I’m Jess of The Sweet Slow. I use intentional wandering and poetry writing to access deeper parts of ourselves. To enter in to the state of possibility and curiosity of cocreating what it is we want to experience here. It’s [making space for] a very intuitive process.
LH: I love turning the reflection back on ourselves. You know that’s the business that I’m in too [with Moderne Homemaker], guiding people back home to themselves.
JP: Yeah, and [what I do] is “ forest therapy ” but with my own spin on it. I’ve kind of taken the basics of it and turned it into something that’s more intuitive and less rigid.
I like to think of intentional wandering as going into the external wilderness and being guided there. And then the intuitive writing process is going into the internal forest, and creating this loop between the two. It’s accessing how we can navigate intuitively out here, with curiosity, and how that curiosity can lead us back into ourselves-- how we weave this web between the two.
LH: I love that. So I was introduced to the concept of forest therapy a couple years ago when I read the book Forest Therapy by Sarah Ivens. The book goes into the scientific evidence for the benefits of forest therapy, but [the author] also talks about it in a more individual way. It doesn’t have to be super structured to be beneficial, it just has to be intentional.
For people who are unfamiliar with forest therapy as a practice, I want to share the proven research that backs up the holistic benefits of forest therapy. From Forest Therapy by Sarah Ivens:
“These are just some of the benefits that scientists, academics, and teachers have discovered occur when a person gets forest therapy, also known as forest bathing, in their life…
Reduces blood pressure and heart rate
Reduces anxiety, anger, depression, obesity, PTSD and ADHD
Strengthens the immune system
Increases sensory awareness and perception
Boosts creativity and intuition
Calms the nervous system
Fosters healthier aging ”
LH: I love that science has just caught up with what we as humans have known for a long time, that being connected to the earth connects us with our bodies. You just talked about it—how exploring the wilderness outside ourselves, helps us connect and understand the wildness inside ourselves. We can honor it instead of disconnect from it.
JP: What I find, is that I can tell the difference in myself between when I’ve been out in the forest and when I’ve taken a bit of a step back. You know life sometimes gets crazy and I don’t get out there as often as I’d like to. I can tell the difference of how well I’m in harmony with myself and also how clear my intuition is.
I find that the more time I spend out there, I’m not only getting into my body but I’m getting into this silent conversation with myself and the environment around me. It opens this little portal inside of myself, where I can just hear myself. I can take that with me afterwards, and it usually lasts for several days after if I’ve really been intentional with that time.
So yeah, I’m surprised they didn’t list [in the book], heart to brain coherence as well. That [coherence] is that harmonious feeling within your whole body.
LH: Mmm yeah. I like what you said, that it’s an opening. That’s how it feels for me too, like this opening of space. Space not just for physical but for energetic space.
When I was a young child, I spent so much time outside, just wandering and doing my own thing. You don’t realize how much that does affect your wellbeing, until having that [space] taken away as an adult who spends more time inside.
I really do see it in my kids as well, and I know you have kids too. Even just the short walk from our house to the bus stop [on school days] is important and beneficial. It’s that intentional time when we will see different animals and plants. We see where the sun is [in the sky] and what kind of clouds there are. Just taking that five minutes to pay attention to what is out there and opening up that space, is beneficial.
JP: Yes. I love that you mentioned all the things you start to notice, because that is actually a big part of forest therapy and intentional wandering as a practice. [During the practice] you’re presented with these invitations, which are like offerings for the people who are along for the walk. You’re presenting these offerings for them to start to look at the environment differently than they normally would if they were out hiking, or doing whatever they’d normally be doing outside.
After each invitation there is time for sharing, and in that space for sharing, the question is “What is it that you’re noticing?” That’s all it is. Just noticing what’s happening; what’s happening within you, what’s happening outside of you.
The beautiful thing about forest therapy, or forest bathing, is that there is no actual destination in mind. It’s not like in hiking, where you have to get to the end of this trail, or have to get up to this point. That’s not what it is.
Usually when you’re on one of these walks, you’re actually covering very little ground, but you’re spending about three hours out there. You’re going at a much slower pace than normal. It’s a lot slower than what most people are used to, and it can be really uncomfortable at first for people. It's a beautiful thing to watch, because people do start to notice things that they’ve never seen before. It kind of takes them by surprise.
That opens such a space in you. I call it, “making space to see,” because it opens space within you to start to see things within yourself in the time afterwards. It’s a beautiful thing!
LH: Yeah! I think a lot of times, it’s not that I see the full connection of what I’m noticing [in the moment] until later. When I’m back at home, or doing something else, and then my awareness changes and reminds me, like, “Oh, I saw. I felt this way. Now I’m connecting the dots with that experience.”
Ok, so tell me [more] about your intentional wandering practice. Is that what you call the Woods + Words session?
JP: Yes, so it really depends on where I’m hosting it [laughing], but it’s either Woods + Words or Seeing Slow. It’s really the same thing.
I start the Woods + Words meeting with an intentional wandering session. So going out on a trail or anywhere you have access to nature, and opening up the space for crossing over what we call a threshold of your awareness. We go from your everyday routine, normal life to crossing over this threshold where you’re suddenly in this imaginal realm.
You’re invited to see things differently, to look at the beings differently. To have a conversation with a tree. To sit at a spot you wouldn’t normally be sitting at, and to pay attention to what is coming up [for you] in that space.
That’s how the Woods + Words session starts, with an intentional wandering session which lasts about an hour and a half. It’s really amazing the depth you can access within such a short period of time.
LH: Yeah, [I agree with that]. If I’m able to spend my time totally within the forest, in solitude, then it’s like time stops. Ten minutes can feel like an hour sometimes, especially if I’m intentionally slowing down—seeing slow as you said.
That’s why I think the benefit is so great, because it’s a concentrated practice. It’s very potent, because Mother Nature is so potent. You don’t have to carve out a lot of time, like an 8 hour hike, in order to connect.
JP: It’s really interesting because [intentional wandering] puts linear time on its side in a way. Instead of doing something with some goal in mind, which is where I usually find that linear time line comes in, [we’re doing the opposite]. I call this a depth of presence. You don’t need a lot of time to access that presence, you just need a willingness to be open.
I call it falling back into your body. That first part of the intentional wandering process, is intentionally getting back into our bodies by paying attention to each one of our physical senses. Using those senses in a way to create a bridge between ourselves and the land. When you drop back into your body like that and then you open yourself up with your imagination at the same time, that’s when you can enter the depth of presence. When you enter that out here [moving arms around] then you can enter that in here too [moving hands to her body].
Who benefits from forest therapy?
LH: Mmm, yes. So who comes to mind for you, that you think would benefit [from this] if they don’t already have a forest therapy or earth connection practice?
JP: Honestly, I would say moms, because we’re constantly multi tasking. We’re constantly giving of ourselves to those around us, and meeting the needs of everyone around us. It’s really easy to be burnt out and touched out as a mom. So, moms are one of my favorite groups of people to work with. Of course I can relate to them as well, because that’s my life too [laughing].
Also, anyone who is in, what I like to call a liminal space or transition. If you’re going through divorce, or going through grief of any kind, or any major life transition. Even if it’s not major, but you’re still in a void of kind of not knowing what comes next, but you’re here and you have to keep moving forward on this path.
Forest therapy [can help because] it’s that slowing down to make space to see. It’s coming back to a centeredness, even if you can’t see what’s going on out there or what the path is unfolding in front of you, because it’s so dark and fuzzy. Forest therapy brings a lot of clarity within yourself. So even if you are in the unknown, you still know yourself within the unknown. A practice like this helps you find the ground within yourself, so that even if the ground around you is shaky, you’re still ok.
LH: I totally agree. Especially when my kids were younger. Spending time in nature, even with your kids, opens up so much space. A small grassy area can be a wonderful place for a small child to do whatever they want. I learned quickly with my children to let Mother Nature mother [them]. Inside the house there can be a lot of restriction. You know, it’s like “Don’t touch that! Don’t go there, stay away from that!” But when you can let a child wander, where you can see them obviously, then [you can trust] nothing is going to necessarily hurt them in nature.
JP: Yep. I was doing a program geared toward kids and their parents, called Happy Little Trees, and it was child led intentional wandering. What I saw, watching the kids and parents, and also myself, was that sometimes even when we’re out there and we’re doing this with our kids, we’re coming in as adults who can be very [restrictive]. You know, like “Stay out of that! Don’t take your shoes off!”
And then you start to wonder, you know. Like why not take your shoes off? And then you start to follow their lead. They’re amazing teachers because they teach us what we’ve forgotten. It’s about play, and curiosity, and staying open to the wisdom that is innate. It’s not like knowledge that has been put into us, it’s already there and has always been there. We’ve just forgotten how to access it. [The kids] are so close to it that they remember, so if we can allow them to lead us, then it’s an incredible thing that happens with them.
LH: Yeah, being ok with getting dirty, making “mistakes.” Mother Nature is very forgiving. I love what you said too about anyone who is in the liminal space, or transition, because I feel [this practice is good for] anyone who is struggling to feel [grounded] or to get their footing [in life]. Whether that’s an acute struggle with a specific situation in their life, or they’re someone who often feels like they have a hard time with transition or change. Maybe they feel chaotic, whether that’s emotional chaos or mental anxiety.
For me, I’ve realized that Mother Nature has always been there. She’s always been that support for me. It’s something that I didn’t fully come to terms with until in recent years, how much I have turned to Mother Nature to give me that support by just being with her. It’s not that anything “happens” or that I always get tangible or physical communication, but I feel that stability from her when I make intentional time to connect. I allow myself to open to that connection and to receive from Mother Nature. The stability piece is really important. Mother Nature is our greatest teacher. She changes all the time but she always does it with grace.
JP: Right. When we tap into our senses in the beginning of intentional wandering, we go into touch. That’s one of my favorites, because that’s when I bring up paying attention to the land and the earth, and that she’s supporting you. All you have to do is feel. Wherever there’s a contact point, that’s where you’re being physically supported, and you don’t have to ask for that, it’s given.
Once you enter this reciprocal relationship, there’s also this instantaneous sense of belonging that we’ve forgotten. For so many of us, that’s the thing that we’re looking for all the time, this sense of belonging. It’s undeniable there once you enter into that relationship, and that quiet conversation.
What I notice too, is that when you’re out there, there are so many of these parallel things happening. You’re finding that stillness and sense of slowness inside of your body, and you’re also noticing all of the perceived imperfections around you in nature, in the more than human world.
But there is no imperfection. Everyone is doing what they are intended to do, no questions asked. Everyone out there, these [other] beings, the trees, whomever. Everyone is doing what they’re meant to be doing in the shape and space they’re meant to take up. Everyone is there and present and there are no questions about who they are.
It’s a great reminder and a mirror back to you, to say, “Oh, maybe I’m actually just fine the shape that I am and where I am on my path. Whatever’s going on in my life, maybe this is ok right now.” I can find peace inside of that. That’s one of my favorite parts of being out there too.
How to start a forest therapy practice
LH: Yeah, just the safety of being. I love that. Do you have any suggestion or encouragement for someone who doesn’t have access to an enveloping environment, like a forest? And for anyone who has big hesitations about being alone?
JP: I would say, first of all if you have any kind of access right outside your living space, where you can sit on a front porch or back porch, wherever you can go to have access to the elements outside. You can start there. Even if you just spend five minutes outside without distraction—don’t bring your phone, don’t even bring a notebook to write in, just sit there and notice. Focus on your breathing. Focus on the sounds around you. Focus on what you can smell and taste; go through your senses.
Just notice anything that’s coming up while you’re in that space. You can even do this, honestly, if you have a houseplant. Really [laughing], just sit with them and notice the details of the plant, and your relationship to it. That’s where I would start. It’s as simple as that.
If you do have a yard, with a tree or a rock you can sit on, then go out there even just for five minutes. If you try this every day, or a few days out of the week, go to the same spot. And on the second or third try, instead of five minutes, maybe go up to ten minutes. Keep increasing until you get up to twenty minutes at a time, and see if you can sit there and just give yourself the permission to do nothing but notice. Note what’s happening inside of you, outside of you, and what’s on the bridge in between.
LH: I love that. That’s a big piece of the soul work that we do in Nurture by Nature, is finding your sacred nature spot. No matter what that looks like for you, making sure there’s a consecration of that space. It could be a little patch of grass just big enough for your feet, or that special place in a forest. No matter what it is, I like to think about it like a communion. It could be a houseplant, but as long as there’s connection and commune [happening] then that’s good enough.
It's all about making it work for you. I would suggest being open to asking the Earth to commune with you, even before being outside. During a meditation for example. You might be surprised at what comes forward.
I would also add, because I did this myself as a little girl: cloud watching from inside the house. I would lay on my bed and let myself hang way off the edge so I was upside down, and could look out my bedroom window. All I could see was the sky. Like you said, it’s something you can use to open up your senses.
JP: Yes! I used to do that during long car rides. I would lay back and just watch the sky from the window. I love watching the sky at night too. That’s another practice you can incorporate, noticing what that feels like in your body to see something so big above you, that’s encompassing you. That’s another way to connect, even though it’s not necessarily to the land, you’re still connecting to the environment.
LH: Well, thank you so much, Jess, for being here and giving your time and energy. I’m so excited for Retreat!
JP: Yes, thank you. Me too!
*This is a transcribed excerpt from a previously recorded interview with Jess Ptak – The Sweet Slow inside the Moderne Homemaker community. Request the full details of our next RETREAT by sending an email to email@example.com
Jess Ptak is a poet, creator, mentor, and homeschooling mom of six. Her vision is to bridge the divide with poetry, story, observation, and reconnection to the subtle language of the Earth.
Libby Hoffmann is a holistic wellness guide specializing in the Human Design System, a birth and postpartum doula, and author of the children's book We Are All Light. Her mission is to help all individuals make their soul at home in their life, and is especially devoted to freedom and fulfillment for women and mothers.