Working in the health and wellness space, I come across new trends all the time. Many of them are overpriced with negligible benefits. But when I first heard of a practice called “forest bathing,” I was intrigued.
Is it a claw-foot bathtub strategically placed in the middle of a forest where you take a literal bath? Is it rubbing tree branches on your skin to increase circulation? Is it frolicking through the woods in the nude? Turns out, it’s none of the above.
Although forest bathing may sound like the latest wellness fad, it’s actually quite the opposite and has been around for quite some time. And unlike so many of the other health-related products and activities, forest bathing is not prohibitively expensive; in fact, it’s free.
What is forest bathing?
In short, forest bathing is a gentle, mindful (fully clothed) walk through the woods. The practice, also known as shinrin-yoku, began in Japan in the 1980s and has since been adopted by people in other parts the world.
It has also been the subject of research into whether any health benefits come from taking the time and mental space to mindfully walk in the forest. It turns out there are, and they range from improving our mood and stress levels to having an effect on our memory. It also helps to boost your immune system. This happens as you breathe in phytoncides — the airborne antibacterial compounds trees give off to protect themselves from insects, which are also beneficial for us, as they increase the number and activity of the type of white blood cells that helps fight viruses.
Dr. Nina Smiley, a psychologist and director of mindfulness programming at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, is an expert in forest bathing and describes it as “mindfulness meets nature.” Mohonk has unofficially offered forest bathing to its guests since it opened in 1869 by encouraging them to step outside and take walks in the woods. Officially, it has offered forest bathing since 2017 when it was added to its spa and programming menus.
“Forest bathing is about being fully present in the moment and deeply engaged in the natural surroundings,” she tells SheKnows.
In addition to lowering blood pressure and pulse rate, a study out of the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University has shown that forest bathing also assists your parasympathetic nervous system, which Smiley describes as “the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ sympathetic nervous system.”
“When we get anxious and the body is flooded with cortisol, stress focuses energy on the action [that is causing the stress],” she explains. “The alternative is breathing gently and fully.”
How do you do it?
In order to try forest bathing, essentially, all you need is a forest and a way to slowly move around inside it (typically that’s walking, but would also work in a wheelchair or other aid depending on your needs). Smiley says that as you walk through the woods, you should use all your senses to take in the world around you — everything from the sound of the birds to feeling the warmth of the sun on your face to smelling the clean air.
“You’re not judging — you’re simply present in the moment and clearing your mind of thoughts,” she adds.
Aside from mindfully walking among the trees, Smiley also suggests taking a moment to close your eyes, remain still and breathe deeply. “As you open your eyes after you’ve been present in nature, it’s remarkable — the colors look more vivid, the shapes more distinct, the textures more detailed,” she says. “You’re seeing with it new eyes. It can be a very profound experience: relaxing, calming and centering.”
Even if you aren’t able to make it to an actual forest, Smiley says it’s possible to reap the mindfulness benefits of trees in most contexts. For example, if you are walking down a city street and notice a tree, she suggests pausing for a moment to be present with it and taking a few deep breaths.
Although Smiley offers private sessions for individuals as well as group forest-bathing sessions during the property’s mindfulness weekends, it is something anyone can do on their own time without a lot of training and at no cost. And like other types of mindfulness, forest bathing is a practice you can build upon; in other words, the more you do it, the more accessible it becomes, Smiley says.
What happened when I tried it?
Unbeknownst to me, I had been forest bathing all my life. Growing up in rural Ohio in a house surrounded by trees, the woods were always a place you could escape to if you needed to think or hide if you’ve gotten into trouble.
Now, living in New York City, trees are commodities. In June of last year, I visited the Saratoga Spa State Park in Saratoga Springs, New York. Almost immediately after arriving, I took the most calming walk through the woods by myself — no music, no podcasts, no conversation — and instantly felt better. Later, a park ranger explained to me that walking in that particular forest is especially beneficial because the minerals from the natural springs are also emitted through the trees (albeit in very small amounts).
I tried forest bathing again — officially, this time — at Mohonk in early January. It was a sunny winter day, and although the high temperature would only reach 6 degrees F, being outside was still very pleasant. After a conversation with Smiley — and armed with her book Mindfulness in Nature — I ventured out into the forest.
Because of the recent snowfall, I was told that in order to walk on the trails through the woods, I’d have to wear snowshoes. It sounds counterintuitive, but attempting forest bathing while snowshoeing for the first time actually really worked. Normally, I’m a fast walker, and there was no way I was able to speed-walk or absentmindedly tramp through the woods with these large attachments on my feet.
Unlike most of my city walking, I had nowhere I needed to go and no set time frame other than the amount of daylight (I’m not quite ready for advanced nighttime forest bathing yet). So, I walked slowly — which really is the only option while wearing snowshoes — breathing in the frigid air and noticing how colorful the landscape was despite it being winter. I stopped walking and stood still for a while, taking it all in — until my nose started to run and I had to reach for a tissue. (It was 6 degrees after all, and this is mindfulness, not magic, so I still felt the cold.)
When I eventually went back inside for a cup of tea, I felt relaxed and refreshed. And even though I’ve been taking walks in the woods most of my life, moving forward, I will do it through a new lens of mindfulness — which, I think, is the whole point.