It is quiet and it is still. There is no human interference – only the gentle breeze rustling through the leaves, and the soft melodies of the honeyeaters and butcher birds perched in the trees above.

That is until you open your eyes and are jolted back to the here and now.

The group of people arranged in a rough circle range from young to old; students, professionals, the retired. The only link these people have to one another is a shared desire to connect with the natural environment.

Leading the group in meditation is Jay Ridgewell. As the founder of Held Outside, Jay is sharing the practice of forest bathing – also known as forest therapy – with the Sunshine Coast community.

It is a unique concept, but one that is gaining momentum around the world as humans seek to reconnect with their natural surroundings in a mindful way.

“It is the practice of slowing down, connecting to nature through our senses and remembering that our relationship with the world can be much greater than just human–human interactions,” Jay explains. “My reason for doing this is to reconnect people with their own relationships with nature. Maybe it’s a gentle reminder or a big flag that there is a lot we are missing out on and that it’s right here.

“The relational idea is that there is a huge amount of research that shows [spending time outdoors] will improve our own physical and mental health, our love for people, to be happier, healthier and calmer.

“But also there is the feeling for the potential of how does that help the Earth? How do the birds feel when we hang out with them? It’s about spending that time with the Earth and how does that change how we feel connected? We protect what we love. If our families are always in our minds, we do things for them. It’s the same thing for Earth… we might be more mindful of the Earth in our day-to-day decisions.

Raised in Brisbane and university educated in biochemistry and education, Jay continued her studies into the fields of science communication. She felt connected to the environment from a young age: “I grew up on a bush block, lucky enough to have that time sitting around, mushing around leaves and playing with sticks.”

Her hope has always been to find novel ways to bring science to the wider community, to look at how the world works and how people fit into that concept through the view of science.

For more than 10 years, Jay worked as a science communicator with stints performing in travelling shows, leading science camps and designing outreach programs for students, teachers and families.

Speared on by a curiosity to further understand the climate crisis and the population’s “quality of denial”, Jay felt a natural progression towards forest therapy and educating in the real-world environment.

“My fundamental reason for going into science communication instead of teaching was to find what is the best way, the best impact, I can have to leave the world a better place than I found it. Taking the psychology of things, the climate denial, the apathy, and looking at the emotional side.

“Forest therapy is more a sensory embodied type of practice. I worked out that it may be better to help people feel connected to the Earth rather than telling them. We all know this in our brains, but to feel it does change how you live.”

The program is held at various parkland and forestry locations around the Sunshine Coast and is open to all ages and fitness levels. The sessions are different each time, but do include slow-paced walks, an acknowledgement of Country, and a small tea ceremony.

There is an element of mindfulness, but Jay prefers the term “present awareness”. It’s about being in the moment and remembering that you are breathing in an environment that other microorganisms created. Rather than being wholly centred on your internal feelings, it is a surprisingly external experience.

“We don’t dwell on what’s going on in our mind and with our feelings,” Jay says. “It’s about letting yourself be taken. If you see a little insect, you follow it.

“I ask the group to think about the first memory that comes to mind of when they were a kid outside. The most wonderful stories come to the surface. It sets people thinking and remembering.

“We go through all of our senses. The sense of gravity under our feet, our sense of balance, sense of imagination, sense of direction. There are different ways we experience the world. There is no requirement to be deeply inspired or have moments of awe.

“Leave those expectations behind. Some people do have those profound moments. Some will simply have a nice walk.

“Most people will find it at least a relaxing experience. My main hope is that people are connecting with Earth, building and understanding that relationship of Earth. It’s about finding yourself, and the rock you are sitting on is part of that, the air that you are breathing is part of that. “You’re not just one being.”

Jay hosts four to five walks per month and each session takes place over two hours. She is currently working in conjunction with the Sunshine Coast Council to present a one-hour Finding Presence in Nature program.
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