Forest Bathing 101: An In-Depth Look Into The Healing Practice
While it might conjure images of a clawfoot tub nestled in trees, the term “forest bathing” refers to a more metaphorical experience in nature—one where your surroundings wash over you, cleansing you from the outside in.
Different from more goal-oriented exercises like hiking or camping, forest bathing is more akin to an outdoor sensory meditation. And in today’s increasingly urbanized and tech-driven age, it’s more appealing and important than ever.
Why did we start forest bathing in the first place?
Forest bathing as it’s known today began in the 1980s on the trails of Akasawa, a forest in central Japan. Akasawa now doubles as a living laboratory—a place where stressed-out city dwellers can go to find respite and then take part in a study on how the time in the forest has changed them on a physiological level. Cabins dotted throughout the trees are full of researchers looking to find proof of concept that forest bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku as its known in Japan, really does make us happier and healthier.
Japan is home to some of the most crowded cities in the world so it may seem like an odd location for this sort of study, but Japanese culture and traditions actually maintain a strong reverence for nature. Case in point: “Greenery Day”, an occasion reserved for taking in the beauty of the natural world, is a beloved national holiday.
As more research continues to emerge from these woods, the practice is gaining legitimacy around the world. There are now hundreds of certified Nature & Forest Therapy Guides in the U.S. working to connect people with the healing power of the woods, and nations like Finland, considered to be one of the happiest in the world, have designated “well-being themed” forests that prompt visitors to stop and connect with their surroundings with signs like “squat down and touch a plant”.
Why is being in the forest so good for us?
Wondering how much good a walk in the forest can possibly do for the body? A whole lot. One experiment across 24 forests in Japan measured people’s blood pressure, pulse, heart rate, and cortisol levels (the hormone that is released when we’re stressed out) after they took a walk in the woods and compared to those of people who walked in city surroundings. Though it was on a small cohort of 12 participants, the study found that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure. Another measured sleep patterns of participants after a forest bathing trip. Beforehand, the forest bathers reported having insomnia. After a two-hour walk in the woods? Their average sleep time increased by 45 minutes.
Researchers suspect that the forest’s stress-reducing, mood-boosting powers come from compounds known as terpenes, which are found in the oils that plants give off. Abundantly available in Conifers like fir, cedar, and spruce trees, these terpenes have been shown to improve brain health, in addition to boosting immunity. Another study found that an immersion in the forest could increase the body’s levels of Natural Killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infection in the body. This is even more incredible when you consider that one 3-day trip to the woods actually boosted participant’s NK levels for up to 30 days afterward.
We adapted from the natural world, so the idea that nature holds the capacity to heal us is pretty easy to believe. While more research is still needed to determine the exact mechanisms driving these responses, the Japanese government now officially recognizes Shinrin-yoku as a healthful practice and “forest medicine” has become a legitimate Rx in the country.
Want to get started? It couldn’t be easier.
Embarking on a forest bathing journey of your own is as simple as finding a slice of nature, ditching your phone, and tuning into your surroundings. Here are a few things to keep in mind to ensure the most restorative outing possible.
1.) Go somewhere what works for you.
While forest bathing is often practiced in the woods, that doesn’t mean city dwellers can’t enjoy it. Seeking out gardens and tree-lined streets can work too! However, you’re more likely to find terpenes in areas with dense tree cover—especially just after a rainstorm.
Dr. Qing Li, one of world's foremost expert in forest medicine and a leader of the research coming out of Japan, argues that the practice is as essential to well-being as diet or exercise. In his new book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, he writes that in order to find calm in nature, you must find a spot that speaks to you and you alone. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution—it differs from person to person,” he writes. “For some it will be the sound of water flowing over pebbles in a stream or squirrels chattering to each other in the branches. For others it is the scent of the air, or the sight of the forest bursting into greenery at the beginning of spring.”
2.) Engage the senses as a shortcut to mindfulness.
Once you find a place where you feel at ease, it’s time to lean in and engage the five senses. Jo Fleming, a certified Forest Therapy Guide, recounts the mindful journey in the Montana wilderness that inspired her to first seek her certification in saying, “I could taste and smell how fresh, moist and cold the air was. There were a wide array of sounds of that space—leaves quivering as gusts blew up, a river crashing and tumbling rhythmically behind me somewhere, the birds and squirrels scratching at the bark, twigs and debris on the ground and trees. I took another deep breath and closed my eyes and just listened. As my fear began to dissipate it was replaced with a growing feeling of peace. I kind of melted into that place.” Since that transformative experienced, she’s found that tuning into the sights, smells, and sounds of nature has been a shortcut to happiness and creative living.
3.) Don’t overthink it.
At the end of the day, the “rules” of forest bathing are few and it’s just about quieting the mind in order to connect with your body and your surroundings. “Forest bathing is about slowing down, allowing things to emerge around us, and letting ourselves melt into a place to the point where we don't feel separate [from nature] anymore,” says Fleming. “We have no idea what will emerge and that's what is so inviting.”
And what a beautiful notion that is: that returning to nature feels a lot like coming home.