It’s always made good sense. If you feel down or need to clear your head, go out and take a walk. That is what happened recently at Minnewaska State Park Preserve, when 10 people and Abe, an energetic Golden Retriever, set out for a hike on a cool, somewhat damp autumn morning in October.
But it was a hike with a special purpose – to explore a Japanese-inspired concept called “Forest Bathing” (Shinrin-yoku ), which is a form of nature therapy that requires no actual bathing. The term was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, and can be defined as contacting and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.
Japanese officials began exploring the concept in response to what government officials saw as rising levels of unhealthy stress among residents of an advanced industrialized nation that was undergoing rapid technological change.
The basic idea in Shinrin-yoku is to observe and experience natural surroundings with a slowed and deliberate focus, rather than treating a hike as a distance between two points to covered briskly in competition with whatever else pops into one’s head.
And while to some forest bathing may sound like a gauzy abstraction, there is a growing body of scientific evidence showing real and measurable physical and mental health benefits from spending time in nature.
For example, this 2010 study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, based on field experiments with 280 people across 24 different forest and urban locations in Japan, found “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol (the so-called “fight or flight” stress hormone), lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments … The results of the field experiments also provide a platform for interested enterprises, universities, and local governments to promote the effective use of forest resources in stress management, health promotion, rehabilitation, and the prevention of disease.”
Since then, other studies have reconfirmed these results. Some of these studies can be found online at the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, which is linked at the bottom of this story.
That’s something to pay attention to when average Americans spend 93 percent of their time indoors or in automobiles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And it is especially important when many of us are stressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have been turning to healthy and safe outdoor activities, like hiking and other activities in State Parks, where there are more than 300,000 acres of forest to “bathe” in throughout the year.
Visits to Parks during this season remained strong, with overall 2020 attendance through October down only 2 percent compared to 2019, even given the density reduction requirements, cancellation of the early camping season, and closure of indoor facilities during the pandemic.
At Minnewaska’s program on an introduction to the concept of forest bathing, Michael and Geralyn O’Reilly, of Troy, along with Abe, their Golden Retriever, went with the group along the park’s Mossy Glen Trail to a bridge over the Peterskill creek.
During the walk (where people used masks when not social distancing), participants were encouraged to move slowly, deliberately, while pausing to focus on breathing, putting thoughts of everyday issues out of their minds, and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the woods filled with oak and laurel around them.
On starting a hike, participants first took time to quietly stretch and breathe, focusing on slow movement of various joints like the ankles, knees, shoulders and neck.
Key to that is the idea of “settling into” a present moment, rather than thinking about anything else that presents itself, which relates to the Buddhist concept of the “monkey mind,” referring to a parade of thoughts that are unsettled, restless and intrusive in the manner of a non-stop “to do” list.
“A program like this helps us to slow down and better experience this beautiful place,” said Geralyn O’Reilly. “And as someone who loves the outdoors, I enjoy being here with like-minded people.”
Growing up in the Bronx, Robert Dosch now lives in Orange County and visits Minnewaska often. Relaxing after the hike, he said, “I have always enjoyed being in the outdoors. A program like this gives you a new perspective … It helps to be reminded that there are times when you should put everything aside and just be where you are.”
Forest Bathing is a practice that reconnects us with nature and its healing properties. This is not just about hiking, getting to a destination, or exercise. This is downshifting and unplugging, which can be difficult when smart devices can bring distractions and demands for attention. Urbanization and the saturation of technology in our lives has disconnected us from our direct sensory experience of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
Forest Bathing is the antidote this type of sensory anesthesia. Like a bath, you are soaking; only you are soaking in all your senses. A Forest Bathing walk offers different sensory invitations to allow you to connect more deeply with nature. This connection allows nature to quiet our busy minds and reveal the beauty of the present moment.
Although the term Forest Bathing is relatively new, by no means is this a new practice. The healing properties of nature have been recognized throughout time by virtually all cultures. The only change is that now we have scientific data to back up this intuitive knowledge.
Of course, it is important to remember that nature, including its health benefits, is not just a resource to be taken. There is something more innate at play. Forest Bathing helps reconnect humans with the outdoor world to which we are naturally adapted, where we have spent more than 99 percent of our time as a species. The recent pandemic has made one thing clear as unprecedented numbers of people have flocked to parks and preserves across the United States – people need nature. As we restore our relationship with the natural world, we are reminded of the vital reality that we, too, must take care of nature as it takes care of us.
Post by Jane Dobson, Mindful Outdoor Nature Guide, MindtheForest LLC
Learn more about forest bathing from the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. The website includes links to reports on the concept from such outlets at the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, The Guardian and the China Times.
Try Forest Bathing Yourself
- Don’t worry about being in the forest if that is not possible. Any nearby park or natural open area will do, any time of the year.
- Before you begin your hike, do some basic stretches of your ankles, knees, neck, wrists and hips. This relates to a practice in yoga called “the eight churnings,” which will stimulate the fluid that lubricates joints.
- Allow yourself three full minutes before starting the hike to just breathe deliberately and relax. This quiets the mind and allows you to notice more. It may be hard to sit still at first, but that will come easier with time.
- Once on the hike, move slowly and deliberately. Take time to pause from time to time to take in the surroundings. Pick a feature, like a tree, rock or portion of a stream, that appeals to you. Try to avoid letting your thoughts wander off from where you are and what you are experiencing.
- Take time to sit down. Experience quietness, which can allow you to notice small sounds and events that might otherwise have gone undetected. By just sitting, you will begin to connect more deeply with nature.