Beneath a lush canopy of leaves, birds flit between branches, a gentle breeze tousles the trees, and I can begin to understand why forest bathing has become an international wellness phenomenon. My guide walks slowly—ever so slowly—treading the soft ground of this Pacific Northwest forest in socked feet. Though it goes against my every instinct in the woods (splinters, poison ivy, the ever-present dampness of the region), I follow his lead and find myself far more at ease with this intimate connection to nature than I would have thought possible.
What led me to this moment is an exploration into the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Despite my guide’s lack of footwear, forest bathing does not involve removing one’s clothing or getting wet. Rather, it is a wellness practice that exists somewhere between meditation and a nature walk, with some of the spirituality of yoga thrown in for good measure. It derives its name from the idea of soaking in the atmosphere of the forest—submerging yourself fully in the present moment in nature.
The purpose with forest bathing is to rediscover, rekindle, or simply deepen a relationship between humans and the more-than-human world.Michael Stein-Ross
While the mere mention of mindfulness may be enough for some wellness gurus to jump on board, there is mounting scientific evidence that forest bathing can provide tangible health benefits as well. Originally the practice was established in Japan and studied at Eastern universities, but the science has now made its way to Western universities in Europe and North America.
Among the health benefits forest bathing can offer, researchers often cite a boosted immune system, lowered blood pressure and stress, increased energy, improved mood, and even quicker recovery from surgeries or illness. On the surface it can be easy to point out that any sort of physical activity—particularly taking a daily walk—is likely to provide these benefits. But with forest bathing, the root of this wellness is much deeper. Essentially, the science suggests that the mere exposure to nature can “increase…a type of white blood cell called NK cells, or natural killer cells—cells that protect humans from viruses and even from tumor formations,” according to an article by Public Radio International.
This is because plants give off organic compounds called phytoncides, which they use to protect themselves from germs and disease. Phytoncides have been shown to be beneficial to humans as well, and when we walk in the forest we are taking in phytoncides as well as the relaxed atmosphere of our surroundings.
But my guided experience with Michael Stein-Ross of Cascadia Forest Therapy was much more profound than a simple nature walk. As Stein-Ross describes it, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) certifies guides in a more holistic practice. “You’re not gonna break a sweat,” he tells me on the short walk through the woods to our forest bathing session. And it’s true. The walk is an easy 15 minutes to a secluded spot on a well-maintained trail.
The ease of forest bathing is central to its status as a wellness practice. “Hiking has a destination,” Stein-Ross points out. “Forest bathing does not.” Founded in 2012, ANFT has been training and certifying forest therapists to lead these guided walks since 2014. The trails are never difficult, and it’s not uncommon for forest bathing groups to spend much of their time motionless, with eyes closed as they sink into an embodied experience in the forest. Even more important than the setting of the session is the invitation to embrace “mindlessness” in the forest.
The achievement of a liminal state of mind is a major difference between forest bathing and a nature walk or outdoor meditation practice. In the latter activities, participants are encouraged to be highly observant of their own state of being within nature. Forest bathing encourages participants to interact with nature on an intimate level, cultivating a relationship with the very plants and animals surrounding them.
During my forest bathing session, Stein-Ross began by inviting the group to carefully go off the trail in a technique called “tending the wild.” While this again struck me as counter to all the lessons I’ve learned as a hiker and camper, Stein-Ross was quick to point out that if we take the “leave no trace” philosophy to its logical conclusion, then humans don’t belong in nature.
This first tiny transgression opened the door to a vulnerable, soothing experience in nature I had never felt before. Stein-Ross invited the group to remove our shoes and feel the softness of the ground beneath our feet. Though wary, I did so, and was pleasantly surprised by the welcoming carpet of (mostly dry) moss on which I was standing. This trickled into a series of invitations each focused on a particular sense, as we listened, felt, smelled, watched, and even tasted the life of the forest around us.
As a species, after all, we evolved in the forest…Michael Stein-Ross
This sense of homecoming has also been supported by science, as many researchers are quick to point out that the development of urban landscapes and constant technology are recent phenomena, evolutionarily speaking. In cities, humans have to sort through a barrage of information and make thousands of decisions just to get through the day. Nature gives our brains a break from this work, allowing us to tune back in to a simpler way of life.
The invitations and exercises developed through forest therapy are designed to hone in on this relationship between humans and the forest. “If you’re not in your thinking mind, you can’t be thinking about past, present, or future,” says Stein-Ross. “You’re just in your body, wherever you are. Some of what the ANFT talks about is how we can more deeply, more effectively have that relationship with human growth when we’re just using our bodily senses. The standard sequence that we use has the first two invitations designed to help the participants pass through the liminality in their minds. That’s like getting out of the thinking mind into your body, where you somewhat lose track of time or space. It’s that flow state some people talk about.”
“After the first two invitations, everything else depends,” Stein-Ross continues. “That’s where the guide, in partnership with the forest, comes up with invitations to continue the experience, continue opening different doors for the participants to walk through if they choose to continue exploring what’s around. Those invitations are supposed to be simple, open, and based in the senses. That way, I’m not gonna give you an invitation where you need to think about this or that. I’m not going to prescribe a certain outcome.”
But while forest bathing certainly enhances the connection between humans and nature, it also emphasizes the importance of connecting with each other as well. Between each invitation, the group holds a “council,” in which participants can share their observations and experiences with each other. It’s a grounding practice that reminded me of the primal experiences all humans share with one another.
Connectedness—to nature and to each other—may be the primary lesson taught by forest bathing. Even those who live in urban areas or large cities can experience these benefits by finding a patch of nature in a park, or even a single tree outside their window.
Stein-Ross recommends this as well. “It’s key to find as much nature as possible. Even just having a window where you have trees outside, the research talks about people in hospitals who have a view—they recover faster. Prisoners who have outdoor nature access have lower recidivism rates… You can give yourself 15-20 minutes here or there, develop a routine or having a sitting spot a few times a week in a park, or in your back yard, where you can be in contact with nature and see it change through time.”
As our evening together drew to a close, the sun was beginning to set, the trees throwing long shadows across the forest floor. We concluded our session with a ceremonial tea in the forest. My guide had packed in a sturdy little teapot and a thermos of hot water. He asked the group to explore the surrounding area to find a natural object that spoke to us, and bring it back to the small wooden slab he had set for the tea. And there in the gloaming, sipping on hot tea and nibbling on dried figs, I felt as though my soul had been tucked into bed. We left the forest by the same route we had taken in, but in so many ways it felt like a different path than before.