A Guide to Forest Bathing
Welcome to the Forest
And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul. John Muir
How often have you walked hurriedly past a tree, plants or flowers on your way “somewhere?” They pass by you as a blur, a peripheral distraction, or even an impediment.
Nature - in all its glory - exists not as a decorative element to our lives, but as a vital and vibrant part of what actually keeps us alive. We all know that trees ingest carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. That’s a given. Without this symbiotic exchange, humans wouldn’t have long on this earth. But, what else do these amazing beings do for us - and what else can we do for them?
For the answers we’ll have to venture into the forest. Or the park. Or your backyard. Or on to the street. We’ll have to learn about the Japanese preventive medicine practice called shinrin yoku, or forest bathing.
What is Forest Bathing?
The Pillars of Nature are alive! Charles Baudelaire
Forest bathing has nothing to do with taking an actual bath in the woods (although you could take a dip into a stream, a lake or pond, or under a waterfall). In reality, it’s all about connecting with nature, and therefore yourself (and others), on a deeper, more meaningful level.
This practice involves experiencing your natural surroundings with a completely open mind, body, heart and spirit. Instead of brushing past the trees or bushes or flowers, take time to connect with them. Be sure to approach nature with the Beginner’s Mind, as if you are seeing it for the first time. For, in reality, even if you have “seen” that part of nature many times, approaching it mindfully will give you a fresh perspective.
Forest bathing can be as easy as going into your yard and observing the snow on the tree branches, examining the leaves of flowers, watching the grass flowing in the breeze, and touching the bark of a tree. Or, it can be as involved as taking a forest bathing holiday which might involve camping silently in a forest with no technology to distract you.
This practice has been researched and monitored by international scientists, universities and nature institutes, and has been proven to work on many levels. The Nature Connectedness Research Group, a UK-based think tank and academic body, states, “...we need a new more connected relationship that recognizes that we are part of nature. This is a relationship that will bring both pro-nature behaviors and improved mental wellbeing.”
Let’s continue to explore…
Benefits of Forest Bathing
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Herman Hesse
Indeed, the benefits of being in nature on a general level, and forest bathing in particular, are many. It has been proven that phytoncides - the active substances naturally emitted by plants and trees - have properties which are beneficial to humans.
Forest bathing has been shown to:
- Reduce stress
- Improve mood
- Increase energy levels
- Encourage physical activity
- Boost the immune system
- Lower blood pressure
- Open up creativity
- Help with mental and physical healing
- Manage anger
- Calm anxiety
- Combat depression
- Clear the mind
- Improve focus
- Promote restful sleep
How to Practice Forest Bathing
The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years Maria, The Sound of Music
In Bogotá, Colombia (the second most biodiverse nation on earth), high up in the Andes mountains, I am fortunate to live near five beautiful parks and many green spaces. This proximity - and access to over 5,000 more parks in the city - gives me endless opportunities to immerse myself in nature on a daily basis, something which I treasure, crave and constantly benefit from.
At its most basic level forest bathing involves observing trees, leaves, branches, flowers, animals and so on. Which is fine for a nice walk. However, to really enjoy the full benefits of this practice, you need to approach it in a different way so that the “walk in the woods” actually becomes a transformative experience.
Follow these tips to get the most out of your forest bathing excursions:
Turn off all electronic devices: As you know, phones, cameras, tablets, laptops, etc. are insanely distracting. Turning them off - better yet, leaving them behind - is an absolute must when forest bathing. The idea is to eliminate distractions and to unplug from machines to plug into nature. And, as tempting as it will be to take pictures of everything you see, or that “look at me, I’m forest bathing” selfie, just don’t! Besides, the imagery you see will live on in your memory far more vividly than any photo.
Choose a familiar place: The goal is lose yourself in the experience, not to actually get lost. Believe me, there are few feelings as scary as being lost in a forest as the sun sets. So, be sure to explore someplace familiar to you, with clearly demarcated trails and signs. A local park or your backyard are ideal to start out with, then you can expand your horizons into an actual woodland. When you’re ready, consider taking an immersive forest bathing camping trip with an experienced guide. Wherever you explore, try to do it when and where there aren’t a lot of people or noise.
Dress appropriately for the weather: This one might seem like a no-brainer, but think about how often you’ve left the house without the right gear for the day. Don’t be caught unprepared. It’s always better to have layers and a pop-up umbrella in a backpack than not having enough cover. Speaking of cover, don’t forget the sunblock and insect repellant. Footwear is essential. For walks on established trails or paved pathways, you can wear a well-made, comfortable pair of sneakers. For more strenuous hikes, you should opt for rugged boots which will support you, take on tough terrain and stand up to wet conditions. If you feel up to it, take your shoes and socks off to feel the delicious forest floor.
Keep hydrated and bring a nutritious snack: It’s easy to forget to hydrate and before you know it, your mouth and throat are dry, you feel disoriented and your energy drops. Avoid all that by packing a bottle or thermos of a hydrating drink, and some healthy snacks like chopped carrots, celery, trail mix or sugarless granola bars.
Center yourself: Before, or right after you enter the natural environment, take some time to still yourself. Breathe slowly in through your nostrils, hold the breath and then slowly exhale. Repeat this pattern until you feel calm and centered. Clearing all that buzzing self-talk can take a while, so be patient.
Be present: Now that you’ve cleared the way, you can actually be present and ready to welcome whatever nature has to offer you.
Don’t stretch your physical limitations: Forest bathing is all about relaxing and enjoying your time outdoors, not endurance training. Be sure to listen intently to your body, and pay close attention to signals of strains or possible injuries or shortness of breath. Take some time to sit on a rock, or under a tree, by a stream...
Walk silently and slowly: Whether you’re alone or with others, your forest bathing experience should be done in silence. This will help you connect with the environment with little or no distractions. Try to walk as slowly as possible, especially if you are traveling on an unpaved path. Doing so will help you absorb the offerings of your surroundings, and lessen the impact of your presence.
Use your senses to connect:
Expand your sense of sight - Examine every minute detail. Start with a leaf, or the way the roots of a tree coil on the ground. Trace the petals, pistils and stem of a flower to the rest of the bush. Is an insect crawling along? Watch how it moves and where it goes. If you’re in a grassy area, see how the grass stands, it’s color, the way each blade is different. If there is snow on the ground, examine how it sits, the clumps it forms, the way it melts. How does the sunlight pierce through the canopy of trees and fall upon the ground. What patterns are created against the sky? What else do you see?
Expand your sense of hearing - You might want to close your eyes now, and open your ears. Listen to the rustling of the wind through the leaves. What is the sound of leaves and brush crunching under your feet? Key into the chirping and calls of the birds. Is a squirrel clicking along a tree trunk? Can you hear something rustling in the underbrush? How about the trickling of a stream? Now, cover your ears with your hands - can you hear your heartbeat and the blood rushing through your veins?
Expand your sense of smell - Keep your eyes closed and breath in deeply. What do you smell? The perfume of flowers on the breeze? Perhaps a pine tree. The fecundity of the forest. Dry leaves? The spicy earthiness of the trees and rich soil. A fresh breeze coming off of water. What else do you smell?
Expand your sense of taste - Now, I wouldn’t recommend you eat the first wild mushroom you see, or start licking the side of a tree, but you can open your mouth a little and allow the taste of the forest to tickle your tongue. Since taste and smell are interconnected, this shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. A qualified forest guide will be able to tell you what is edible in the forest.
Expand your sense of touch - Allow yourself to really feel the environment. The breeze against your skin. Touch the earth beneath your feet. Sit down on the ground or a rock and absorb the sensation as it buttresses your body. Approach a tree with an open heart and spirit, and silently ask if you may touch it. The tree will respond immediately, and most likely say “yes.” Lay your palm flat against its bark and connect to the energy flowing inside. Expand your reach and, yes, embrace the tree. You might even want to press your ear against the bark and listen to it’s vibratory murmurings (be sure to check for ants or other critters first).
Expand your sense of perception - calm your mind and let your synapses reach out into the forest. I know that might sound a bit too esoteric, but it really isn’t. When you let your mind wander you will begin to perceive things that your five other senses are not able to. But, you want to stay grounded lest your mind and spirit wander too far afield. So, be sure to be sitting or standing on solid ground, or better yet, against a strong tree.
Journal about your experiences - Bring your journal along on the journey to jot down notes, thoughts, perceptions, poems or to make illustrations of what you’re experiencing. If you don’t have one with you, try to make an entry as soon as you’re able to. Journaling is a fantastic way to remember, recall and to even reveal something that you hadn’t noticed before.
But the trees seemed to know me. They whispered among themselves and beckoned me nearer. Ruskin Bond
As with anything worthwhile, repetition and consistency is key. In order to get the maximum benefit of forest bathing try to immerse yourself in nature for at least 2 hours a day, or 20 hours a week. It might be slow-going at first, and you might miss some days, but keep trying until it becomes part of your daily ritual.
If you'd like to share something about your experiences with forest bathing, or in nature in general, please send a comment below.
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