A South Wonston woman has said she is looking forward to helping people “reconnect with each other and nature” after being given permission to bring outdoor therapy sessions to Micheldever Woods.

Sonya Dibbin is a practitioner of forest bathing, where participants immerse themselves in nature to reflect on their lives and relax in the wooded surroundings. Developed in Japan as Shinrin-Yoku, no water is involved, despite the name, with those taking part being led on a guided meditation in woodland.

“It’s very rewarding,” says Sonya. “I hope people have seen nature in a new light over past year and want to go out more and discover the natural world.”

Sonya began her career in IT, which she says she “fell into”. After giving birth to her son, she decided she wanted a change in her life.

“The minute I knew I was going to be a mum, I knew the best gift I could give my son was an appreciation for the great outdoors,” she said. “Despite the struggles of adjusting to be a new parent, I went back to work and found I had a new identity after maternity leave.

“That sustained period of time gave me time to do things for myself and my son, and when I came back to the office I felt stresses and tension I hadn’t felt in a long time. Having all that time had really cheered me up.”

After being made redundant from her role, Sonya decided to embrace the opportunity to change track in her career. She had previously undertaken training as a counsellor, and wanted to combine that with her love for nature.

She discovered the theory of nature connectedness, based on research from the University of Derby. It identifies a number of pathways that allow people to connect with nature in a variety of ways and improve their wellbeing, and has been used by organisations including the National Trust and Natural England to develop programs for education and mental health.

“You see yourself as part of nature rather than separate,” said Sonya. “You’re part of something bigger, which make things easier to handle. Once I discovered all that, I decided this is what I wanted to do, and so I pulled them together in forest bathing.”

Sonya leads forest bathing classes across Hampshire and Berkshire, with participants having a three hour session in the woods comprised of multiple exercises. The sessions take place in most weathers, except for gales and torrential rain.

“A little bit of rain is lovely!” says Sonya. “Everyone is encouraged to leave their tech behind, and to settle down and ground themselves in nature. I’ve got you for three hours so you can leave everything behind as we’re normally rushing all the time.”

As part of the sessions, the participants take a slow walk into the woods, where they experience nature around them. They then take part in a guided meditation, where they focus on specific senses of the environment with “activated senses.” Sonya then leads a sharing circle for those taking part.

“It’s not a discussion,” says Sonya. “I’m just a guide. In daily life we have to be protected, but here we’re slowly taking away layers.”

Following the sharing, the participants enter a deeper part of the session, where Sonya takes them on another slow walk through the forest, which they now experience with their post-meditation senses. They then take part in another sharing circle, as well as building gratitude gifts for the things the individuals are thankful for.

“The gratitude gifts are built from forest materials,” she said. “There was a lady who had recovered from cancer who had built a gift for her health, and she was crying in relief. While you are here, you can let it out. They can do their own thing and get the privacy they want, or they can share it with the group.”

For the final half an hour, the group reconvene with tea Sonya forages in the woods, as well as snacks, while she “wraps them up safely with their barriers.”

“There’s real joy and connection in the group,” she said. “It works with complete strangers, teams and friends. You’re never sure what’ll happen, as each session is always different because of the weather and season. It’s an otherworldly experience sometimes.”

Having just had permission to start classes at Micheldever Woods, Sonya says that they are quite different to the other forests she works in.

“Micheldever Woods are an ancient wood,” she said, “and have a long history compared to Basing Woods, which are the youngest I work in. Micheldever has a lot of different species and I love its pine areas. They’re magical.

“I do sessions in those areas and then come out into the light, and it makes quite a difference. I like this place a lot.”

Sonya also says that Micheldever Woods are good for phytoncides, which are natural chemicals produced by plants. Research by Japanese scientists in 2010 suggests that these contribute to the health benefits of forest bathing, such as reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress and lower blood pressure. However, their specific impact is as yet uncertain.

With the world beginning to reopen after the pandemic, Sonya says that more people have come to appreciate our connection to nature.

“The more you show an interest in nature, the more you realise it’s beautiful,” she said. “The changes in us from experiencing nature mean we’re also more interested in saving the planet.

“I think we’ve all realised we can’t carry on like this, and I’m hoping people will reconnect with each other and nature.

"I hope people have seen nature in a new light over past year and want to go out more and discover the natural world.”

Sonya sees this with her own son. Having set out five years ago to give him an appreciation for nature, she sees him fully engaging with the world around him.

“My son’s walks to school take at least 45 minutes as he’s constantly aware of nature,” she said. “That was what I set out to do and it’s the gift I gave him.”

For more information on Sonya’s forest bathing sessions, and other services, visit: https://adoreyouroutdoors.co.uk/