Any person at any age and any fitness level can participate in forest bathing, which helps the mind and body.
Every Friday afternoon, rain, snow or shine, Nicole Sumida and her two eight-year-old daughters step out of their busy Illinois suburb and disappear into the forest on the outskirts of town to do their form of forest bathing.
There they look at the deer, rest on logs and touch trees. After about three hours, the therapist and her daughters emerge, refreshed and ready for the weekend.
“It’s their downtime when they can be away from people, be with the trees and just be,” Sumida says. “It’s our decompression time.”
Sumida is part of a growing national movement practicing forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku (meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere). The Japanese practice was developed in the 1980s, and it’s essentially a deliberate walk through the forest to engage with nature using all your senses, says Ben Page, founder and guide at Shinrin Yoku LA, and the mentor and trainer at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.
“In essence, Shinrin-yoku is a guided experience that facilitates slowing people down and awakening their senses in a natural setting,” Page says. “When this happens, people tend to connect with nature in a personal, meaningful and rejuvenating way.”
It’s different from simply wandering through nature, as forest bathing is deliberately engaging with nature using all your senses.
There are many ways to practice forest bathing, and the experts suggest using a guide the first few times. Julia Plevin, a writer and designer, was stressed out in New York City because she wasn’t surrounded by nature. For the past two years, ever since she returned to California, she has been running a forest bathing club in San Francisco. Now her forest bathing club has 500 members, and she takes groups through the forest to practice her favorite hobby.
“I like to call it a yoga class meets a hike,” Plevin says. She starts by instructing everyone to put their phones in airplane mode, and then she either takes their phones away or makes sure they’re in a bag or away from their bodies. “We’re so programmed these days to be on our phones, so to have them off your body changes everything,” Plevin says.
Next Plevin instructs the group to pretend that they’ve just landed on the planet, that they’ve never seen a tree, never seen grass. “What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What do you notice?” she asks.
They pick up the rocks, the leaves. Sometimes they forage for berries. Sometimes Plevin hands out index cards and pens and they sit and reflect about their feelings.
Typically her groups are out for at least two hours. “We’re trying to evoke childlike play and wonder,” Plevin says. “You don’t have to learn how to forest bathe, but you have to remember how to have a connection with nature, so it takes guidance and permission — you have to slow down enough to connect.”
Anyone can lead people on a walk through the woods, but a forest bathing guide opens doorways to connection, Ben Page says. “I think Shinrin-yoku is rapidly becoming popular because our culture is experiencing a crisis of disconnection,” he says. “We spend so much time on our phones and computers, and we often think too much. We need a way to restore ourselves, and Shinrin-yoku does exactly this.”
In fact, multiple studies highlight the positive effects of forest bathing. A Japanese study looked at cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods and found significant increases in their activity during the week after a forest visit. After a weekend in the woods, those positive effects lasted a month.
Another study by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University in Japan looked at the physiological effects of the forest. They found that those who spent 30 minutes in the forest, compared with those who spend the same amount of time in the city, had lower concentrations of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, lower sympathetic nerve activity and greater parasympathetic nerve activity.
A study published in Science Direct found that forest bathing significantly reduces hostility and depression, and it can even be viewed as a therapeutic landscape. Even brief visits to greenery in urban environments can help lower stress levels when children have attention disorders.
“But it’s not just about the physiological impacts,” Page says. “One of the great things about Shinrin-yoku is that as you get deeper into the practice, you begin to notice that you are practicing it subconsciously. You begin to simply notice where you are during the day, noticing how good the breeze feels on your skin, how soothing the smell of a flower in your garden can be.”
It’s not just about going out on the walks, he says. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the natural world wherever you go.
But first you have to find someone to teach you the art of forest bathing. Fortunately, more and more practices are popping up nationwide, and they’re also frequently offered at health spas, retreats and resorts.
In Pennsylvania, The Lodge at Woodloch offers a weekly seasonal forest bathing exploration class. The class takes guided walks into the forest, where guests deliberately focus on keeping their body and mind in the present, while learning deep breathing techniques and mind-body awareness, as well as learning more about the forest, says Brooke Jennings Roe, spokeswoman for The Lodge.
Three years ago, The Lodge developed its forest bathing program, and in the fall of 2015, the team certified three staff members — their master herbalist, outdoor adventure manager and yoga instructor — in forest bathing.
For them it was important to add this to their offerings because once guests learn about the practice, they can take their knowledge home with them. “It can be done in any location that has nature: a grassy park, a vacant lot, a backyard,” Roe says. “Ideally, it is nice to find a quiet, secluded area that frees your mind from the outside world, but the benefits of nature are abundant and can be found everywhere.”
It’s similar to practicing yoga on your own: you can always practice it by yourself, but many people, including long-practicing yogis, choose to be guided through the practice, Page says. “In Shinrin-yoku, the guide, like the yoga teacher, creates a space for people to do their own work,” he says. “The guide does not judge or prescribe but instead offers their support as each person finds their own expression of presence and being.”
A guide helps because many people have difficulties relaxing and being present, Page says. “We are so conditioned to be always working, always thinking, always rushing off to the next thing, that most people have forgotten how to slow down and just be,” Page says. “If you’re someone who can find your connection to nature solo, then I’m very happy for you — but if you are not accustomed to nature connection, or eco-therapeutic practices more generally, a guide is of immense service.”