Forest Bathing: Boost Your Wellbeing with Mother Nature
Nature nourishes the mind and the soul.
John Muir, the Scotsman who is arguably the father of American conservation and was the preeminent outdoorsman and naturalist of his day, was a vocal proponent of forest bathing, despite the fact that the term would not be coined until about a half century after his death in 1914. Consider just these three quotes from Muir, though hundreds more that are germane to the topic could easily be found:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.”
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.”
Now if that is not a person sold on the healing, refreshing, energizing properties of time spent out in nature, then such a person has never existed. Muir had discovered for himself what has also been found by untold numbers of others: forest bathing is a therapeutic experience with benefits that stay with you well after a given time spent in the wilderness has passed.
Forest bathing is good for reducing stress and anxiety. It’s good for your body – for your lungs and limbs and heart and brain. It’s a way to restore a sense of calm. In short, it is overall good for your mental health and the happiness of your very soul, no matter how you envision a soul to exist, whether through a sense of self alone or as a connection to something beyond.
What Is Forest Bathing?
While a practice known and appreciated all over the world (and since time immemorial – witness the dedication to nature of ancients like the Druids, many Native American groups, Grecian Rites of Eleusis, and so on), the practice of forest bathing was not called by the term forest bathing until the 1980s.
The term was coined in Japan where, according to National Geographic, it is known as shinrin yoku, which translates either to “forest bath” or “forest well” (perhaps an even more accurate phrase!) and is taken to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere.” In 1980s Japan, the practice of forest bathing gained rapid and rather widespread notice for two if its qualities: first, it offered an antidote to the steady encroachment of technology, an antidote needed nor more than ever. And second, by promoting restorative time spent in nature, promoters of forest bathing were also advocating for protection and preservation of natural spaces.
So, forest bathing, then, is not only good for you, but is also good for the planet. But what differentiates forest bathing from a hike or a simple nature stroll? As with so much of life, the key here is intention. And with intention comes presence of mind.
How to Practice Forest Bathing
First off, let’s be clear here: you don’t need a vast, virgin forest in which to roam in order to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing. No need to travel to the Australian Outback or high into the Italian Alps or deep into the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest.
You do, however, need an area in which you can be immersed in nature, which is to say there are no houses, roads, buildings, or bridges in view. If you can find an area in which you are fully surrounded by nature close to home, then go for it – just don’t kid yourself that walking through Central Park will count. LA’s Griffith Park? That just might have spots that work.)
The sights and sounds of civilized life are, after all, a large part of what one tries to avoid when forest bathing – and yes, your phone very much counts as part of that “to be avoided” list.
The other things to avoid when seeking woodland wellness are any number of traditional woodland activities like bird watching, trail running, foraging, and so forth. Those are all great things to do and they come with their own benefits to your health and wellness, but they are not forest bathing.
Forest bathing amounts to simply immersing yourself in the sounds, sights, smells, and the sensations of a natural space. It means taking in the aroma of the moldering leaves underfoot or the perfume of springtime wildflowers without specifically noting the scents. It means an awareness of the temperature of the air on the skin, perhaps of the feel of a soft drizzle on the scalp, without checking or even wondering at the exact temperature or the forecast. It means walking along aware of where you are but without active exploration of the space.
A forest bath is not a nature stroll, wherein intentional observation is part of the activity. It is not a hike, where a destination is always implied, be it the end of the loop or the distance goal for the day.
Forest bathing is effectively peripatetic meditation wherein the space chosen for your meditative session is anywhere you can be surrounded by nature. As anyone who meditates regularly knows, contrary to popular misconception, meditation is not the practice of thinking about nothing, but the practice of at once opening and focusing the mind.
This opening of the mind often amounts to an emptying of conscious thought, much as meditation can indeed lead to a cleared mind that is effectively not thinking, just being.
Forest Bathing Takes Time – Time Well Spent
As you stroll through the forest, across the meadows, among the trees, or over the foothills, don’t be surprised if you lose your sense of time for a while.
You know those moments when you are driving or riding the train and you suddenly realize you have reached your destination but don’t clearly recall how you got there? This can happen with a proper forest bath, but unlike a physical destination (the office or your home, e.g.) the place of arrival at the end of a forest bath will be a restored, refreshed, and more tranquil self. People often experience the same benefits from meditation, as noted, as well as from prayer.
That time is not lost; rather it is well spent. For when your time spent forest bathing is over for today, the time beyond will be touched by the spiritual, mental, and emotional cleansing experienced. The practice offers a touch point to which you can journey in your mind until the next time you can journey in the flesh out into the forest.