Next time you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try venturing into the woods.
A practice called forest bathing, or “Shinrin-yoku,” originated in Japan in the 1980s, and is now being embraced by the medical community as growing scientific evidence suggests humans not just feel good in nature, but need it. Trees release a substance called phytoncides, which help plants and trees protect themselves from harmful insects and germs. Research shows that when people breathe in the smell of plants or the forest air, this substance improves immune function, lowers stress levels, and makes us happier.
You don’t need to be athletic and no, you don’t need a bathing suit to forest bathe. You don’t even need a forest.
“We have a client that can’t get out and forest bathes with her houseplants,” said Angela Gross, the admissions coordinator at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.
Forest bathing is for people of all ages. While some people forest bathe in heavily wooded areas, others forest bathe in botanical gardens or backyards.
To start forest bathing, think back to your childhood. Explore the woods with the same curiosity as you did when you were a kid. Listen to the sounds of the forest — the rustle of leaves in the wind, the songs of birds, and the rush of water nearby. The idea is to connect your senses to the land and let the plants or trees heal you from there. What each person experiences in the woods will be unique to them.
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which was founded in 2012 in California, has 1100 guides in 55 countries. "Every year our business has been growing," Gross said. Some come away with a pleasant walk, some come away with life changing experiences."
Maureen Miller, from Georgia, has been a certified forest therapy guide for the past two years. Miller said she first realized the healing powers of trees as a child, when she often turned to the woods as a place of comfort. “The woods are my happy place,” Miller said. “When I was a kid, when everything was wrong, I’d go to the woods and contemplate and write.”
Miller takes clients in the woods near her home. She starts forest therapy sessions with a history of the land as she guides people to open their session.
Each forest bath typically includes a series of 10 “invitations,” or activities that encourage you to consciously take in your surroundings. In one invitation, Miller will, for example, ask people to sit in front of a tree, introduce themselves, and have a conversation with the tree as they observe how the tree listens in return. “The forest is the therapist and we’re just the guides,” Miller said.
The walk takes about three hours. The forest bath ends in a tea ceremony, made from elements found along the walk. The group uses this time to reflect on the forest bath before returning to normal life in a process called the “threshold of incorporation.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Miller, like other forest guides, have started offering virtual forest therapy. You can sign up for sessions here: https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/virtual-forest-therapy-walks
“We are so much related to nature, we need to be in it,” said Miller. “It’s an opportunity not just to connect with nature but to connect with others in the group.”
How to Start Forest Bathing
There is no right or wrong way to start forest bathing and how you proceed will vary by your location. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy has a handful of certified trails, which can be found here: https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/certified-trails#!directory/map
If you don’t live near a certified trail, find a location that’s comfortable to you. Here’s a suggested way to get started forest bathing:
Written by Katy Savage