The Art and Science of Forest Bathing

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit. 

                                    –Robert Louis Stevenson

 

What comes to mind when you hear the term “forest bathing”? To be honest, the first time I heard it I imagined a bucolic scene of floating naked through—you guessed it, a forest worthy of a fairytale. But that’s just me imagining my best life.

Studies show that shinrin-yoku literally “taking in the atmosphere of the forest”), has many psychological and physical benefits. Coined by the Japanese in the 1980s, the concept was a government response to increased stress levels and burnout in the workplace. Coupled with a campaign to increase awareness around preserving the country’s forests, the idea took hold. The program’s success triggered a flood of studies in the ’90s, producing some surprising results.

What does that have to do with us today? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had a very real effect on our psyches. Many people, after experiencing the forced shutdown, reevaluated their lives and how they define success and happiness. The psychological fallout that isolation, disease, and unemployment have brought is its own pandemic. An interesting thing happened about midway through the pandemic though… people started going outside in droves.

Immersion

Photo by Suzanne Rothmeyer

 

As an outdoorsy person, I couldn’t help but notice the dramatic uptick in bodies on the rivers, lakes, trails, and mountains I spend my time on. And this in turn seems to have further reinforced the reevaluation of how we spend our time. Why? What is it about immersing oneself in nature that results in such a profound rethinking of our state of being? And what is happening in our brains and bodies when we slow down and interact with the natural world?

Forest bathing increases cerebral blood flow, which improves cognition and flushes out toxins. 

It turns out that spending as little as 10 minutes connecting to nature has significant health benefits. This is not a new concept. What ancient cultures knew intuitively, recent studies are now confirming. It’s quality—not quantity—that makes the difference. Running through a wooded trail will not provide you the same benefits as a slow walk. Taking the time to connect with all five senses to the natural world around you can ease depression, lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety—along with a host of other benefits. The evidence is growing – nature is good for you.

Photo by Suzanne Rothmeyer

One of the many benefits of spending time in the forest is the effect of breathing in the phytoncides that certain mature trees give off. These phytoncides increase something called “natural killer cells” in your body (yes, they’re real). Among other things, these “NK cells” fight viruses, cancer, and inflammation. Hmmm. Is there some innate knowing in us that drew us into these spaces in the middle of a viral pandemic? Or was it as simple as cabin fever?

In my quest to find out more and experience forest bathing for myself, I signed up for a tour with a seasoned guide. Laura Ward of Earth Elements in Bellingham met me in a wooded park off of Chuckanut drive and took me on a 45 minute deep dive into attentiveness. Now, if that sounds intimidating, trust me when I say she was warm, welcoming and although we took it slow the time flew by.

So what do you do when forest bathing?

First, there are two primary methods—sitting and/or standing and walking. Of course, you should feel free to combine these as you see fit, which is part of learning how to follow your senses. Think about how a child, when left alone, plays. How they’re responding to some inner impulse—trusting it, as they move through their play. Do that.

If you’re walking, walk slowly. If you’re sitting, choose a quiet spot and plant yourself in an attitude of mindfulness.

Leave phones and other electronics at home or in the car.

Choose any quiet, green space but a forest is ideal.

Take a moment to ground yourself. Be still, listen to your breath, and tune in to your five senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Be in the moment. As cliche as this sounds, think about it… how often are we, really, in the moment? What does it feel like to stop, close your eyes, and recognize a smell that takes you back into a memory? To allow that to come to you through all your senses rather than through a piece of technology?

Pay attention to all your contact points as you move through the space—your feet, hands, eyes, ears, nose, mouth. Notice your body in relation to your surroundings. Tune into sounds with your eyes closed, and colors with your eyes open. Look at the leaves, the bark, the light, and shadow. Go macro: stare at a leaf or flower and take in the color variations, the structure, the scent. Paying deep attention to detail expands perspective and increases focus and attention span.

Nature’s Pace

Photo by Suzanne Rothmeyer

 

As we drifted down the trail, Laura stopped often and drew my attention to details often missed. We spent minutes on a flower—observing the color, the design, the comings and goings of insects and bees. She prompted me to close my eyes and feel the breeze—to breath it in and notice the scents it carried. With a gentle attitude of receiving, her suggestions were never intrusive or mechanical. I found myself with a sense of being in my body that felt at once calming and powerful. Something was definitely happening. By adopting nature’s pace, it threw into relief the typical way of moving through our days on high speed, attached to devices, rushing through experiences.

According to the EPA, Americans spend over 90% of their time indoors.

Laura works with both the young and the elderly. She describes the discomfort many of the younger clients experience when leaving their phones behind, and their struggle to focus. Scientists warn about our addiction to technology—the dopamine hits that keep us engaged. It’s rewiring our brains and disrupting creativity and deep thought. Scary, right? With her elderly clients, Laura says “I’ve witnessed a newfound sense of happiness and joy in them. Their experience of loneliness, chronic depression, PTSD, and anxiety are reduced, as well as body pain. I see increases in cognitive performance and levels of restored physical function.”

It’s hard to ignore such powerful results.

Come to Your Senses

Energy transmission through the eyes is believed by some to be the most powerful exchange of energy in our bodies. We take in “noise” and then release it through our eyes. While this might sound too new-agey for many, scientific studies show significant changes in the brain from gazing at the natural world. What our eyes are taking in matters. Moving from a computer screen to a wide vista or forested path is undeniably restorative, both physiologically and psychologically. We have to ask ourselves how we want to wire our brains, and to what end. We get to decide that! Time in nature—at nature’s pace—decreases aggression, reduces stress and anxiety, increases compassion, and improves cognition. It can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, reduce glucose in diabetics, help with depression, and increase focus and attention span. These days, this sounds like a must-have list of benefits for us all, don’t you think?

Did you know hanging out with Japanese Cedars lowers blood pressure, and other types of cedars can slow Alzheimer’s?

Tuning in to all our senses and connecting with nature is free. If you feel you’d like some guidance to get you started, I highly recommend signing up for a forest bathing tour with Laura. It’s often helpful when forming a new habit to have some initial direction or the occasional refresher. My walks help tune me in to myself and my connection to the world around me, and in doing so, bring my attention back to my truest priorities. I can’t help but think if we were all tuning out more of the external noise, and more into our deepest knowing, the world would be a better place.

Taking the time to ground ourselves is like recalibrating our true compass. The nonstop onslaught of information and distractions keeps us hydroplaning over a more deeply lived life… one with more compassion and real (not virtual) connection. Think of forest bathing as a wild sensory adventure that reveals something about yourself and the world. Call it whatever you want—a habit, a ritual, an exercise… but give it a try and see if it doesn’t surprise you.

“Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed.” 

                                                                                    -Chuck Palahniuk

Suzanne Rothmeyer is a branding, content and portrait photographer (and occasional writer!) based in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in working with passionate, value-based entrepenuers. When not working, you’ll find her traveling, camping, hiking, SUP-ing, and hanging out with her favorite people. Visit her at suzannerothmeyer.com

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