“Forest Bathing” May Not Mean What You Think, But Has Wonderful Benefits
I confess, I was skeptical. The term “forest bathing” conjured up images of being cold, wet, and possibly naked in the woods. Actually, the term is a direct, if confusing, translation of the Japanese term “Shinrin Yoku,” the practice of spending time in the forest and experiencing it with all of our senses. Long practiced in Japan, forest bathing is becoming known around the world for its physical and emotional benefits.
Many of us recognize how much better we feel after spending time in nature. Just disconnecting from our daily routines and breathing fresh air can be a huge stress relief. And it turns out there’s a solid scientific connection between spending leisurely, intentional time in the woods and positive changes in our bodies and minds:
- reduction in blood glucose levels
- lower blood pressure
- increased immune response
- reductions in depression, anxiety, and ADHD
A main ingredient in this potent forest elixir is phytoncides. These tiny molecules are released by trees and plants to help protect them from rot or attacks by insects or diseases. Phytoncides are also proven to reduce our stress hormones and stimulate helpful NK white blood cells.
Guided Forest Bathing
Last spring, as we marked a year of pandemic life, I did a forest bathing walk with local guide April Claxton of Among the Trees. Again, I was slightly skeptical. I’ve always been a destination-focused hiker. Give me a loop trail, and I’m off to conquer it at a brisk pace. I wasn’t sure I could meander, but I was willing to give it a try.
Being outdoors made social distancing easy, and as we entered the woods, April laid out a couple of ground rules: phones off and minimal talking. Our first exercise was to just walk slowly, paying attention to the feel of the earth under our feet. This became a meditative exercise; while focusing on each footstep, my inner dialogue slowed, and I felt grounded in my surroundings.
For the next two hours, April led us on a journey of the senses, and I completely lost my need for speed.
We spent about 20 minutes on each sense: feeling the velvety undersides of spring leaves, tracing the distinctly different textures of tree bark, noticing the unexpected soft scent of moss. I sat down and leaned back against a towering cedar, closing my eyes and opening my ears. Birdsong, leaves rustling in the breeze, and the creak of swaying trees drifted in and out of my now relaxed mind.
Opening my eyes, I watched the light and shadow dance above me, a flock of chickadees dart from tree to tree, sword ferns glow in shafts of sunlight. By the time I reluctantly pulled myself away from “my tree,” I felt peaceful, grounded, and intensely aware of my surroundings. Pretty powerful stuff.
My guide April discovered forest bathing a few years ago. “I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors to get centered, calm, and slow down. I’d been trying to do more meditation and mindfulness practice. The idea of doing this outside while moving was super compelling, more so than sitting still indoors. I found the best way to get out of my head was to use all my senses,” she says.
Her decision to become a guide was a natural progression. “I felt like this was something I could share with other people, this way of being in the woods. I was always the pokey one on hikes, so the fact that the whole intention of forest bathing is to go slow and be mindful really spoke to me. It isn’t about getting anywhere; it’s about noticing what’s around you. That’s how I naturally am in the woods.”
I learned a lot during my two hours with April, not the least of which was to ignore my inner skeptic and open my senses to the slow pulse of the forest around me.
DIY Forest Bathing
While I highly recommend a guided experience for beginning forest bathers, April has some helpful tips for designing your own personal Shinrin Yoku expedition. You can use a local trail, a quiet park, or even your own backyard.
- Wear clothes you can move comfortably in and don’t mind getting dirty.
- Leave your phone at home or at least silence it.
- Be prepared for some initial discomfort with being quiet and moving slowly.
Forest Bathing Exercises:
- For the first few minutes, just walk slowly, focusing on the feel of the ground beneath your feet. Lightweight shoes work better than hiking boots.
- Touch: let your inner child out by exploring tree bark, mosses, and leaves with your fingers.
- Smell: get to know your surroundings with your nose. Nurse logs, rocks, trees, and leaves all have their own signature scent.
- Sound: find a comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and explore the soundscape. It takes a while for the brain to quiet, so be patient.
- Taste: proceed with caution on this one. Don’t taste anything you’re not sure of!
- Sight: really look all around, including up and down. Look for signs of habitat and use your eyes like a macro lens to appreciate the veins of a leaf or the colors of tree bark.
Some prompts to get started:
- Find a tree you’re drawn to and use all your senses to explore it.
- Sit still for 10-20 minutes and watch what happens around you. Think about the things you can’t see: logs decaying, nutrients flowing between the trees.
- Take time for some deep breaths and think about the health benefits you’re receiving.
A Natural Slow-Down
Some of April’s favorite moments are when she hears from participants about how they now experience the woods differently. “I love hearing from people that they do slow down more often, or they notice new things, like the different smells from one season to the next. And so many people report that they breathe deeper, feel calmer, and more centered,” she says.
I haven’t given up my fast-paced, destination-focused hikes, but now I have another way of being in the woods, with benefits just as rewarding.
More Forest Bathing Resources:
- Forest Bathing: How trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, by Dr. Qing Li
- Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, by Yoshifumi Miyazaki
- Forest Bathing Retreat: Finding Wholeness in the Company of Trees, by Hannah Fries
Research on Forest Bathing:
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Lauren Fritzen is a contributing writer for Whatcom Million Trees Project. Lauren is a copywriter/copy editor and has professional experience in marketing, social media, research, and event planning. Having written for Cascadia Weekly, WhatcomTalk and other local publications, she bolsters our blog articles and contributes to our other writing needs.
April Claxton leads individual and small group forest bathing walks. She will lead a forest bathing session as one of the free Whatcom Reads events on February 12 @ 10:00 am – 12:00 pm. To learn more, please visit here. Update: The WAIT LIST for her free event is now FULL. Sorry! Feel free to contact her at her website Among the Trees for other upcoming sessions.