Bathing refreshes us and transforms our energy. We take a shower to wash off our day or to wash off our night. We submerge in a bath to help us sleep. We wash our hands to begin a task or our face to feel revived. All of these rituals involve water.
The Japanese practice another bathing ritual worth adopting using not the element of water but the elements of wood and air. In Japan, venturing out into a quiet forest is considered good medicine. They even have a name for it – shinrin-yoku, which translates as forest bathing. I love that!
This hike is more than a walk through the woods. You take in the aroma of the mulch and moss. You listen to the rustle of the wind through the trees on the leaves or the water in a stream. You feel the soft ground. Mindfulness grounds the walk in your senses and in the moment.
This practice is not a physical exercise or a hike from point A to point B on your park map. During a forest bath you set aside our devices including our exercise trackers and music makers and audio books. The goal is to meander, to wander and to observe – yourself and your surroundings. Just be. During a forest bath, you stroll more than hike.
So, what are the benefits of this experience? Forest baths promote relaxation, boost wellbeing and improve mood. Science backs this up. A study published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine established that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity. The Japanese have spent millions of dollars to examine the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing, and scientists have learned that natural killer cells of our immune system increase as a result. This improvement seems to last up to one month after a weekend in the forest. The Japanese created 48 “therapy trails” as a result and are working to create 100.
Research also discovered that the air in a forest is in fact different. The trees and vegetation emit essential oils which when we inhale boost our immunity. Phytoncides, which literally means “plant-derived exterminators,” protect the trees from germs and sickness. They also protect us.
So, forests are places where magic can happen as our own culture reflects – in fairy and folk tales, in Shakespeare, and in Star Wars. Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1854 that if you are discontent with civilization, to go to the woods. In his essay Walden or, Life in the Woods, he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” (page 68)
We live in trying times. A forest bath can transform you and improve your health. So take some time today and walk through a park. Or take a few hours this weekend to drive out of town to wander through a nearby wilderness. Get lost in your thoughts, in your senses and in the forest. Know that by doing so, you are improving your health. Make a forest bath a regular ritual in your self care.
The image above is one I took in the woods behind my family’s home in Manchester Village, Vermont. My mom christened it Pinelawn, and the place is beautiful and one of my favorite places on earth.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.