It's easy to be confused about the definition of forest bathing, because it's not the obvious: a cleansing splash in a clear waterfall.
Known to offer a variety of health benefits, including aiding in mental health issues such as stress and depression, and being good for society as a whole, this simple, easy activity could change your life, and help the planet. As more and more of us see the benefits of going into nature, forest bathing is taking off. This article is about the restorative energy of forest bathing and how to make it a part of your everyday life.
WHAT IS FOREST BATHING
Thank the Japanese government for converting the world to forest bathing, as well as for making the concept official. In the 1980s they wanted to improve their citizens' mental wellbeing and physical health, and so began encouraging everyone to walk in the woods. They called it Shinrin-yoku, which translates to “take the atmosphere of the forest.” As forest walks grew in popularity, areas of Japan were deemed forest therapy bases or roads.
Another term is “Silvotherapy” or “Sylvotherapy.” “Silva” is Latin for forest, and this is a practice of coming into close contact with the energy vibrations of trees.
And yes, the trees are vibrating. Leading forest ecology professor Suzanne Simard's book Finding theMother Tree - Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, fresh off the press at Knopf in May of 2021, reveals how the synergy of the forest actually runs through the trees. Communication and nutrients flow through the root network, all connected by mycorrhizal fungi. Trees share carbon, nitrogen and water, as well as knowledge – warning one another of disease and drought.
The biggest, oldest trees in a grove are called "Mother Trees" by both Simard and the Indigenous people of the Secwepemc Nation of British Columbia. These trees are the hub of the network, which is more like an underground cooperative, all striving together for optimal life, rather than competing for it. Trees connect not only to each other, but also to other living things in the forest.
BENEFITS OF FOREST BATHING
A 2019 scientific report on nature.com claims that good health and wellbeing are associated with spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature. As a practice, forest bathing isn't strict. You can spend under an hour in the forest and still reap benefits. And the "forest" doesn't have to be a certain kind of forest - any wooded area can be your starting point. Research has shown that access to nature can boost the immune system and repress asthma. It also supports mental health, reducing anxiety and depression, and may even reduce crime by calming aggression.
When you take the time to stand still with trees that have stood in place for hundreds, and even thousands of years, you start to feel lighter – as if rising up with and among these strong, steadfast beings. This shift in perspective can make people more generous to others, and happier with their lives.
Advanced studies in Japan in the 1990s determined that 40 minutes of walking in the forest decreased stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure.
Western governments are catching on, too. A 2022 program launched in Canada allows some doctors to provide patients with a free annual pass to national parks, in an effort to take advantage of health benefits of being in nature. They're betting it will ultimately reduce costs to the country's healthcare system, as well as increase the number of environmental advocates.
Over time, more benefits of forest bathing have been discovered:
strengthening the immune system because of phytoncides (molecules secreted by trees to defend against bacteria)
lower cortisol concentrations. cortisol levels rise when a body is under stress. when there is too much stress and cortisol levels remain high, problems can include anxiety and depression, weight gain, memory and concentration issues, headaches, difficulty sleeping, digestion issues, and even heart disease.
diabetics have found a decrease in the level of glucose in their blood
it decreases aggression, as well as having positive effects on depression
specific tree species may have a positive influence on certain individuals: Japanese Cedar can lower systolic blood pressure; white cedars in Japan’s Kumano Kodo region have slowed down symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Japanese researchers have also found that contact with nature through forest bathing can develop all of the five senses.
HOW TO GO FOREST BATHING
It doesn’t have to be a deep walk into dense, endless woods to qualify as forest bathing. Just enough trees to cut out the urban hum, a sense of traveling out of your usual realm, and an ability to disconnect are all you need. Sure, have your phone with you, but let yourself go for a while by silencing it if you’re in a place with service.
Fire up the senses when spending time in the forest. You can touch the bark of trees, wade barefoot through streams, run fingers over leaves and moss. Take time for deep, clean breathing, smelling whatever the forest has to offer. Look up at the grandness of nature. Or sit quietly with eyes closed, just to listen. Songs of birds and chatter from other creatures are a welcome respite from traffic, voices and loud urban sounds. Wind or animals moving through leaves, your own feet along the path – let all of these sounds lift you out of the everyday and clear your mind.
WHERE TO GO FOREST BATHING
From Acadia, Maine to Zion, Utah, most of US National Parks are excellent for forest bathing - as are many state parks around the country. Even city parks can be perfect - some more famous city parks where you can absolutely go forest bathing include: Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY, Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, Griffith Park in Los Angeles, CA, and Chautauqua Park in Boulder, CO. Perhaps less famous, but equally as rewarding city parks for forest bathing include: Mount Airy Forest in Cincinnati, Ohio, Eagle Creek Park, Indianapolis, IN, Jefferson Memorial Forest, Louisville, KY, and Blue River Park, Kansas City, MO. If you're unfamiliar with an area, check in with the city government or take a spin around an online map and start zooming in. You'll find parks everywhere!
Spots within parks where you might forest bathe include wooded areas like groves, waterfalls where you can sit and listen for extended periods of time and even put your fingers and toes in the water, and rocky forest with trails winding through.
If you'd rather not go it alone to get started with forest bathing, there are certified guides popping up all over the world. This list of guides in North America and the UK can help you find a guide in your area. Or use this interactive map to find guides in different parts of the world.
When you can't get to a forest, or even get outside, you can still find ways to fold forest bathing into your daily life. Rely on nature to restore your senses in the smallest ways.
Take time to touch
Once, when we went to visit a friend in San Francisco, we saw a bowl of leaves on her table. These weren't freshly fallen leaves, but fuzzy leaves she had collected from different places over time. It made us think about how different leaves can feel, and how just touching the fuzzy leaves could mentally move us from inside to outdoors. Start collecting things in nature that you like to touch - smooth river stones, fallen birch bark, leaves or berries. Keep them in a bowl or jar that makes you smile, and have them nearby for a touchpoint at any time.
Breath in Pine Essence
The antiseptic and antibacterial properties of pine resin add to its popularity as a scent. Diffuse a bit of pine needle essential oil or brew up a fresh batch of pine needle tea. (We'll show you how here.) Burning piñon is another way to bring the forest indoors. There are also plenty of pine scented candles available - just be sure to find one made of natural ingredients, such as soy wax, which is healthier to breath than traditional paraffin.
Look up more
Indulge in the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv. Simply put: get outdoors. Take a walk in an easy to access area that you know to be quiet, and break away from the ground by looking upward. Take in everything you can of the nature that you see and allow your mind to drift for a few minutes.
Calm the noise
Noise pollution can lead to hypertension, stress, and heart disease. And the amplification climbs up as we invent more gadgets. A 2011 National Park Service study at Muir Woods National Monument in California asked visitors in one zone of the park to be quieter and turn off cell phones. That zone saw the sound level drop by three decibels - about the equivalent of a reduction of 1200 people in the area. Here are a few ways to leave your immediate noise behind and dive into the sounds of the forest:
Listen to acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton's recordings of natural soundscapes on his Spotify channel
Listen to the One Square Inch project, recorded in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park (15 minutes of forest sounds)
Watch and listen to a mile-long wooden xylophone created deep in a Japanese forest as it rolls out a song that may be Bach's Cantata 147. This is an absolutely incredible accomplishment of ingenuity. Take a moment to watch - you'll love it:
THINGS TO BRING WHEN YOU GO FOREST BATHING
When you go forest bathing, you want to be comfortable. The idea is not to be distracted by the physicality that you bring. Check the weather – you may need layers, a scarf and hat, and maybe a water repellant jacket. Be sure you are wearing shoes you feel comfortable bringing into a forest, and that they won’t blister your feet along the way. Here are a few things you could include on your forest excursion:
A bottle of water or other liquids to stay hydrated, and snacks if you'll be out long
Pad or mat for sitting and stretching
Journal and pen or pencil to jot any ideas that float in. This also helps getting off your phone, which you might normally use to take notes.
Any reading that feels right for the experience – perhaps poetry, or something spiritual
PRECAUTIONS TO TAKE WHEN FOREST BATHING
There will be bugs. Prepare for them by wearing long pants, long sleeves, hats, and eco-friendly bug repellant.
There will be animals – some of them not so friendly. They are most likely trying to avoid people, but depending on time of year and how near to their babies you stray, they could be defensive. Study up on the animals in the area you plan to explore and know how to behave. If a bear appears, make yourself as large as possible and back away - facing them. Don't turn and run. They most likely just want you to leave, not spar with you. Keep an eye out for snakes in sunny spots - snakes love sun bathing, especially on rocks.
There may be poisonous plants, or plants that cause allergic reactions. Do some research before you go.
There may be unsavory characters. Talk to the park service folks to find out where you may need to be more on alert – either give a call before your visit, or say hello at the park entrance. This is easy to do with the national parks. Not so easy with the urban ones. Just do some searching and know how to handle yourself in the event you might be taken by surprise.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? GO FOREST BATHING!
The beautiful things about forest bathing are that it doesn't take a lot of effort to get started, you can go alone, with friends, or in a guided group, and you can find a way to do it just about any place you travel. It's the simplest way to take steps to a more healthful life. We encourage you to get outdoors and enjoy yourself.
Our sweet model Isabel is wearing an upcycled sweater that we hand-embroidered with a picture of snow-capped mountains and pine trees. It is part of our one-of-a-kind collection coming fall 2022.
*All photos are our own, and not in public domain. Please request permission for any use. Thank you!*