Richie Roche of Shawnee-on-Delaware teaches forest bathing classes at the French Manor Inn and Spa in South Sterling and Deerfield Health Retreat and Spa in East Stroudsburg. He is also the resident piano player at both resorts.
“The concept is that we’re a part of nature — for how many generations and generations (humans) have lived outside we were in touch with the seasons, the earth, the water,” he said. “And nowadays a lot of us are not.”
According to a 2018 study published by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her life indoors; 87% in a building, then another 6% in automobiles or other transportation.
“In an ever more hectic and digital world, I believe it will do us all good to simply awaken our senses — see, listen, feel and be with the trees, stones and plants and water,” Roche said. “All that we are blessed to be surrounded with.”
Another review by Science Direct in 2018 conducted 143 research studies and noted the benefits of forest bathing.
Not only does it help with anxiety and depression (spending time in the forest decreases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol) but the study also found that the practice benefits the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and the immune system.
And one 20-minute session of forest bathing led to an increase in a type of white blood cells or NK cells — the cells that protect humans from viruses and even cancer.
Roche, who grew up in the area and has been hiking for several decades, has reaped some of the positive effects.
“On a personal level, it fulfills my need for connection, helps me heal and deal with my health challenges and provides incredible stress relief,” he said. “An increased calm sense of well-being and peace are my rewards.”
He’s also had others share his sentiments.
“In the short time that I’ve been doing this I’ve had some profound experiences,” Roche said. “People had told me they felt a sense of peace — they’d said ‘it took me back to my childhood,’ or ‘I realize what’s missing in my life.’”
On a recent sunny day, Roche was joined by three hotel guests staying at the French Manor.
Before he led the group on a slow walk through the serene resort grounds, Roche asked the women to set an intention to ponder on during the forest bathing session.
An intention (a focus or goal to think about during a meditation) can be kept private, but as Roche told the group there is something they all had to do together: kindly turn off their cell phones and take a temporary vow of silence.
“There is an intention that we all have to have in common, so the intention that we’re going to have for the next hour is that we are going to forest bath,” he said. “We’re not going to talk about specials or politics. We’re going to be silent except when we stop to share.”
About a 1/2 mile from the main inn, the guests had walked deep into the woods where they incorporated some Tai Chi movements (Roche also studies and teaches the Chinese martial art) near trees. Afterwards they threw a rock into a pond.
“A lot of us know intellectually that trees breathe out oxygen and breathes in carbon dioxide,” he said. “So let’s breathe with the tree, when we’re breathing out, the tree is breathing in. Part of the idea is we’re not the only beings here — so are the trees, the water and the plants.
He then told the group that the rock represented something negative in their lives that they wanted to dispel and tossing it into the water is a symbolic way of letting go.
“Whatever doesn’t serve you, leave it at the pond,” Roche said.
Donna Catamero and Lisa La of New York City enjoyed the exercise.
“I think it was therapeutic,” Catamero said.
Shortly before the meditation was over, Roche gave the group a yoga mat to lay on and told them to spread out their arms and look up at the bright blue sky.
The group then gathered on the terrace at the inn and sipped on some relaxing mint tea where they talked about their journey into the woods.
“After one has spent this time in nature the tendency to fall more deeply in love with the natural world, which I hope will lead people to more enlightened decisions regarding the environment,” Roche said.