If someone offered you a pill that would make you feel more optimistic and peaceful, would you take it? And suppose this medicine was free and had no side effects. Sound too good to be true? But wait – there's more! Robust scientific studies show that this medicine can lower blood pressure. Boost mental clarity. Even increase the number of killer cells your body produces – and by killer cells, we mean specialized cells in our immune system that fight cancer.
Believe it or not, according to a growing body of research, this medicine does exist. It is the healing power of forest bathing, an increasingly-popular activity available to the public worldwide, including right here in North Creek Forest.
What Is Forest Bathing Anyway?
First, it’s not a bath per se.
The word comes from the Japanese term Shinrin yoku, which translates into “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Forest bathing, quite simply, means wandering quietly among the trees, turning up the volume on your senses, and immersing yourself in nature.
Day in and day out, we are in a relationship with nature whether we realize it or not. Each time we eat fruits or vegetables, breathe in oxygen-rich air, or drink a glass of water, we experience firsthand how profoundly interconnected we are with the natural world. But in our everyday lives, we tend to forget about this life-giving relationship. The built-up environments around us and a thousand distractions constantly pull for our attention and energy.
Forest Bathing is a tool we can use to slow our buzzing minds and practice a secret super power: the skill of consciously choosing what we put our attention on. By nurturing this skill in a natural setting, forest bathing plugs us into something we all seek – a source of peace and well-being (not to mention hooking us up with physical benefits like improved sleep, accelerated recovery from surgery, and improved energy levels). Forest bathing underscores the obvious: humans cannot live healthful lives without a healthy natural world. Like any relationship, ours with nature is a two-way street.
How Exactly does One Forest Bathe?
Let’s start with two things that forest bathing is NOT.
# 1: A forest bathing walk is not a natural history lesson. If you’re walking with others, keep in mind that knowledge-based exchanges – identifying native plants, explaining the science behind ecosystems, or sharing the land’s history – are not a primary goal. The “knowledge acquisition” part of your brain is very important for survival, for sure, but forest bathing is a chance to let it rest a bit, to instead strengthen the emotional and imaginative “muscles” of your brain.
#2: It is not a hike. You don’t go on a forest bathing walk to get exercise or reach a destination, like a mountain top or a lake. You go to slow down, to breathe deeply, smell raindrops and pine resin, hear water flowing, feel the breeze brush your cheek. The only “destination” is the state of being mindful, of absorbing the forest’s energy by actively noticing sounds, smells, sights, and textures.
Forest Bathing walks can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as several hours. Research shows that even as little as 30 minutes can have immediate health benefits. In part, this is because trees emit an airborne essential oil (called phytoncides), which not only protect the trees from microbes, but serve humans as well by boosting our immune systems, reducing anxiety, increasing energy levels, and improving sleep. (See links to scientific studies at the end of the article.). Longer or more frequent walks may reap greater health benefits.
You can soak in the forest solo, with friends, or on a guided walk.
The guided walks that Friends of North Creek Forest hosts are typically attended by 3-8 people and are less than ½ a mile long. Remember, the main goals are not physical exercise or learning facts, but personal rejuvenation. Downshift, be still, and let the healing sounds, sights, and smells of the forest wash over you.
What to Expect on a Guided Walk
On forest bathing walks in North Creek Forest, the guide always starts with a brief safety talk. Then the wandering begins. After a breathing exercise to help you transition into a calm, receptive mindset, your guide will offer an activity (called an invitation), which is designed to help you turn up the volume on your senses. You can accept it or not. Either way, each invitation is followed by silence, during which participants immerse themselves in the forest. Next, the guide calls the group together and poses a question that invites participants to share their experiences. There is no obligation to share. That said, I have noticed over and over that sharing creates connections between people and offers insights that I never would have thought of on my own.
Your only obligation on a guided walk? Commit to slowing down, breathing deeply, and consciously using your senses to communicate (i.e., connect) with the natural surroundings. To get started on your own, try this simple invitation (many thanks to M. Amos Clifford’s book, A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku):
Close your eyes. Take in and release three long, slow breaths. While standing quietly, choose one cardinal direction and listen for sounds in that one direction. After a few moments, turn your body and listen in another direction. Repeat this in all four directions. Tip: If thoughts arise, notice them (Oh! I’m having a thought about returning that email. . .), mentally set them on a floating leaf, and let them drift downstream. Return your attention to listening in one direction.
The Art of Noticing
On a recent walk, I offered the above listening invitation to the group. After about 10 minutes of silence, I called everyone together and asked: “What did you notice?” Answers often emerge as impromptu poetry. Someone might share a sound, or a person might point to something they saw, as did an 86-year-old gentleman during this particular walk:
“I noticed that perfectly-constructed, perfectly-silent spider web shining between two trees in the sunlight.”
He pointed and we all looked up. And up some more. And up even higher to at least 25 feet above us, where a spider had somehow managed to anchor her orb between two towering bigleaf maples, whose trunks were at least 15 feet apart. It seemed an impossible feat for such a tiny creature. And yet there it hung, glistening with light. The group stood silently for a long while, just taking it in, simply noticing. I would have walked right past it, and having it pointed out to me felt like a gift. For me, it was the visual art companion piece for my favorite Nelson Mandela quotation: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
It seems impossible that something as simple as wandering in a forest could be so beneficial to our physical, cognitive and emotional health. But it is, and science proves it out. (Again: be sure to check out the link to scientific studies under resources below.) Of course, we know intuitively that spending time in nature – whether in a forest, garden, on a river or at the ocean– feels calming and peaceful. Yet, we seldom set time aside to slow down and let the natural world restore our sense of optimism about life.
Forest bathing is an opportunity to set this time aside. It is one of many tools for maintaining our health, and remember: this particular medicine comes free of side effects and free of charge.
Join us for Guided Forest Bathing Walks In North Creek Forest
Friends of North Creek Forest hosts free Forest Bathing walks the second Saturday of each month, starting in October. Please RSVP, as walks are capped at 8 participants. www.friendsnorthcreekforest.org.
Resources: Learn More or Find a Guide
Read articles that detail the science behind forest bathing (Shinrin yoku).
Michael Stein is a Certified Forest Therapist who leads forest walks around the Puget Sound Region. Check out offerings provided by his company, Cascadia Forest Therapy.
Shinrin-yoku.org is a good entry point for exploring forest bathing. Look for their free starter kit, which includes a list of 10 invitations you can start using right away.