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Influence of bonsai on health and well-being as untapped resource

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Art is generally accepted as a valid psychotherapeutic tool and mental health intervention. Gardening is also a beneficial leisure activity for mental and physical health, but is not often seen as a psychological intervention tool. Art therapy is well established as being useful as an assessment measure and an intervention method. Beyond gardening, Bonsai is an artful interpretation and pruning of a tree in a pot. Bonsai integrates relaxation, leisure and art therapy into one medium that can have personal, emotional, commercial and healing value. An international online survey elicited the meaning of bonsai practice for 255 Bonsai artists. Three instruments were used to report experiences of participants. These findings are significant in that this type of therapy may be easier to use than animal-assisted therapy. It can be especially useful in settings such as psychiatric hospitals, old age homes, orphanages, prisons, etc., as a preventative as well as restorative measure. The advantage of bonsai therapy is the ease of application in that there are no ethical implications as far as the instrument goes and relatively few resources are needed for this type of intervention with minimal impact on the establishment.
The Influence of Bonsai on Health and Wellbeing as Untapped Resource
Caroll Hermann
Department of Psychology, University of Zululand, Private Bag X10001,
KwaDlangezwa, 3886
Art is generally accepted as a valid psychotherapeutic tool and mental health
intervention. Gardening is also a beneficial leisure activity for mental and physical
health, but is not often seen as a psychological intervention tool. Art therapy is well
established as being useful as an assessment measure and an intervention method.
Beyond gardening, Bonsai is an artful interpretation and pruning of a tree in a pot.
Bonsai integrates relaxation, leisure and art therapy into one medium that can have
personal, emotional, commercial and healing value.
An international online survey elicited the meaning of bonsai practice for 255 Bonsai
artists. Three instruments were used to report experiences of participants. These
findings are significant in that this type of therapy may be easier to use than animal-
assisted therapy. It can be especially useful in settings such as psychiatric hospitals,
old age homes, orphanages, prisons, etc., as a preventative as well as restorative
measure. The advantage of bonsai therapy is the ease of application in that there
are no ethical implications as far as the instrument goes and relatively few resources
are needed for this type of intervention with minimal impact on the establishment.
Keywords: bonsai, intervention, eco-psychology, art therapy, spirituality
Recently, practitioners have endeavoured to practice psychotherapy and ecotherapy
(Jordan & Marshall, 2010) in unconventional settings such as private homes,
communities, institutional contexts and in more natural settings, such as gardens,
using non-traditional methods, such as hikes and generally being outdoors.
Ecological psychology describes the study of psychological effects of specific
biological environments on the psyche of a person (Jordan, 2015). Early
ecopsychologists realized that to live meaningfully, people need to reconnect with
nature (Brody, 2001). Ecopsychology has gained popularity in that it connects the
person’s psyche with an “outside-ness” (Kahn & Hasbach, 2012). Ecotherapy uses
nature-based methods to assist physical and psychological healing. Ecotherapy
acknowledges the vital role that nature plays in health and it represents a novel
application of psychotherapy in human-nature relationships. It challenges the
traditional notion that psychotherapy as must be conducted indoors on a couch
(Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009). This study is concerned with the impact that being
engaged in nature and specifically bonsai, as well as activities in and around nature,
might have.
Psychotherapy does not only apply therapy outdoors, but adds to the
psychotherapeutic dynamic. Additional ethical and ecological concerns need to
address the therapist’s mindfulness in conducting therapy in particular terrains, such
as sensitive environmental issues, the current state of the planet and economic
conditions that could have an influence on all relationship issues, and should be
integrated fully into psychotherapeutic practice (Jordan, 2009). Contact with the
natural environment helps children develop cognitive, emotional, behavioral, social
and biophysical relationships. Nature experiences are important for encouraging
imagination and creativity, cognitive and intellectual development, and social
relationships (Wolff & Flora, 2010). Creative processes are powerful mechanisms for
the release of inner emotions (Stylianou & Havran, 1998). Art therapy has a long
and valid history in psychotherapy and mental health interventions. It is well
established as a useful psychological assessment measure and intervention method.
Popular newspapers and magazines often report on the benefits of gardening as a
leisure activity for mental and physical health, but little research has focused on its
value as a psychological intervention or therapeutic technique.
The problem statement and purpose of the study
Oneness in being, Nature, consciousness, body and soul are all important to being
healthy, both physically and mentally. If one is not in harmony with all surrounding
forces, mental and physical ill-health and exhaustion can occur. Very few studies
have been done on the benefits of leisure activities on mental health (Hertzog,
Kramer, Wilson, & Lindenberger, 2009; Loy, Dattilo, & Kleiber, 2003).
As distinct from “working in a garden” or gardening, the art of Bonsai is specifically
targeted in this study for its spiritual connotation and skills requirement as well as a
disciplined commitment to the art form. Specific principles, as with any art, are
important and should be a guide in order to ensure success for the participant.
The purpose of Bonsai is firstly observation and scrutiny by the observer and
secondly, the pleasing practise of skill, effort and creativity for the grower. What
separates it from traditional gardening, is the fact that its sole intention is to please.
The art requires the long term cultivation and shaping of one or more small trees in a
container (Chan, 1987).
This study attempts to address the research question: “Please describe in full how
bonsai influences health and wellbeing as an untapped resource. The study further
addresses sub-questions, such as: how many bonsai artists consider themselves to
be spiritual; how healthy do bonsai artists feel & do bonsai artists have a better
quality of life satisfaction?
Bonsai as a form of ecotherapy and art therapy
Bonsai literally means a tree in a pot or tray. Some believe that the origins of
Bonsai lie in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where trees were cultivated in
containers (Heath, 2005,). The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, also known as the
Hanging Gardens of Semiramis, were apparently built by King Nebuchadnezzar II
around 600 B.C. Plants were grown in containers comprised of domed terraces
raised one above another on columns. The pillars were hollow and filled with soil so
that trees of all sizes could grow in them. With the practice of Bonsai, came the
rituals which are so intrinsically interwoven in its rich symbolism, culture and
tradition. In Japan today, the New Year is celebrated by placing a blossoming
prunus tree in the tokonoma, which is a special nook that every Japanese home has.
These tokonomas are used for the showing of ornaments and valued possessions.
Previously Bonsai was only reserved for the upper-class but is now a delight for all
(Hubik, 1997).
Bonsai No Kokoro can be described as a combination of the affection for bonsai and
enlightenment through Nature, or directly translated as Spirit of Bonsai”. This
vocation is similar to that experienced by people who are drawn to religion. Only
when the artist is ready, will Bonsai welcome him or her into its soul. This spirit is not
cultivated overnight but over a period of time and requires devotion, self-control and
frequent attention. It requires listening to silence and hearing the unspoken. Bonsai
lends itself to a design, enabling it to take the shape of the tree, with the lesson
learned emerging from the art created (Kato, 1983). As an art-form, Bonsai requires
discipline and commitment.
Bonsai may be viewed as integrating relaxation, leisure and art therapy into one
medium that can have personal, emotional and commercial value beyond the
therapist’s couch. As it essentially involves an artful interpretation of a tree in a pot
that the practitioner can move around, research questions arose as to the manifold
meanings Bonsai might have for practitioners. The purpose of this study is to report
on an investigation into such meanings.
Ecopsychology is a study of the connection between human beings and Nature
through ecological and psychological philosophies, values and ideologies. The
discipline strives to create and appreciate ways of increasing the emotional
relationship between individuals and Nature by encouraging persons to develop
sustainable existences and resolve disaffection with Nature. Theodore Roszak is
considered to be one of the founding fathers of ecopsychology along with Mary
Gomes and Allen Kanner (as cited in Roszak, 1993).
The key principle of ecopsychology is that, though the human mind is shaped by the
contemporary social world, it can be altered to fit the natural environment from which
it evolved. According to the “biophilia hypothesis” of biologist E.O. Wilson (as cited
in Gullone, 2000), human beings instinctively feel emotionally united with Nature,
especially those aspects of Nature that Bowlby has termed the “environment of
evolutionary adaptiveness”, the natural conditions that man inhabits (Hagen, 1999 -
Further principles of ecopsychology suggest that fundamentally the mind is not
conscious of ecological matters. The matters of the ecological unconscious embody
to a degree the living documentation of cosmic evolution (Roszak, 1993): such as
the Bonsai being the living documentation and that most of its creation lies within the
Current theories propose that existence and awareness arise from this evolutionary
trend; concluding in such natural systems within the subsequent sequence of
“physical, biological, mental, and cultural” systems as "the universe".
The goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the intrinsic appreciation of the
environmental interchange which lies inside the ecological unconscious. Whilst other
therapies strive for healing within oneself, between person and person, person and
family, person and society, ecopsychology seeks to rebuild the essential disaffection
between the person and the natural environment (Roszak, 1993).
According to Roszak (1993) the ecological or conservational ego develops ego
develops an appreciation of moral accountability toward the planet which is similar to
our ethical responsibility to other people.
Ecopsychology further embraces a synergistic relationship between environmental
and personal well-being. According to Roszak (1993) "synergy" as a concept is
selected intentionally for its conventional theological implication which believes that
the human spirit and the divine Spirit are linked voluntarily in pursuit for salvation.
The present ecological translation of this term could be translated as “the needs of
the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the
planet” (Roszak, 1993).
Roszak proposed that people’s connectedness to Nature can assist in increasing the
self-value of their interpersonal relationships and emotional welfare. Central to this
modality is the person and the therapist who endeavour to conduct interventions
outdoors. According to the principles of ecopsychology, being outdoors, in forests,
parks or gardens can be refreshing, because it is different to conventional norms.
Psychologists such as Ulrich, Kaplan, Kuo and others have studied the healing
effects on the human psyche of living in natural settings or even just looking at
pictures of landscapes (Charles & Wheeler, 2012).
More evidence of ecopsychology’s principles is that initiatives involved in accepting
and noticing Nature, such as hunting for “yamadori” or recognising potential Bonsai
can sharpen the senses and assist the cultivation of new skills. Noticing the style that
a tree is growing in and emulating it in the art of Bonsai sharpens the senses and
brings the person in touch with new undiscovered pathways (Roszak, 1993).
Ecopsychology investigates the process of developing emotional bonds with Nature
without judgment, allowing the participant to explore sensations of harmony, balance,
timelessness and constancy (Roszak, 1993).
There are also numerous benefits to be derived from feelings of being connected to
Nature at the state-level (also referred to as the mood at the time of interaction). It
could be argued then that the person turns to Nature as a healing power. State-
Nature-connectedness can also relate to both physical and mental energy (Cohen,
1993) and increasing positive or optimistic affect. Being exposed to Nature also
relates to other manifestations of positive performance such as ambitions and goals.
It leads to inherent ambitions such as personal growth, intimacy, and an involvement
in community and at the same time decreases extrinsic aspirations such as financial
wellbeing, image and fame at a state-level (Weinstein, Przybylski, & Ryan, 2009).
Weinstein, et al (2009) imply that intrinsic objectives relate to well-being whereas,
the accomplishment of external influences that can relate to ill-being. Nature
connectedness and self-sufficiency were found to facilitate the connection between
Nature experiences and intrinsic/extrinsic objectives.
Although Nature relatedness implies a feeling of being connected to Nature and is
purportedly a stable individual trait, it is essentially affected by a person’s own
experience with Nature. This means that the person would feel more connected and
therefore have a natural concern for Nature, after being exposed to certain
influences. There are benefits attached to being close to and feeling an affinity with
Nature. It may be of essence when creating settings for patients in therapy sessions
(Mayer, Bruehlman-Senecal, & Dolliver, 2009). Increasing exposure to therapies
involving Nature and the creation of green spaces in your own backyard may
increase the psychological wellbeing and ecological awareness of individuals and
therefore promote mental health. Exposure to Nature can have "humanizing effects;
fostering greater authenticity and connectedness and, in turn, other versus self-
orientations which enhance appreciation of and generosity toward others"
(Weinstein,, 2009).
Research Design and Data Collection
Whilst it is possible, but not necessary to transform qualitative data into quantitative
data and vice versa, both methods were used in this study. For the purpose of this
paper only quantitative research methods were considered to establish the extent to
which bonsai affected the spiritual wellbeing and mental (and physical health) of the
bonsai artist.
A general open-ended interest questionnaire was designed to establish
demographics and broad interest in the art, was sent to 255 participants.
Three instruments were used, namely, the Spirituality Scale (SS), (Dealney, 2005),
the Patient Health Questionnaire, (PHQ), (Pfizer, Inc, 1999) and the Quality of Life
(QoL), (Ferrans & Powers, 1985).
Bonsai Activity questionnaire: A general questionnaire was designed to gather
demographic information, as well as to determine the participants’ level of
involvement and commitment to the art of Bonsai. Twenty questions were asked
regarding age, gender, amount of trees and time spent in the Bonsai-en as well as
level of commitment and the effect Bonsai has on the participant’s wellbeing.
Spirituality questionnaire (SS): The SS (Delaney, 2005) consists of a 23 item
psychological tool used to measure the human spiritual aspect which includes:
beliefs, intuitions, lifestyle choices, practices and rituals and is scored based on three
sub scales. Spirituality is regarded as a multi-faceted phenomenon which integrates
three dimensions: self-discovery (a search for meaning), the experience of
relationships and eco-awareness (a connection to the environment and cosmos).
The SS is intended to measure spirituality, adopting a method which may be used to
monitor spiritual mediations (Delaney, 2005).
Health questionnaire: The Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) is a self-
administered questionnaire that was developed and validated in the early 1990’s
(Spitzer, Williams, & Kroenke, n.d.).
The PHQ was originally developed to identify the following disorders, namely
depression, anxiety, and somatoform and was the rationale behind using the PHQ-9
Since the questionnaire relies on patient self-report, the responses should be verified
by the clinician during an interview and a definitive diagnosis made on clinical
grounds. The responses by the participants were not taking into account how well
the patient understood the questionnaire, as well as other relevant information from
the patient and no final diagnosis was made.
Quality of Life Questionnaire: The Quality of Life questionnaire (QLI) was
developed by Ferrans and Powers (as cited in Hagel & Westergren, 2006) to
measure participants’ quality of life in relationship to their satisfaction with life. The
QLI gauges satisfaction and its importance concerning several aspects of a person’s
Ratings of Importance were used to weight satisfied responses, so that scores reveal
satisfaction with the facets of life that were deemed important to the individual. The
QLI produces five scores such as overall quality of life and four separate fields;
namely health and functioning, psychological/spiritual domain, social and economic
domain, and family (Hagel & Westergren, 2006).
The international community of Bonsai is a relatively small and intimate society.
According to Baran, (2012) there were approximately 654,000 active Bonsai club
members worldwide. It was estimated that a sample size of 255 respondents
through a method of purposive convenience sampling, would be representative of
the larger bonsai community. Invitations to participate in the study was senta group
of three hundred (300) well-known and respected Master and senior Bonsai artists.
Two hundred and fifty five (255) artists or growers responded to the questionnaire.
Of the 255, forty (40) were interviewed via email or telephone.
All Ethical principles which regulates research with human beings, respecting the
dignity of the human person, guaranteeing the right to privacy, anonymity of identity
non-submission to risks were observed. No financial reward was offered to
participants. The research proposal was duly registered with the Research Ethics
Committee of the University of Zululand and received approval under the opinion
C892/14 (UZREG171110-030-RA Dept. 2015/85)
Results of the Spirituality Scale
Of the 255 total respondents (n), 201 were male and 54 were female. A relatively
equal number of males and females were invited, but fewer females responded. Of
the group, 0, 8% respondents were below the age of 25, and 37, 3% between the
ages of 26 and 40, whereas 52, 9% were between the ages of 41 and 60 and 9%
above the age of 61.
In Graph 1 the number of respondents younger than 25 was insignificant for
interpretation purposes as most young people start out with only one or two trees.
This corresponds with what is observed at club and national level at conventions.
The fact that respondents over the age of 61 account for just 9% is significant in that
most Masters fall within this age group and would therefore own the most trees.
Participants who owned one tree which they called a Bonsai, made up 3, 2%,
whereas 1, 6% owned between 2 5 Bonsai. 19, 0% owned between 6 and 20
trees, 39, 7% owned between 21 – 50 and 36, 5% owned more than 50 Bonsai. As
per Graph 1, it is evident that participants, who owned only one show tree, also did
not have too many trees to work with. They stated that they preferred one quality
tree as opposed to too many mediocre trees.
Graph 2 depicts the participants who considered their trees of good enough standard
to show them. Almost half, at 41, 1% stated that they had at least 1 tree which was
of sufficiently good quality to exhibit. 28, 6% felt that they had between 2 5 show
trees, 19% had between 610 trees and 15, 9% had more than 10 trees of show
quality which would withstand the scrutiny of their peers.
Bonsai artists need to spend sufficient time working on their trees as it is a living art.
15, 7% stated that they spend 1 – 2 hours per week with their trees, where 45, 9%
stated that they spent 2 3 hours per week. 27, 8% spend between 4 10 hours
and 10, 6% spend more than 10 hours a week styling, feeding and looking after
trees. Graph 3 looks at the amount of hours per week spent in the En.
The need to spend time with Bonsai is evident in the length of time people spend
viewing or admiring their trees as opposed to working on them. It was surprising to
find that 1, 6% declared that they hardly get to the Bonsai-en because of the busy
lives they lead, and 6, 3% stated that they stroll past them once a week. Most
participants at 92, 1% felt a need to walk among the Bonsai-en daily. Graph 4 looks
at the amount of hours per week, spent walking around the En, instead of working on
The majority of respondents, 98, 8% replied positively to the question of whether
being able to work with Bonsai has had a calming effect on them and 95, 7% felt that
not being able to work on their trees, for whatever reason, affected their mood.
Graph 5 indicates the percentage of people who felt calmed after working or walking
in their Ens.
The Spirituality Scale (SS) reports on three different sub-scales. The highest
possible score that can be obtained on the total scale is 138 and the lowest 23.
Scores between 23 60 indicate very low levels of spirituality, 61 91, low
spirituality, 92 – 117 moderate spirituality and 118 – 138 high levels of spirituality. The
SS also reports on Self-discovery inasmuch as people search for meaning and
purpose in their lives (Delaney, 2005). Another sub-scale focuses on connection to
other people and also a connection to Nature and the cosmos (Wong & Torres,
A description of the three factors is as follows (responses to items are scored on a
one to six point Likert rating system, responses being: Strongly disagree, disagree,
mostly disagree, mostly agree, agree and strongly agree).
Factor 1: A personal factor labeled Self-discovery:
1. I find meaning in my life experiences.
2. I have a sense of purpose.
3. I am happy about the person I have become.
4. I see the sacredness of everyday life (Ehman, 2005).
Based on Factor 1, (a personal factor labelled “Self-discovery”) (Ehman 2005), the
participants in this study had a mean of 19, 2, which indicates a high level of
involvement in a journey of discovery of the ‘self’. 'Discovery' can be described as a
series of events wherein people endeavour to determine their feeling regarding
spiritual issues or the significance thereof. For the purposes of this paper, the
following criteria were used: scores of 4 – 10 were deemed to be “Very Low”; 11 –
15 “Low”; 16 – 20 “Moderate” and 21 – 24 “High”.
Factor 2: An interpersonal factor labeled Relationships
5. I believe that all living creatures deserve respect.
6. I value maintaining and nurturing my relationships with others.
7. I believe that Nature should be respected.
8. I am able to receive love from others.
9. I strive to correct the excesses in my own lifestyle patterns/practices.
10. I respect the diversity of people (Ehman, 2005).
Factor 2 measures an interpersonal factor labeled “Relationships” with a Mean of 31,
6. There were no “Very Low” scores. For the purposes of this paper, the following
criteria were used: scores of 6 – 15 were deemed to be “Very Low”; 16 - 25 “Low”;
26 – 30 “Moderate” and 30 - 36 “High”.
Factor 3, measured a transpersonal factor labeled “Eco-Awareness”, (Ehman, 2005)
with a mean of 61, 2. There were no “Very Low” scores. For the purposes of this
paper, the following criteria were used: scores of 4 – 10 were deemed to be “Very
Low”; 11 – 15 “Low”; 16 – 20 “Moderate” and 21 – 24 “High”.Total Spirituality Scale:
Factor 3: A transpersonal factor labeled Eco-Awareness
11. I meditate to gain access to my inner spirit.
12. I live in harmony with Nature.
13. I believe there is a connection between all things that I cannot see but can
14. My life is a process of becoming.
15. I believe in Higher Power/Universal Intelligence.
16. The earth is sacred.
17. I use silence to get in touch with myself.
18. I have a relationship with Higher Power/Universal Intelligence.
19. My spirituality gives me inner strength.
20. My faith in Higher Power/Universal Intelligence helps me cope with challenges in
my life.
21. Prayer is an integral part of my spiritual Nature.
22. At times, I feel at one with the universe.
23. I often take time to assess my life choices as a way of living my spirituality
(Ehman, 2005).
Graph 6 indicates that a high percentage of participants of this study felt that they
rated their spirituality very high.
Edwards (2012a) stated that the original psychometric standardization of the
Spirituality Scale, yielded a Cronbach Alpha of 0, 94 with three main factors labelled
eco-awareness, self-discovery and relationships, with alpha coefficients ranging from
0, 81 to 0,94. The present study yielded a Cronbach Alpha of 0, 907.
Quality of Life results.
Review of the literature revealed six key themes which are inherent to the quality of
life theory and are important, are: The ability to live a normal life, the capacity of
living a socially beneficial life (social utility), natural capabilities (physical and mental
capabilities), accomplishment of personal goals (success), happiness/affect and
finally, satisfaction with life (Delaney, 2005).
The subjective/biased awareness of the degree of happiness and satisfaction
towards the varying aspects of life is reflected in the ability to make a “positive or
negative” judgment of the subjectively perceived quality of life. Kimura and da Silva
(2009) state that “happiness” and “satisfaction with life” are similar but not identical
perceptions. Happiness can be described as an affective occasion and implies a
brief feeling of joy or euphoria. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is a cognitive
experience and infers a more lasting, long-term judgment about the person’s life
conditions. Furthermore, the prominence that participants assigned to different
aspects of life was deliberately taken into consideration in the definition of quality of
life proposed by the authors: “a person's sense of well-being that stems from
satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the areas of life which are important to him/her”
(Kimura & da Silva, 2009).
Overall Quality of Life of all participants.
The Quality of Life Questionnaire, had high internal consistency reliability across 24
studies. In these studies, the Cronbach Alphas ranged between 0, 70 and 0, 96.
Based on the four sub-scales in this study, it was found that the Cronbach Alpha was
0, 91 for all items, indicating a strong internal consistency. The Mean was 22, 49,
with a Median of 23, 30.
Patient Health Questionnaire
All 255 participants also completed the Patient Health Questionnaire – 15 (PHQ-15).
On the Somatic Scale, 9% of respondents reported no somatic complaints,
compared to 52% with mild symptoms, 17% with moderate and 22% with severe
symptoms. According to the developer (Spitzer, Williams, & Kroenke, n.d.), scores of
“11” indicate Yellow Flags” or the potential to develop symptoms of a somatic
disorder. Based on the above, 4,3% of respondents had raised Yellow Flags. Only 1
respondent (0r 0,4%) indicated a score of 15 and therefore raised a “Red Flag”,
which constitutes a possible manifested somatic disorder.
Participants followed a similar trend on The Anxiety Scale (GAD-7), with 30%
reporting no anxiety symptoms, 58% reporting mild, 7, 5% moderate and 4, 3%
severe symptoms. There were no raised Yellow Flags but, disproportionately, there
were raised Red Flags (3, 9%), indicating a possible manifested DSM-IV classified
Anxiety Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
On the Depressive Scale (PHQ-9), 31% reported no depressive symptoms, 58%
reported mild symptoms, 4, 7% moderate and 6, 3% severe symptoms. There were
no raised Yellow or Red Flags.
Discussion and conclusion
The purpose of this study was to determine whether there was a link between the art
of Bonsai, Spirituality and mental well-being And provide an answer to the research
questions: Please describe in full how bonsai influences health and wellbeing; how
many bonsai artists consider themselves to be spiritual; how healthy do bonsai
artists feel & do bonsai artists have a better quality of life satisfaction?
More explicitly, it was an attempt to determine whether or not being engaged in
nature leisure activities could have direct and indirect influences on mood and
spirituality and to what extent, if at all, such influences might be relevant to
engagement in Bonsai activities specifically. Results implied that Bonsai activities did
have a direct effect on mood adjustment, while at the same time creating a platform
for spirituality. Bonsai activities, coupled with spirituality contributed greatly to the
mental wellbeing of individuals.
Some questions which this study attempted to answer are included; such as the
social, political, cultural and personal ramifications of being involved in the art of
Bonsai. Baran, (2010b) questions whether it impacted on one’s family, one self,
occupational, and daily life and whether the lessons learned were transferred.
Psyches, perceptions and concepts were altered by relationships with the Bonsai.
The incessant rhythmic cycles represented in nature and in a life being fulfilled
through the nourishing of a living thing provide a form of achievement which causes
our Spirits, to be moved beyond return. Baran (2010a) asks not if, but to what extent
“our Bonsai are designed as alternative versions of our own stature and posture in
the world, i.e. (upright vs. windswept, formal vs. informal, silhouette vs. evergreen,
etc.) or suiseki as representing us in the world (dark and mysterious vs. precisely
defined mountain or hut, solid vs. spirit-opened, etc.)”
While results of this study suggested that being engaged in leisure activities has both
direct and indirect influences on individuals, there are several limitations associated
with the study that limit generalisation and explanation of the findings. Further study
is recommended on the direct effect of Bonsai as a therapy tool together with clear
randomised controlled research, with experimental groups and pre-and post-test
Other considerations for future research include the type of influence Bonsai or
nature based therapies could have on mood or anxiety adjustment. Although results
of this study suggested that engagement in Bonsai activities had a statistically
significant influence on the coping methods of the participants, the study did not
disclose the extent to which respondents may have participated in leisure activities
more frequently since they were well-adjusted, which highlights the lack of pre-test
data. The complexity of the relationship which Bonsai activities have on a reciprocal
connotation with adjustment, requires statistical procedures which were outside the
scope of this research. However, further research is needed to examine the
possibility that the Bonsai model is actually non-recursive or reciprocal.
This study found that the practice of Bonsai can be exceptionally beneficial as a
therapy tool, especially in settings where the client/patient has been isolated from
family or society in institutions such as long term psychiatric wards, prisons, old age
homes and orphanages
It is envisaged that Bonsai therapy can be arranged in stages. Stage One would be
where the therapist meets with the client/patient, initially to assess therapy needs. In
a subsequent session the idea of using Bonsai as a tool may be suggested to the
client followed by an explanation of the basic principles.
Stage Two would involve developing the patient's motor skills in preparation for the
transition from novice status to that of capable student. The development would
include such rudimentary tasks as selecting a tree and pot, learning to care for the
tree, etc. The therapist would then use the trees as a form of motivation for the
patient. The patient/ student is then taught to repot the tree and to care for it during
the initial stages of its development. Once the tree has survived and has settled in
the pot, styling can begin. The emphasis of activities can then be shifted from
positive social interactions and generalised to include other human interactions.
Stage Three involves the therapist's monitoring progress in the patient's moods and
other human interactions and assessing any positive social situations. Patients are
then given autonomy and allowed expression of their individuality, including freedom
to make their own choices with regard to the styling of the tree. Once the client has
mastered the care of the tree, he becomes responsible for keeping it alive. When
implementing an intervention, it is necessary to assess whether or not the program is
producing results as far as its outcomes are concerned; therefore, the goals must be
clear and specific. They include enhanced capacity to form positive images of the
self and others, as well as forming a spiritual connection with the tree.
Results should demonstrate significant improvements with regard to pain, mood, and
other stressful issues after patients have spent time with their tree/s.
The animal based therapy programs encourage the patients to express their
emotions in a healthy manner. It also offers cognitive stimulation through
discussions and reminiscing while patients are bonding with the animals. Decreased
physical functioning, lethargy, despair, isolation, and disturbing behaviours, are just
some of the many symptoms found in elderly dementia patients and needing
attention. These symptoms can all be positively affected by animal based therapy
interventions. Animal based therapy is very useful in diminishing undesirable
behaviour by distracting the patient and directing their attention on something more
positive (the animal and in this case, the Bonsai) rather than on their physical illness.
The focus shift motivates the patient to be physically active while enhancing
communication skills for those plagued by the loss of their memory and other
cognitive functions.
Although animal based therapy is considered to be a new method of dealing with
mood disorders, anxiety and childhood ailments such as Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism spectrum Disorder, it has been criticised because
of lack of evidence of the success of the technique. According to Lilienfeld & Arkowitz
(2008) animal based therapy should rather be considered as a “temporary fix” as
there is a lack of longitudinal data or research of evidence for more permanent
progress in patients taking part in the therapy process. Further suggestions are that
animal based therapy is more of an emotional technique using therapy than a
behavioural management. Lilienfeld further suggests that animal based therapy
reinforcement might be of brief Nature and not a long term one (Lilienfeld & Alkovitz,
The results of leisure engagement have simultaneously direct and indirect impacts
on the regulation of the moods of individuals. This has both practical and theoretical
consequences for the treatment of individuals with disabilities (Loy, Dattilo, & Kleiber,
2003). Results further provide evidence that the apparent social support in the
process of adjustment to spinal cord injuries is very important; thereby signifying that
leisure engagement contributed, to a certain degree, to the development of social
support groups which positively influenced regulation of their affect. Dattilo however,
(as cited in Loy, Dattilo, & Kleiber, 2003) inferred that the absence of social support
often limits the patients’ opportunities to be reintegrated in the community. Bonsai art
therapy does not rely on social support, although it is nice to have, and therefore
allows the patient to readjust without a need for social support.
Kleiber (as cited in Loy, Dattilo, & Kleiber, 2003) proposed that engaging in leisure
activities often provides a degree of stability which is soothing for individuals who
have experienced interruption of their daily activities by negative or disabling life
events. However, additional research is required to better define the meaning of the
“continuity of leisure engagement and diversity of leisure” range of activities in the
lives of persons living with disabilities. Loy, Datillo and Kleiber’s (2003) study
provides further evidence of the importance of remaining actively engaged in life
after a negative life event.
Cognitive intervention focuses predominantly on stimulating the cerebral cortex in
the brain. The cerebral cortex is considered to be the intellectual part of the brain
while the limbic system is the expressive or emotional part. Where these two areas
interconnect with each other, as well as with other parts of the body (i.e., the
hypothalamus, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems), is where most
intervention programs work. It has been suggested that control and variation of
thoughts and perceptions can affect emotional reactions and physical functions
(Bauer-Wu, 2002).
The most important impact that Bonsai art therapy can make is with Expressive
therapies. Expressive therapies benefit internalised stress by releasing it through
catharsis and perseverance. Catharsis suggests the release of pent up thoughts and
emotions. Resolution, which frequently follows catharsis, is the termination or
closure of previous difficulties so that a person can let go and move on with his or
her life.
Research on expressive intervention's consequences on patients with cancer is
preliminary but promising (Bauer-Wu, 2002). Rough and robust trees that are tamed
into beautiful art pieces, can be a testimony to the person’s past life experiences and
to where they are now. The recovery of a tree dug up from Nature, can symbolise a
person’s own recovery from radical surgery or treatment.
Tapping into one’s creativity can be an alternative means of self-expression. Creative
expression can provide an alternative to using language to express hurt, self-doubt
and to let go of emotions held deep within. Art therapy, facilitated by qualified art
therapists, is the formalised use of art to encourage psychological processes in
recovery. However, the benefits of being able to use the arts to heal are not
restricted to art therapy or to individuals with natural artistic talents. Patients,
particularly those who are not artistically talented, may need frequent
encouragement and assistance to try creative therapies and may benefit from Bonsai
art therapy.
Research has revealed that patients with cancer who are involved in physical
activities have more energy and less stressful symptoms than those who are less
active (Bauer-Wu, 2002). Physical activities can be accomplished in a variety of
ways, including just walking through the Bonsai-en or moving pots around or moving
around the tree whilst styling.
The stories and experiences communicated by the Bonsai artists in this research
have illustrated how Bonsai can provide the context for healing, growth, power,
gratification, and transformation. It may have demonstrated that artistic expression,
caring and tending to a tree can be healing and therapeutic. Further research could
investigate the possible benefits of healthy self- expression within artistic contexts on
body image, self-confidence, and self- esteem with regards to shapes and styles. It
may be of use to the psychology profession to be aware of the possible benefits of
Nature-assisted therapies, with specific reference to Bonsai.
Ecopsychology can provide a learning paradigm (Mahoney, 2002) in the field of
psychology to augment the existing theories, approaches and interventions of mental
health by introducing bonsai as a therapeutic art form. The researcher was therefore
of the opinion that this study would add value to existing therapeutic approaches. It
was considered that this research could have some key implications for individuals
and services with an interest in spiritual, rehabilitative and mental health care and
would relate to the holistic prevention of mental and physical health issues. It was
envisaged that the information gained during the study would assist in preventing
those issues and possibly aid mental health rehabilitation to a certain extent. The
research finding will be distributed to relevant health professionals and rehabilitation
facilities will hopefully encourage further research in the field.
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