The Coastal Star

Health & Harmony: More folks finding out strolls at Morikami can lift spirits

Wendy Lo (r), curator of education for the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, walks with Pat Liehr, associate dean for nursing research and scholarship at FAU. They say the Stroll for Well-Being has medical benefits in easing trauma. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Lona O'Connor

If you were lucky enough, the best way to stroll the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens would be with Wendy Lo. She is such a good advocate for the gardens’ Stroll for Well-Being program that she was awarded one of the Heroes in Medicine awards by the Palm Beach County Medical Society Services earlier this summer. 

She’s the first to point out that she is not a doctor but the Morikami’s curator of education.

It was the medical professionals at Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing who designed a 2006-2007 study that showed that walking in a garden — in this case, the Morikami’s gardens — helped relieve mild to moderate depression in older adults who had experienced bereavement or trauma.

Then, when Lo joined the Morikami nine years ago, she started spreading the word about the stroll, not only in Palm Beach County and South Florida but among her colleagues at museums and gardens all over the country, several of which have started similar programs.

Participants in the Stroll for Well-Being are asked to stroll in the 16-acre Japanese gardens at least twice a week and participate in three support groups during a six-week term. They receive a free one-year Morikami membership and an illustrated guide to using the garden. They can also use pages in the guide to record their thoughts about the stroll. 

“The stroll has touched and transformed many lives over the years,” said Lo, who says she still can get teary-eyed when she sees how people respond, especially combat veterans.

In addition to her role as project director of the Stroll for Well-Being Program, she oversees the docent program and manages classes, lectures, workshops, programs and adult outreach.

On a recent afternoon, she folded a large kimono after a long day of children’s programs and admitted that she could use a quiet stroll herself.

Asked by a family to take their photo, she made sure that the museum building was properly framed in the background and told the family, “Say sushi!”

Then she moved into her role as interpreter of the gardens’ charms, pointing out that they were designed with local plants wherever possible, carefully manicured in classic Japanese style.

Although it is not immediately obvious to the casual eye, she said, every turn, every branch, every rock, every gate or bridge in the garden was placed to allow people to feel a part of the larger world around them.  

At key points, there is even a calculated addition of nothingness.

“You can see how the trees have been trimmed to emphasize ma, or empty space,” said Lo, stopping at a sculpted royal poinciana. 

One of the stroll’s most enthusiastic proponents is Pat Liehr, associate dean for nursing research and scholarship, who worked on the 2006-2007 FAU study.

She emphasizes that whatever healing properties a stroll through the Morikami or any other beauty spot may have, they are supplementary. Everyone who joins the six-week stroll was channeled there though counseling programs.

“We tend to get a lot of Vietnam veterans who are still struggling,” said Liehr. “The walk isn’t the only thing they’re doing, but on the stroll we let nature take its course, literally.”

Like Lo, Liehr has spent time in Japan. She describes what is called “forest bathing,” using a natural environment to cleanse the spirit and help heal trauma. 

One of her doctoral students is using a small farm in Battery Park in New York City to study nature immersion in an urban setting.

FAU’s Nursing College is known for integrative approaches to health and medicine, so the collaboration with Morikami came naturally. However, although the idea of using a public garden or a museum to improve physical and mental health may seem obvious, it has only recently caught on, in part because of Lo’s efforts, said Liehr.

“There is a real interest in broadening the meaningfulness of museums,” said Liehr. “It makes them more relevant when they can contribute to community life. Morikami has stepped up in that way. It’s a really special place.”

For anyone who wants to experience the Morikami in a more therapeutic way, Liehr offers an easy way to make the transition: “Identify a bench that is in a spot that can soothe you. Give that bench five or 10 minutes of your time. Bring your awareness to whatever sights and sounds are around you. Just stop and be there.”

For more information about the Stroll for Well-Being program, call 495-0233 or visit www.morikami.org/for-adults/special-programs/stroll-for-well-being/. Sign-up details for the fall (October-December) and winter (January-March 2019) sessions were posted there in July.

Lona O’Connor has a lifelong interest in health and healthy living. Send column ideas to Lona13@bellsouth.net.

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