WESTERLY — You might say that noted naturopathic physician Deirdre O'Connor has finally come to her senses — in a heartfelt, authentic sort of way.
O'Connor, who first introduced the concept of naturopathic medicine to the region 30 years ago when she founded Natura Medica — a thriving, Mystic-based center for natural medicine, is now a certified forest therapy guide and therapist.
The fundamental work of a forest therapist, O'Connor said one afternoon last week as she walked through the woods in the expansive backyard of her Woody Hill home, is to introduce the idea of forest bathing to clients, and to serve as a guide who helps "open the doors of our senses."
"Forest bathing is a heartfelt practice," O'Connor explained, based on the idea that the closer we come to nature, the closer we come to ourselves.
"When you meet someone and fall in love, you fall in love with their smell, their sound, their feel, and you want to take care of them," she said. "The same can be said for your environment."
"The forest is the therapist," she said. "The guide just opens the doors."
"Forest bathing helps bring us to the here and now," she added. "It helps to slow down our active mind and gets people to reconnect with their senses."
Like yoga or meditation, forest bathing is a practice that belongs in everyone's self-care tool kit, and one that becomes more beneficial the more regularly it is practiced, she said.
O'Connor said she often noticed a "sense of alienation" in her patients, a sense of "loneliness ... of feeling adrift and disconnected."
"I always told my patients to go outdoors, to go outside," she said, "but I felt frustrated because I couldn't quite articulate what I was trying to say."
Forest bathing and forest therapy, she said, has given her a "whole new way of saying what I mean."
O'Connor, who retired from her medical practice a few years back because she felt a new calling, has long understood the healing power of nature.
"I've always been a nature girl," a smiling O'Connor said as she bent down to point out a small earth star hidden in the pine needles, close to the lichen and the reindeer moss that dotted the ground. "I come by it naturally."
A Philadelphia native who grew up all over the country as "a Navy brat," and earned her Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., in 1985, O'Connor has always found solace in "birding, botanizing and bicycling," yet was unclear what her new calling was.
But as she explored the possibilities, she said, she pondered and mused.
"I love nature, but I'm not a naturalist," she remembered wondering. "And I love birds, but I'm not an ornithologist."
Then a friend handed her a copy of a National Geographic magazine with an article about forest bathing, and her new journey began.
O'Connor, who once told an interviewer that the month she spent participating in an Outward Bound program in the mountains of North Carolina was a defining life experience, said the more she read about "forest bathing and forest therapy," the more connected and intrigued she grew. Then she dove in.
"I was in Trinidad at the time," she recalled, "but I looked up the The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and signed up right away for a course in Tennessee."
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic altered her plans a bit, so rather than heading to Tennessee, she stayed in Westerly, and began her six-month remote training at home. In April, she graduated, becoming a member of an organization whose mission is to "nurture heart-centered relationships between all peoples and the more-than-human world of nature."
"Forest bathing," or "forest therapy," she explained, is loosely based on the Japanese practice of "Shinrin Yoku," which translates to "bathing in the atmosphere of the forest."
The regular practice of Shinrin Yoku has been documented by Japanese medical researchers to increase immune function and a sense of well being while reducing stress and blood pressure, she said.
The physiological and neurochemical benefits from spending time in nature are well-documented, O'Connor said.
According to a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, scientists from Konkuk University in Seoul, determined that "Forest bathing has beneficial effects on human health via showering of forest aerosols as well as physical relaxation."
In his book "Your Guide to Forest Bathing," M. Amos Clifford, the founder of The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, writes that returning to nature for healing has a long tradition in "many, if not most, cultures."
Before the recent industrial era, Clifford writes, "all medicine came from nature in the form of herbs, roots, ritual, and relationships with other beings."
"Virtually every preindustrial indigenous people had traditions, ceremonies, and rituals, as well as medical techniques, bound to nature and reliant upon it for healing. Many of these were, and still are forest-based," Clifford writes. "Where you find traditional peoples and forest in the same place, there will be forest healing practices."
During her training period, O'Connor developed and led several therapy walks through the woods of Westerly, guiding participants to "move mindfully" in order to engage their senses and connect with the natural world around them ... the trees, the plants, the sounds, the smells.
Following the walks, she said, participants would often share comments like, "I haven't felt like this since I was a kid," or "I remember this; I used to play like this when I was a child."
"There is a bit of estrangement from nature these days," she said. "Forest bathing helps us remember" to come home to a part of ourselves we may have forgotten.
"Learning how to take care of ourselves is the art of good living," she said, and learning how to live authentically is part of that process.
O'Connor said while she is now officially accepting clients, and plans to have a fee structure and website established soon, she would like to offer health care providers free sessions in forest bathing as part of her "give-back" to the community, and encourages anyone interested to send an email to email@example.com.
The practice of forest therapy also helps remind people of their interconnectedness, O'Connor said.
"We are all part of a web" she said, "from the stars to the earth to ourselves."