What is Forest Bathing?

Have you heard of forest bathing? What about nature therapy or eco therapy? Until recently, I had never heard of either. Not until I was telling a friend how desperate I was recently to take a walk in the woods.

Forest Bathing with Little Saps

A few weeks ago, I was really stressed out. I was completely on edge to the point that my nerves felt fried. For the couple of days prior, I longed to work in the greenhouse, but I had been stuck in the office instead. On Thursday, my 6 year old daughter was out of school for a teacher work day, so I asked her if she wanted to go on a hike. She enthusiastically agreed.

I knew I needed to get outside, but I wasn’t sure how it would go. As any parent knows, it’s difficult to have space to yourself when one of your children is close by. But I was pleasantly surprised. Anne was in her own world and while she did not give me space to become totally lost in my thoughts, she did give me time to take some deep breaths and soak in the woods around me.

I resolved to stay in the moment. I even made a conscious effort to leave my phone in my bag. I love taking pictures, but I also worry about being too attached to my phone. I want to experience life in real time and space, not just virtually. Even so, there were many moments when I just couldn’t help myself! What is it about human beings and our intense to desire to make beauty our own, even if just in pictures?

My daughter was exhibiting her own humanity - collecting “nature” in her satchel and pretending to take her own pictures with the binoculars that hung around her neck. She had me pose for some of her “pictures” and even told me to move this way or that so that the pretend picture was better. Aren’t there days when you would just love to be 6 years old again?

We moved slowly along the trail, briefly coming together for a shared experience and then just as often, moving along on our own journey. The forest was quiet and we met with few others. After a little while I could feel that the edge was dissipating, but I still felt like I was missing something.

It was almost time to pick up my other children from school, so we turned around to head back. As I waited for Anne to record something in her notebook, I studied a fallen tree in front of me. I suddenly had the urge to touch it to see what it felt like. I quickly dismissed the feeling and stepped away. I started along the trail, then stopped myself. Why not touch the tree? I went back and felt the remains of the log. It was so dry, it crumbled to dust at my touch. But the sensation of touching it was satisfying.

I looked around at the living trees standing around me. I noticed the bark and how each tree was a different texture. Suddenly I was feeling them all as we walked down. I was surprised that my hand slid effortlessly down all the trunks of the trees - even the trees with rough bark. It didn’t hurt at all! Anne laughed at me and made a joke about petting the trees. But to me the trees felt incredible.

I never experienced anything like it before - this pull towards something natural and tactile. But when I told a friend about it, she mentioned forest bathing. She said it was a “thing”. So I looked it up, and yep, it’s a thing. According to an article from NPR, the practice began in Japan in the early 1990s. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku — which translates roughly as forest bathing.

The website shinrin-yoku.org claims that “forest baths are gentle walks that support well-being through sensory immersion in forests and other naturally healing environments.” The website goes on to say that researchers in Japan and South Korea have established a body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. For more information, visit shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.

The idea of forest bathing is still new to me. Many of us retreat into nature for refreshment and renewal, so we know that there is something healing about nature whether the healing is mental, spiritual, or physical. I’m not sure we need Nature and Forest Therapy Guides (as the NPR article and shinrin-yoku.org suggests), but it’s intriguing. As we delve deeper into a virtual and technological world, living life through our cell phones and tablets, maybe we will need guides to connect us back to the natural one.

In the meantime, if you’re feeling edgy or disconnected or depressed try some “forest bathing”. Try spending some time in the woods. Slow down, take some deep breaths, listen. And if you feel the urge - don’t be afraid to reach out and touch some trees. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised.