The Wonders of Forest Bathing

rē•imagine your connection to the natural world.

By: Julia Childs-Heyl, MSW
The Wonders of Forest Bathing

Our connection to the earth has never been more crucial. Thanks to the reality of climate change, many of us are experiencing anxiety, grief, and guilt at an unprecedented level. There is much that is out of our control when it comes to the planet we all inhabit. In turn, we can find ourselves moving towards an increased amount of output – whether that is overworking as a distraction, staying glued to the news, or spearheading incredibly important albeit taxing eco-initiatives. Couple eco-fueled emotional turmoil with the intense pace of our daily lives, and our nervous systems are pleading for a moment of respite. The idea of engaging with our surroundings sans mental chatter may feel impossible without the aid of a meditation app, exercise practice, or coping tool that involves some form of intellectual stimulation.

The Antidote to Hustle Culture

Enter forest bathing. Also known as shinrin-yoku, this is a practice of fully taking in the elements of the natural world. It is a slow and intentional experience where you sit and notice the details around you. This isn’t a power walk through your local park, nor is it an opportunity to listen to your favorite podcast. Those are fine and good activities, but they defeat the purpose of forest bathing, which is to be present in a state of nothingness, giving your senses a chance to decompress and settle into a tranquil state of being. 

Forest bathing was developed in Japan during the 1980s in response to a flourishing culture of hyper-productivity and physical ailments resulting from work stress. Engaging in the earth’s elements can be an essential medicine that is scientifically proven to improve our overall health. For example, plants and trees produce an essential oil called phytoncide. It is filled with antimicrobial properties that boost immunity, elevate moods, and enhance sleep quality. Forest bathing is a practice that calls us back to the basics, acknowledging the potential to heal simply by being present with the earth. 

The Perils of Always Achieving

Curious to learn more about the magic of forest bathing, we turned to Ben Page, certified Forest Bathing Guide and author of Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing, to share why this practice is needed now more than ever. “We live in an achievement-oriented society where we believe we need to be constantly improving upon self; that self is now this existential project in which we are never good enough, leading us to carry an incredible amount of tension,” he explained. This need to improve ourselves can have significant benefits – we can achieve our goals, help others, and begin to build the lives we have always dreamed of. However, this mindset can also bring about troublesome side effects. Page continued to explain how our greatest asset can be our biggest downfall. “It is absolutely unsustainable, exhausting, and ultimately leads us to burnout.”

How do we find the balance between achieving and simply being? According to Page, this practice may be the answer. “Forest bathing is really potent at countering this achievement mindset because it lays out a block of time and very clearly says, ‘There is no objective here.’” When we release the need to complete something – whether that is completing 30 days straight of meditation, exercising for 45 minutes, or journaling for three pages straight – we rē•spin what it means to reach a true state of relaxation. Removing the need to accomplish a goal allows the opportunity to engage in what Page refers to as deep attention. “Deep attention is where you don’t need to be stimulated; the world is naturally stimulating. This is where we start to have the repair in the relationship with ourselves.”

Dip Into Your Forest Bathing Practice

Let us explain how you can begin forest bathing. First, to adjust expectations, forest bathing is a practice, not an occasional foray. Returning to this activity regularly is a way to develop a discipline that inevitably benefits physical and mental health. It is also a way to change how you engage in your relationship with the earth. Page recommends seeking a forest bath guide to support you in this journey. Similar to how we seek out a yoga teacher despite knowing the poses or a breathwork facilitator though we know we could do it on our own, having a forest bath guide offers the opportunity to be held by another person. Being nurtured by another frees up space for you to relax and release into the present completely. There are hundreds of guides across the country – you can find one here. 

If you’re not sold on hiring a guide, Page suggests something called sit spot. Leave your phone, journal, and any other items of distraction in your backpack. Find a space to sit for a minimum of 20 minutes. Of course, a forest, lookout point, or nature preserve is a great place for a forest bathing experience. However, urban forest bathing can be just as fruitful. “Forest bathing can extend to any space when we can see that the world around us is alive. Even in New York City, there are birds, the sky, trees,” he explains. 

Guiding Words for Forest Bathing 

As you sit, just begin to notice all that is around you and reflect on the following questions:

  • What trees can you see? 
  • Notice the colors of the plants around you. 
  • Do you hear birds chirping? 
  • Can you feel the prickly grass beneath your feet? 
  • What does the air feel like on your skin? 

Ease into the nuance of every detail you can take in. According to Page, getting bored around the 5-minute mark is completely normal. Settle into the discomfort of not doing, not knowing, not being distracted, and you just might find a world’s worth of wisdom.

Embodying Respect for the Earth

“I think if we want to have a good relationship – not just a sustainable relationship – with the earth, we also have to remember what it feels like to love. Forest bathing is a heart-centered practice,” concludes Page. How magic it is to revisit the idea of love, the excitement of being in intimate connection with another and taking in every single detail, committing it to memory just in case you never have the opportunity to again. How deeply blissful it is to apply that same passion to the world we all inhabit. Maybe forest bathing isn’t just good for our immune systems. Perhaps it is the most potent remedy we can offer our society. 

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