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Forest Bathing: Immerse Yourself in Nature

When I first heard the term "forest bathing," it sounded like something one did only in private, in a very deep forest. Well, that is one way to do it. 

Then I learned the Japanese term, shinrin-yoku, which can be translated as "taking in the forest atmosphere," or "forest bathing." Since "forest bathing" is the catchier and less awkward phrase, that is how it's known in the English-speaking world. 

Forest bathing is a health practice that combines mindfulness meditation and gentle movement through a natural setting - preferably a forest. Of course, taking a walk in the woods is an exercise that humans have been undertaking since they descended from the trees; however, this specific modality was developed by a doctor in Japan in the 1980s. The doctor hypothesized that spending time in an old growth forest would provide health benefits to his patients. The forest therapy seemed to work, and became established in Japanese health culture. Over the past thirty years, it has gradually spread around the world. In the US, a nature therapy professional named Amos Clifford founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFN) in 2013, which trains and certifies forest therapy guides around the country.

Studies have indicated that forest therapy does have stress-reducing, mood enhancing, and immune support benefits, as well as boosting creativity. There has long been a theory that breathing in the natural chemicals released by evergreen trees, called phytoncides, cause the body to produce more natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are immune defense lymphocytes which are particularly active in fighting viruses and tumors.

Breathing and noticing

To practice forest bathing is both simple and profound. Using your breath and all of your senses, you slowly make your way along a forest path, while anchoring your mind in the present moment. To immerse yourself in the forest (metaphorically bathing in the forest experience), you simply notice things around and inside of your body. This is not a peppy hike through the woods toward a particular destination. It is more of a pensive wandering. You can do forest bathing on your own, or you can go on a guided excursion, which can be helpful for first-timers.

Taking a guided walk

Yesterday, I participated in a guided forest bathing walk at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC) in Grasonville, Maryland. A half dozen people attended the walk. Our guide was a Master Naturalist named Margan, who met us at the Visitor Center to give a brief introduction before we set out. She explained the concepts behind shinrin-roku, its history, and how we would proceed. 

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We would walk silently along a path, stop a couple of times to sit in stillness, and simply pay attention to our senses. The practice would be to notice what we sensed here and now. Above all, she said, don't worry if you feel like you aren't doing it right. If you are breathing and walking and taking in the forest, you are doing it right. Your mind will wander. That is how your brain is designed, but it can be relaxing and healthful to discipline yourself to remain centered and present. 

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Six helpful practices for forest bathing

Margan led our group along a path through tidal marshes and a loblolly pine forest. We walked slowly; much slower than my normal pace, and at first I felt frustrated by the plodding. As the walk progressed, however, I tried to tune in to the rhythm of my steps, and found that the gentle, swinging consistency of each forward motion became quite hypnotic.

As we processed through the forest, Margan periodically provided soft guidance to help us engage more fully in the experience. She shared six different practices and invited us to try each of them at different times:

Use your breath. Follow your inhalation and feel your lungs expand. Doesn't have to be a huge, deep breath; it's just a breath. Let it go. You'll never breathe that breath again. Wasn't it amazing? How did it feel when your ribs expanded? Could you feel the cool air entering your nostrils and flowing down your throat? What did you smell as you inhaled? Release the breath and notice the minute relaxation of your body on the out-breath. Continue to follow your breath and find rhythm in time with something around you. Has your mind suddenly wandered off, taken up with a worry, a reminder, a problem to solve? Notice that divergence. Don't castigate yourself for a wandering mind. That moment, when you notice where your mind has gone, is what Margan calls a "golden moment," or an "aha moment." It's a moment to recognize and acknowledge the thought, and then let it go. Return to your breath. Do this again and again, because it will happen again and again. You are doing it right!Explore all of your senses, and then switch the dominant sense. Notice everything you can in the space around you. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? No need to identify every bird or tree or plant - this is not the time to add to your birding life list, or practice your naturalist skills. It's just a time to sense and notice. Immerse (yes, bathe) yourself in the day, here and now. As you notice things, ask yourself if you are focusing mostly on one sense. If you have mostly been listening, try shifting to feeling. What is the temperature? Is there a breeze? Is it dry or humid today? Can you feel wind on your neck, or a breeze ruffling your hair? If you have been mostly looking around to notice the forest, try listening instead. What is the quietest noise you can hear? What dominates the soundscape? Can you hear yourself breathing? Can you hear the psithurism - the sound of wind rustling through the trees?

📷 Notice what is around you, like little hints of color, or repeated patterns, or baby leaves unfurling.Shift your focal length. Have you been looking at your feet, or the most nearby elements of the forest? Try shifting your gaze to the mid-field, and then out to the farthest place you can see. What is different when you change the focal length? This works with sound as well: what soft shushing noises are you making as you walk? What are the trees saying near you? Is there a bird or a jet in the distance, out at the edge of your awareness? Mentally shift your entire consciousness out there. How does it feel?Try beginner's mind. Choose a leaf, or a pinecone, or a pebble. Pick it up and study it minutely, as if you have never seen such a thing before. Touch it, smell it, shake it, turn it upside down. What do you notice? How are you interacting with it, and how is it interacting with you? See that you and this object are each equally full of life force, and equally a part of this environment. There is no separation between you and the world around you. You are a part of it, and it is a part of you. 📷

Practice a gratitude meditation. Perhaps you have stopped to sit on a bench, a log, or the ground. As you sit and take in the forest, reflect upon the world around you. Do you feel grateful to be in this place of beauty? Are you thankful to be focused on peace and breath and nature? It's okay if an all-encompassing wave of pure joy does not overtake you. It might; but it might not. Still, ask yourself if there is anything you are grateful for in this moment, such as your breath, or the beautiful day, or your warm and cozy socks, or the fragrance of pine trees, or that butterfly you just saw flitting by.Notice how your body moves. When you are moving along - not quickly, mind you - notice and enjoy the rhythm of walking.  How does each foot know what to do? Are you swinging your arms slightly? If you move on different surfaces, like roots or stones or leaf litter, how does it change the experience? Use the gentle walking pace to relax your body and free your mind from distraction.

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It was quite illuminating to try all six exercises and notice what bubbled up. At times throughout the forest bathing excursion, I felt impatient, joyous, peaceful, sleepy, and energized. I did feel grateful for the experience, and grateful to Margan for guiding the group subtly. Yes, I could have read up on forest bathing and tried it by myself, but participating in a group walk enriched the experience for me, especially as a first-time forest bather. There is also the element of being part of a group and being given what I'll call an assignment, that I find freeing when attempting to meditate. If I am following instructions, then I am resisting distractions, and being held accountable in some way to the group. When I'm alone, it can be easier to give up, cut short, or otherwise derail the meditation session.

Did it work?

Unlike some forest therapy practitioners, our guide did not take before-and-after health indicator tests like blood pressure, blood sugar, or saliva tests for hormone levels. So I can only report on the qualitative results. As I often find with meditative practices, yes, I did feel more peaceful and more relaxed afterward. Trying a new experience with an unknown group of people can be exciting and/or slightly anxiety-producing. Ahead of time, I felt just a bit keyed up. After the walk was over, I had a smile on my face and my breath was flowing more easily. I love walking in the woods. Forest bathing simply brought the experience into sharper focus and reminded me to relax and enjoy it to the fullest.

To learn more . . .

The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy provides conceptual context, a free starter guide, and other resources on their website. They list certified guides throughout the US and around the world, so you can locate a guide near you. If you really want to get into it, you can learn more about how to become a guide through ANFN's training and certification program. Meanwhile, you can read Amos Clifford's book, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature📷, available on the ANFN website or through Amazon:

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