Forest Bathing for Everyone

Forest bathing isn’t hard or complicated, and the effects are profound. Here’s how to do it.

TEXT —Mark Mann

PHOTOS —Charlotte Ghomeshi
With additional reporting by Eve Laliberté

Forest bathing has long been a trending topic in the media, but if you bring it up casually among friends or family, the response is often skeptical.

In my experience, people are more likely to be offended by the concept of forest bathing than attracted to it. The trendiness makes it seem slightly fake, and anyway, it sounds boring.

The truth is that there’s more to this practice than meets the eye. Forest bathing isn’t some mild addition to a wellness regime. It’s a powerful tool for healing, preventative medicine, and personal growth.

What is forest bathing, actually?

 

The practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan. Though shinrin-yoku has deep roots in the Shinto religion, which invites practitioners to commune with nature at sacred shrines and special trees, the modern expression of shinrin-yoku emerged in response to a crisis of widespread burnout and rising suicides in the 1970s.

Japanese culture has preserved a more traditional or ancient recognition of nature’s intrinsic value or aliveness, argues Dr. Yasuhiro Kotera, a psychotherapist and mental health researcher who teaches at the University of Nottingham. So it’s not surprising that health experts there were quicker to prescribe a nature cure.

As the approach became established, researchers tested its effectiveness in numerous studies and experiments. The results have been impressive. The psychological and physiological benefits of spending time resting in nature and calmly perceiving your environment are so profound, they would be hard to overstate.

What trees do for us

Trees emit airborne carbon-based chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or tree aerosols. Many of these compounds have medicinal qualities and constitute the key ingredients in at least 25 per cent of all medicines.

Tree air is loaded with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antiseptics, antivirals, and analgesics, writes the chemist and naturalist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. She states that trees are continually showering “healing chemical mists” into the air. “These substances are at the heart of connectivity in nature,” she says. Beresford-Kroeger’s favourite medicinal tree is the white pine, which emits three aerosol molecules called pinenes.

“Inhale deeply in the presence of one of these trees and the T-cells of your circulating blood will immediately increase, boosting your immune system for free,” Beresford-Kroeger writes. “This effect of one visit will last for thirty days.”

Tweet

If this sounds a bit flaky, consider that studies of forest bathing have demonstrated significant improvement in arterial stiffness, pulmonary function, cardiovascular function, and many other indexes of health. Forest bathing also enhances emotional states, increases physical and psychological recovery, and alleviates anxiety and depression.

Remembering how to daydream

But we don’t have to frame the positive effects of forest bathing in purely physiological terms. The neuroscientist Marc Berman studies the wellness benefits of natural environments, and he talks about the “soft fascination” that nature creates for us.

“Nature captures our attention but not all of our attention. We can watch a waterfall, but our minds can wander and we can think about other things.” —Marc Berman

Tweet

Forest bathing is the art of doing this on purpose: intentionally cultivating soft fascination for the forest. Beresford-Kroeger sometimes describes it as lollygagging. “Walk slowly and breathe deeply,” she told me over the phone.

The dreamy, peaceful quality of forest bathing also speaks to its spiritual origins in Shintoism. “As shinrin-yoku spreads to the world, that spiritual element may be missed by researchers or practitioners in other countries,” Kotera has said.

Connecting with an old friend

Another important framework for thinking about forest bathing is relationality, or what Kotera calls “thinking of nature as a good friend.”

Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides, argues that “all of our efforts to become an environmentally sustainable species must be rooted in deep relationship with nature.” (PDF) 

Forest bathing offers a path to solidifying that relationship with the more-than-human world and healing some of the loneliness and alienation we experience in contemporary society.

But do we really need a fancy term for walking in the woods?

Maybe not, but then again, maybe so. Ask yourself, how often do you go out into nature simply to sit and appreciate it?

My guess is not very often. Most of us feel too busy to prioritize something so subdued and unproductive. The concept of forest bathing not only unlocks an enjoyable and effective way of increasing your overall happiness and well-being, it also opens a creative channel to connecting with nature. It’s for you to experiment and explore.

So how does it work?

Before we answer that question, let’s talk about a few things that forest bathing is not.

Forest bathing isn’t something that happens somewhere else

For many people, healthy, fully functioning forest ecosystems are not easily accessible. Many city dwellers lack the mobility or the time to get out into a healthy forest.

But you can still derive many of the same benefits by forest bathing in a city park. And if you look around, most cities do have urban forests, even if not all of them are officially recognized as parks or maintained by city workers. These are rich and wonderful places to relax, even if they are unofficial.

“You don’t have to go into the deep, deep forest to experience the effects of forest bathing,” says Melissa Mollen Dupuis, a filmmaker, forest-bathing advocate, and member of the Innu community of Ekuanitshit on Québec’s Côte-Nord.

She recently gave an online talk about forest bathing and, to make the point that the benefits are available to everyone, she made her presentation seated directly in a walking path lined with crabapple trees in blossom, right in the heart of the city.

“An untouched forest is going to have faster and stronger effects,” she says, “but just sitting here, I’m already experiencing the relaxing effects from the smells released by the trees.”

Don’t over-complicate it

Forest bathing is a practice that can be elevated as an art form, a wellness method, a form of rehabilitation, or a spiritual discipline, but fundamentally it isn’t complex.

At its heart, forest bathing is as simple as being in the forest, says Mollen Dupuis. It doesn’t have to be harder than that.

Tweet

In most areas of life, our default framework is acquisitive. We obtain the outcomes we want through effort and ambition, and we feel we must struggle to get more of the good things we want: more knowledge, more experiences, more opportunities, more stability, and so on.

But forest bathing invites us to take a different approach. Instead of trying to be good at it and get the most from the experience, we try to let ourselves relax into a more receptive way of being. We open to the forest the way a flower opens to the sun. We accept the gifts of the forest rather than reach for them.

Try not to multi-task

Many of us have a hard time slowing down. We feel impatient when we’re not being productive or accomplishing things. We may feel tempted to multiply the value of forest bathing by combining it with other activities, like getting a bit of work done while we sit under a tree, making content for social media, or working out.

As much as possible, try to liberate your forest-bathing practice from the pressure of achievement. Forest bathing is not a waste of time, even if you’re not ticking any boxes. So don’t try to “get the most” out of forest bathing by turning it into something it isn’t, such as:

Adventure: Exploring a forest or taking a long hike or run on a trail are wonderful things to do, but they belong in a different category than forest bathing. You might, however, take a forest bath at the start or end of a long hike.

Education: Forest bathing is about engaging your senses and your awareness for direct experience of forest life. Acquiring knowledge or training in, say, forest ecologies, primitive skills, or camping are all worthy ambitions, but they are activating a different part of your brain.

Meditation: Some experts make a distinction between forest bathing and meditation, because many people find the concept of meditating intimidating, and they associate it with mental effort. That kind of striving isn’t helpful for forest bathing, which shouldn’t feel hard or elusive.

Another reason to make a distinction between forest bathing and meditation is that meditation is inward focused while forest bathing is about turning outward toward your environment. A better word to describe the practice of forest bathing is “mindfulness,” which speaks to the attentiveness or open-hearted awareness that practitioners try to cultivate in their relationships with nature.

Enough with the negatives. How do I do it?

Think about what it felt like to go into the forest when you were a child. Do you remember the excitement of exploring? The sense of being a wild creature?

Forest bathing is a lot like letting yourself be a child again. In fact, one of the key concepts of forest bathing is permission.

Forest bathing is an amazing, rock-solid excuse not only to go outside and sit down — it’s also an excellent reason to allow yourself to peer at some moss or stare up through the canopy and watch the dappled sunlight through the moving treetops. 

Tweet

I’m talking about personal permission, but this type of sanction is becoming increasingly official.

In Japan, doctors frequently prescribe forest bathing, which means that people there can actually get a sick note from work to spend time in the forest.

Four Canadian provinces — British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, and Québec — also allow medical practitioners to prescribe walks in the forest to treat anxiety.

Five Creative Ways to Practise Forest Bathing at BESIDE Habitat.

For more ideas on how to experiment with forest bathing on your own or in a group, check out our guide.

READ

Reawaken your forgotten sense for the forest

Modern humans have spent more than 90 per cent of our time on earth as hunter-gatherers. By some estimates, the modern industrial and post-industrial eras represent only 0.0002 per cent of our history as a species.

In his new book, The Heartbeat of Trees, the well-known forest expert Peter Wohlleben writes about how humans evolved in the forest, developing acute perception to recognize every possible danger and opportunity.

It is the forest that has shaped and defined us. We come from the forest, and we belong there.

Tweet

Though our modern technological lifestyles have diminished some of our innate capacities, our senses are much more powerful than we tend to realize or typically have access to. “The only thing missing is a bit of practice,” says Wohlleben.

When you taste, smell, or even see colours in the forest, you are engaging sense perceptions that your ancestors likely experienced more distinctly, more clearly, more vibrantly. These are your forgotten senses, which forest bathing can help you revive.

It is by focusing on each of our senses that we make forest bathing a truly immersive experience. Just as with an actual bath, you want to get comfortable. Take a seat on the forest floor. Find a patch of moss, leaf litter, or dirt at the base of a tree. If this feels uncomfortable, pick a good-sized rock or log to rest on. Take the time to get properly settled, then begin.

 

  -Sight- 

Try closing your eyes for several minutes and focusing on your other senses. Put your face in a shaft of sunlight and observe the glow of light through your eyelids. Then open them again and see what you’re able to notice that you weren’t before.

If you have a notebook, you can make some swift gestural drawings of trees. This will help you recognize the unique shapes and sculptural qualities of individual trees, as well as the distinctive character of different species.

-Touch-

Start by exploring the elements around you with your hands. Notice how each texture elicits a different reaction. What does it bring out in you to encounter the relief of bark, the moss on the ground, and the leaves of the youngest shoots?

You can then try bringing your whole body into the experience: lie out flat on the ground and let the earth hold you, or wrap your arms around a tree and give it a hug. This practice encourages the body to release the hormone oxytocin, associated with improved well-being and lowered stress.

You may feel strange at first, but take your time. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the embarrassment drops away. Beyond that point, a feeling of ease and connection awaits. As you grow accustomed to getting physical with trees, you might experiment with different species to see if the experience changes.

-Smell-

We spend much of our lives not noticing smells, yet it’s our most highly developed sense — and the one most associated with memory. To awaken this sense and connect with the forest, take the time to encounter the diversity of aromas one by one: coniferous, deciduous, damp earth, dead leaves.

When you find a fragrance you particularly like, breathe slowly and take the time to appreciate the different olfactory notes with each inhalation.

-Hearing-

“You can train your ears the same way you train your eyes,” Wohlleben writes. “All you need to do is keep your ears open and eavesdrop on nature.”

Close your eyes and try to identify the different noises around you. Birdsong, creaking trees, rustling leaves. Maybe you can hear people in the distance.

A good exercise is to listen for the farthest-away sounds that you can hear. What’s the most distant sound within earshot? Is there a bird call that you can pick up in a different part of the forest? Try this trick and you’ll notice that your physical awareness of the forest will become much more expansive.

Another interesting experiment is to amplify your hearing by cupping your hands behind your ears. You’ll be surprised to discover how well this simple trick really works.

-Taste-

A lovely way to bring some flavour to your forest-bathing practice is to make a quick and simple forest tea. The needles from most coniferous trees are safe and healthy — spruce, fir, hemlock, pine — but avoid yew trees, as they are highly toxic.

Pine needle tea is a particularly good choice, as it is full of nutrients and has long been a part of traditional medicine.

Once you’ve foraged a handful of needles, you don’t even need to heat the water; you can simply add them to your water bottle and enjoy. Or, bring a Thermos of hot water on your walk and you’ll obtain a stronger, tastier tea.

***

 

 

Further Reading

Here are five books on forest bathing that will take you deep into the practice.

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness – Qing Li

Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature – M. Amos Clifford

The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature – Peter Wohlleben

To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest – Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest – Suzanne Simard

Share if you liked this story

Never Miss Another Issue

Two issues per year

25% OFF previous issues

Free Shipping in Canada

Newsletter Signup

To receive the latest news and dispatches, subscribe to our newsletter.