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You Need a Bath: Shinrin-Yoku Comes to the Berkshires

March 12, 2018

 

 

This morning’s edition of The New York Times featured a new $4000 treadmill that will be released later this month from Peloton, the company famous for bringing the world it’s “internet-connected, brushed-steel spin bicycle equipped with a 20-inch touch-screen.” That is at least three too many hyphenated words than should be needed to describe any product, but if you are trying to get people to shell out two grand for a bike that doesn’t move, you better have some whiz-bang selling points.

 

Peloton’s offerings feature tie-ins to live classes taking place in their brick-and-mortar spin boutique in Chelsea (still more hyphens), as well as options to ride with professional cyclists through scenic landscapes around the world. Virtually, of course. I’m sure the weather will be lovely in the Dolemites whenever you log on – nothing like the snowstorm that Andy Hampsten endured to become the first American to win the Giro D’Italia, and nothing like the cold, damp rides that most professionals do throughout most of the year to sustain their fitness. But if I can ride in the comfort of my home and get the same level of fitness, why not do it? No wind, no flat tires, no cars? Sign me up.

 

But most cyclists don’t ride just for fitness. We don’t walk, run, or work out just to get stronger, either. Studies show that exercise of any type promotes both our physical and intellectual wellbeing, but as psychologists are learning, outdoor exercise bolsters our emotional wellness in ways that indoor exercise does not. One recent study reported a significant reduction in the anxiety levels of those who engaged in “green exercise” activities that included road and mountain biking, and other studies indicate that even just visiting natural environments in urban settings (i.e., parks) can reduce stress.

 

Many of us who call this area home do so because of its natural beauty and charm — an aesthetic that has long made it the subject of landscape painters. But psychologists and therapists in the area are beginning to tap into the healing potential of our surroundings. Eric Krawcyzk, a counselor in South Lee, is a certified forest therapy guide who recommends “Vitamin N” for just about all of us who are so divorced from nature in our everyday lives. Krawcyzk’s background is in Wilderness Therapy, which he explored after his experience with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), where groups enter wilderness areas to develop technical outdoor and leadership skills.

 

Krawcyzk now brings groups into the outdoors for therapeutic healing, and I joined him on a windy January morning for one of his “Hikes with Healers,” a monthly gathering of interested participants with a guest hike leader who connects attendees to the environment or activity. We gathered around a table at the Notchview Nordic Ski Center in Windsor, Massachusetts for a brief group meeting and introduction to Dr. David Martin, a chiropractor from Pittsfield with a background in downhill and nordic ski instruction, which would come in handy as he led our group on the day’s activity: a cross-country ski along the groomed Notchview trail network.

 

There are therapeutic techniques that are explicitly designed to connect individuals to their natural surroundings, but the first step is to get participants to feel comfortable and safe in the outdoors. On this day, Krawcyzk and Martin allayed concerns about the frigid temperatures  with a brief discussion on how to dress for cold weather and assurances of safety by way of their training as physicians and wilderness first responders. For Krawzcyzk’s patients — many of whom are adolescent males — traditional therapy is similarly intimidating or fraught, and this slow entry into treatment feels less forced, less clinical. Much of our time on this outing would be spent simply getting acquainted with the phenomenon of exercising in sub-zero temperatures, an experience that demands connection to weather, trail conditions, surroundings, and the aches and pains that accompany any kind of exercise.

I stepped to the trailhead with my skis under arm and blowing a bit in a steady wind out of the west. I had ridden my bike through this area a few years ago, and I concluded that strong winds must be a feature of this spot, located in the Hoosac Range, a southern extension of Vermont’s Green Mountains. I immediately adjusted my sunglasses to account for the brilliant sun, and zipped up my shell to retain some warmth from the cabin before we started moving.

 

The group ranged from beginners to more advanced skiers, and Dr. Martin provided pointers to everyone while Krawcyzk encouraged and supported the novice skiers. After a brief skills assessment, I broke off with another experienced skier to explore the trails on our own, and while our trip didn’t involve any overtly therapeutic practices, the novelty of skiing with someone in an unfamiliar setting allowed for many of the same benefits. My partner knew the property better than me, so I mostly allowed him to be my guide while I soaked up the Vitamin N from the red spruces that line the trails. A full sixteen kilometers of the paths are above 2000’ in ele