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 “pill” 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 systems that fight cancer.
Believe it or not, a growing body of research shows that this healing medicine does exist. It’s called forest bathing. And this increasingly popular activity is available to people 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.
And while we’re at it, two more things it is NOT.
A forest bathing walk is not a natural history lesson. You’re not there to identify native plants, understand ecosystems, or share the land’s history—at least these are not primary goals. The “knowledge acquisition” part of your brain is invaluable, for sure, but forest bathing is a chance to give it a rest, to instead exercise your brain’s emotional and imaginative “muscles.”
And lastly, 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, 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, and textures.
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-supporting relationship. The built-up environments around us and a thousand distractions constantly pull for our attention and energy.
Forest bathing is a tool for slowing down our buzzing minds and practicing a secret superpower—the skill of consciously choosing what we put our attention on. By nurturing this skill, forest bathing plugs us into something we all seek—a source of peace and well-being and numerous 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.
What to Expect on a Guided Walk
Forest bathing walks can be taken on a lunch break or last for several hours. Research shows that even as little as 30 minutes can have immediate health benefits. Some benefits may be derived from airborne essential oils (called phytoncides) that trees emit. This chemical, which protects the trees from microbes, also serves humans by boosting our immune system functions. (Check out links to scientific studies at the end of the article for a deeper discussion on this fascinating benefit.) 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 three to eight people and are less than ½ a mile long. Remember, the main goals are not physical exercise or learning facts. Downshift. Be still. Let the healing sounds, colors, shapes, and smells of the forest wash over you.
On forest bathing walks in North Creek Forest, the guide always starts with a brief safety talk. After a breathing exercise to help you transition into a calm, receptive mindset, your guide will offer mini activities—called invitations—which help you turn up the volume on your senses. You can accept these invitations, or not. Either way, each invitation is followed by silence, during which participants can simply “be” in the forest. After a short while, the guide calls the group together and invites visitors 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 generates powerful insights I never would have considered on my own.
Your only obligation on a guided walk? Commit to slowing down, breathing deeply, and consciously using your senses to connect with your surroundings. To get started on your own, visit a natural space and 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 . . . ), imagine setting them down on a floating leaf. Let them drift downstream and 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, 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. Having it pointed out to me felt like an unexpected gift. For me, it was a visual companion to 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 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 or 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--unlike some prescriptions—this one 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. Please RSVP, as walks are capped at 8 participants.
Resources: Learn More or Find a Guide
Read articles that explain 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.