At her most recent forest therapy guided session in Monrovia Canyon Park, Jackie Kuang led her group on a peaceful, contemplative walk, inviting them to “bathe their senses” in nature and be fully present in the now.
The group spotted various animal beings and listened to the sound of a nearby stream and birds chirping before heading over to the waterfall at the end of the trail. The guided walk also consisted of a dumpling making session under a beautiful green canopy.
One of the key elements of a guided forest therapy walk, says Jackie, is community building.
“I’m honored to witness many people falling in love with or at least opening up to complete acceptance of themselves and others. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring,” said Jackie. “The dumpling-making after tea ceremony is my way of honoring my own Chinese cultural heritage and it’s so much fun for a lot of people.”
Jackie feels at home when she immerses herself in the outdoors, cradled by oak trees while taking in the fragrant scents from leaves and flowers. As a certified forest therapy guide, she hopes to share her love for green spaces and help others to enjoy the benefits of immersing in the beauty of nature.
Nature has always been a great teacher for Jackie, and she hopes to share that experience with others through her forest therapy guided sessions. Jackie says she found herself drawn to “forest bathing,” or the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, shortly after she was forced to slow down from her routine after an injury, as she detailed in a blog post.
“I believe that my body was so tired of rushing here and there nonstop that it literally forced me to slow down by letting me fall. I had fallen twice in less than two years and sustained severe injuries each time. As I was lying in bed this March recovering from my third and most traumatic injury, I had nothing else to do but to read and notice. From the bed my family set up for me in the living room, I could see my neighbor’s giant tree and that gave me much comfort. I would often watch the branches sway in the breeze or birds and squirrels play there,” Jackie wrote.
And sometime around Chinese New Year in 2017, Kuang said she began noticing and paying more attention to beautiful, graceful trees lining up Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park.
She remembers feeling a strong calling toward nature. She typed “trees” in Google search, not exactly knowing what she was quite searching for or what she was doing. “I just felt a strong yearning inside. How could I have passed by those trees so many times yet never truly noticed their magnificence?”
Kuang said the Google searches eventually led her to discover the benefits of Shinrin-yoku.
Intrigued by the practice, she attended her first ever forest therapy walk guided by her mentor, Ben Page. In July 2017, she attended a forest therapy guide training at Sugarloaf State Park, where she fell deeper in love with nature and met some wonderful mentors and kindred spirits during a week of intensive training.
It was then that she was inspired to complete a 6-month practicum and become a certified “forest bathing guide” through the Association of Nature Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.
Since August 2017, she has been leading regular guided forest bathing sessions in LA including LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens and Monrovia Canyon Park. She even guided walks in Mexico City, Beijing, and Xi’an when she traveled there.
“In Japanese, ‘Shinrin’ means ‘forest’ and ‘yoku’ means bath. So Shinrin-yoku literally means a forest bath,” says Jackie, who previously worked as a teacher, a translator, a CPA, and a health and wellness consultant.”
Jackie says a forest bathing walk is not a hike or strenuous fitness exercise. Rather, it’s a relaxing walk at a slow pace for 2-3 hours with many pauses designed to help engage your senses and immerse yourself in the experience and the present moment.
Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of forest bathing, says Jackie. To name a few benefits, forest bathing can significantly decrease ailments like chronic and excessive stress and can lower blood pressure, and boost immunity, according to the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. Another study titled “Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function” looks into how exposure to forest bathing can increase the number of “NK cells, the levels of intracellular anti-cancer proteins,” thus reducing the risk of cancer.
According to a study titled “Trends in Research Related to ‘Shinrin-Yoku,” “Shinrin-yoku” was first introduced in Japan by the Forest Agency of the Japanese government in 1982. The study looked into the physiological effects of practicing Shinrin-yoku in a forest and controlled environment.
“‘Shinrin-yoku’ is considered to be one of the most accessible ways to get in touch with the natural world and to lower excessive stress to levels that are commensurate with what our bodies are ‘expected’ to cope with,” the researchers in the study stated.
Jackie reported that being immersed in nature has immensely helped foster her creativity and has even inspired her to write a few poems.
“None of that would have happened without deep immersion in Nature. And trees are great supporters and often give great counsel. One time I asked a Mother Tree for some advice and she told me, ‘Be persistent. Be patient. Be kind and generous. And listen deeply.’”
When she is not serving as a guide for forest bathing sessions in LA, Jackie spends her time with her autistic son, Chris, often taking him on forest bathing walks which he has grown immensely fond of.
“I see how his anxiety lessens and he becomes more relaxed and present. Plus, it’s so good to get a break from the constant stimulation of electronics so that there are real opportunities to connect with other beings in the forest like trees, flowers, birds, squirrels, the flowing water, and so much more,” said Jackie.
Jackie is also an advocate for parents with children with developmental disabilities. She is currently on the board of an organization called CPAD, Chinese Parents Association for the Disabled, where she helps organize activities and resource meetings for other families.
She also regularly volunteers on Fridays at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia, California, and is the organizer of a couple of meetups, one of which has grown to about 2,500 participants. She is also currently mentoring some forest therapy guides who are in the 6-month practicum training and will be guiding a forest therapy walk in Sweden this October when she travels there for pleasure.
Jackie shares that ever since she started on her path as a forest bathing guide, she’s become much more aware of reducing the carbon footprint and being more mindful about making different, more sustainable choices to protect the environment.
“I notice myself making different choices naturally since I started guiding the walks. I’m reducing my use of plastics by refusing straws or plastic forks at restaurants, by bringing reusable shopping bags to grocery stores, by choosing beeswax food coverings rather than plastic wraps.”
One of Jackie’s goals as a forest therapy guide is for everyone to fall in love with plants and animals again, so we will all naturally want to protect them by reducing our carbon footprint, she says. “I remember hearing someone say, “‘you protect what you love.’”
Jackie has always felt more at peace and grounded by her guided walks.
“What I love most is that in my practice, nature connection and culture repair arise together. There is a mutual healing of the humans and the more-than-human world when we take time to slow down and interact with the beings in the forest,” said Jackie. “The forest is the therapist; a guide opens the doors. I feel privileged and honored to be a guide,” said Jackie.
-Written by Monica Luhar