Healing in the woods

Forest therapy participants walk along a trail at Saneum Natural Recreational Forest in Yangpyeong-gun, Gyeonggi Province, on July 24.

YANGPYEONG, Gyeonggi Province ― Habitually bombarded by stress, feeling pressure from work or school, being trapped in a sea of traffic and constantly blitzed by the chaotic noise of the city are simply some of the unavoidable daily obstacles that the average urbanite experiences in any large metropolitan area.

However, with two-thirds of Korea made up of forests, it seems only natural for locals to want to break away from city life and revert back to the laws of nature, seeking out a new life by tasting the peaceful serenity of the great outdoors.

Korea has 37 state-run national recreational forests scattered across the nation. Many of them are designated by the government to create recreational facilities where citizens can fully appreciate all that the woods have to offer. The forests offer citizens easy and enjoyable access to the country’s vast natural resources with cheaper entrance fees than other private or government-owned recreational forests.

Located at the foot of Bongmisan Mountain are the lush, green forests of Saneum Natural Recreational Forest in Yangpyeong-gun, Gyeonggi Province. A haven of natural skyscrapers of pine, oak and maple, the national park was created as a home away from home for those looking for a quiet place to relax, reflect and repair.

Aside from the facility’s abundance of scenic mountain hiking trails, log cabins and fixed campgrounds, the Saneum Natural Recreational Forest is also the country’s first facility that focuses on the concept of healing and relaxation by offering guests complimentary forest therapy sessions.

“Forest therapy is all about cleansing and purifying the mind and the spirit and becoming one with nature,” said the park’s forest therapist Nah Byung-choon. “The flow of energy changes when you are out in the forest compared to when you are just meditating inside. Negative energy begins to release itself almost instantaneously the moment you step out into the clean air of nature.”

As one of the nearest recreational forests to Seoul, the park has been developed as an area offering urban citizens a chance to escape their worries and take part in the activities of the facility’s healing center, which includes meditation and forest yoga, exercising, dancing and even poetry reading.

“Now is gold. Now is the best gift. Now is a miracle, the most beautiful flower seed,” wrote Nah, who is also a published poet and offers special outdoor poetry reading sessions for those who wish to share and express themselves through words as they bask in the wonders of nature and rid their minds of stress.

While forest therapy may sound like a New Age, tree-hugging fad, it may nevertheless lead one to clinically feel happier and healthier. Many studies have linked forest therapy with a number of health benefits including reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure and increasing concentration abilities by helping people ease tension as they reach a meditative state.

“Meditation is very simple. Simplicity is the best path for achieving equilibrium and stability in one’s life,” said Nah, who has been a forest guide and therapist since 2001. “It is all about balance. Yin and yang. Just like how the tides of the ocean flow out, so too must they flow back in.”

Nah’s forest therapy sessions typically involve students freeing their minds as they participate in various stretches and exercises after a long walk along the facility’s mountain trails. Students are asked to remove their socks and shoes and to wander around the woods barefoot as they participate in classes so that one can truly appreciate the forest with all five senses.

“This is what it means to be one with nature,” he said. “It’s not enough to just be among the trees. We must also see, hear, smell, touch and feel our surroundings in order to understand its essence.”

“I feel like I’m flying in the air,” said Han Jeong-suk, a participant in one of Nah’s therapy classes. “I came here with my coworkers and we are all relieving ourselves of our daily stress and improving our moods through powerful relaxation that is given to us by nature.”

Whether it be to get in touch with nature through deep meditation or simply needing a break from the bedlam of living in an urban jungle, taking advantage the nation’s surplus of green areas is an ideal way to find tranquility and solitude. Freedom can be as simple as losing oneself in the wilderness.

“When you think about it, leaves represent the root of our lives,” Nah said. “I really think nature is the best religion offered in this world. We can find all the answers to all of life’s questions right outside our door.”