If you’re the kind of person who likes to pack their weekends with hikes, climbs, slopes, and speed, you’re going to want to take a deep breath. Maybe sit down for a minute.
It feels great to be active outside. We totally get that. But according to the concept of ‘forest bathing,’ a philosophy coined by the Japanese in 1982, all those activities get in the way of truly connecting with nature. In Japan, forest bathing is called shinrin yoku, and it’s the excuse you need to do absolutely nothing.
First let’s erase a common misconception about forest bathing: you don’t need a towel, because you won’t be getting wet.
Well, unless it rains, that is.
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is all about surrounding yourself with the forest, breathing in the forest, soaking up the forest. It’s about slowing down—way, waaaaay down—and remembering how to breathe. Forest bathing can start with a walk in the woods, but not quite in the way you’re accustomed to.
There are a few conditions that can turn your usual jaunt through the woods into a “forest bathing” experience. You can’t bring your cell phone or your iPod, so leave those behind. Remember what we said about going slowly? That’s important. You’ll have to make a concerted effort to slow down your walking/hiking pace; we’re talking half or even a quarter of your normal pace.
As you walk, keep the immortal words of Rafiki from The Lion King in your mind and “look haaaaarder.” Forest bathing is an exercise in seeing your environment, and being part of your environment. Really look at what’s around you. Notice the colors of the leaves and feel the texture of moss growing on a fallen log. Smell the sticky sap oozing from a tree trunk. Listen to the wind, the birds, the sound of your steps.
If this sounds a little bit like meditation, you’re right.
Forest bathing forces you to unplug in a way that you may not fully do during your usual outdoor activities. Think about it: when you go for a hike, are you taking photos with your phone? During a trail run, are you using headphones or a GPS watch?
There’s nothing wrong with having gadgets (we love gadgets!), but it does mean that you’re still connected, and it’s not to your environment. Forest bathing takes you back to those days as a kid when you spent hours lying on your back in the grass, staring at the clouds.
Why Forest Bathe?
Japanese studies have discovered numerous health benefits to forest bathing, such as lower blood pressure, lower heart rates, and decreased amounts of stress hormones. The evidence is so strong that the Japanese Forestry Agency has committed to establishing official forest therapy trails around the country.
The US National Park Service has even come on board with the health benefits associated with soaking up our surroundings. The NPS is a co-leader of the Park Prescription program, or Park Rx, a national initiative to connect communities and health agencies with the healing powers of our parks and green spaces.
Need more convincing? Certain types of forest therapy are even covered by health insurance in Japan and South Korea. We can’t make claims to our health insurance to cover camping trips in the U.S. just yet, but we can always hope.
There are no rules when it comes to reaping the health benefits of forest bathing (except for that go slow thing). There’s no magic time limit or distance, though many guided forest bathing walks go for about two hours.
Beyond Forest Bathing
That’s right. We said guided forest bathing walks.
You can become a certified forest therapy guide, someone who is professionally qualified to lead people on forest bathing walks. At first this may sound strange, but consider how often your mind might wander as you try to stay immersed in your environment.
That’s a pretty bird can very quickly segue into What am I going to have for dinner? A guide is trained to help you stay focused on what’s around you, to help you get the most out of your forest bathing experience.
Don’t fancy a guided walk? There are forest bathing clubs and meetups organized all over the world, from San Francisco to Stockholm. Join other bathers for a walk through nature and see what the buzz is all about.
No matter how you do it, the next time you’re out in the woods and feel like you should be ‘doing something,’ don’t worry. Hanging out among the trees, doing nothing at all, might be just what you need.