When I first heard the term forest bathing, I immediately thought of bathing suit-clad hikers kicking back on a lounge chair in the middle of the woods holding a sun reflector. The props are not necessary. But the relaxation in nature part is key.
“In Japanese the word is Shinrin-yoku,” said Dr. Christa Smith, a clinical psychologist based in Denver who has studied mindfulness for more than 20 years and trained with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides.
Dr. Smith explained that Shinrin-yoku literally means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” And it’s an integral part of preventive health care and healing in Japan.
“You know I think of it as the medicine of nature. It’s bathing in the sounds, the sights, the smells," explained Dr. Smith. "I think there’s a deep, deep well of possibility of healing available from really being outside and really connecting.”
For example, if you go to a metro park, are you noticing the flowing stream, the call of a sandhill crane, the aroma of yellow marsh marigolds, or a flash of a red-bellied woodpecker?
Dr. Smith and other experts say there are numerous scientifically-proven benefits of forest bathing.
"I think of it as the medicine of nature," said Dr. Smith. "It’s bathing in the sounds, the sights, the smells. And in Japan, they’re super into it. They have national parks where they have these stations and these guides. And they’ve done tons of research about how, for example, the aerosols that come from the pine tree actually affect you – have these physiological stress reduction relaxation effects."
BENEFITS OF SHINRIN-YOKU / FOREST BATHING
- Boosting immune system
- Reducing blood pressure
- Lowering stress
- Improving mood
- Increasing focus
- Improving sleep
- Increasing energy
- Aiding recovery
People we ran into during our hike at Kensington Metro Park recently are not surprised by this.
Sarah Dubuc of Milford comes to Kensington Metro Park once a week for an hour.
“This is kind of my self-care. I’ve got six kids at home, and I just finished schooling, and so this is where I kind of just have my moment and it’s just for me,” said Dubuc.
Brandon Scott of Detroit feels the same boost from nature.
“You come out here and clear your mind, you know. Come out here and let the extra just kind of float away,” he explained.
Debbi and Joe Kirk of Brighton have made immersion in nature part of their daily routine.
“We come every morning, hike to a certain spot, sit and meditate to reset our brains,” said Debbi Kirk.
Dr. Smith said there are four steps to get you started with forest bathing or forest therapy.
1. EXPLORE NATURE NEAR YOU
Hiking out into the boonies can be great, but forest bathing is not about going from point A to point B. It’s about really taking your time to focus on your natural surroundings. If you’re not near some woods, don't worry. You can go to the nearest body of water or a city park. You don’t have to be surrounded by tall trees to get the benefit of communing with nature. Once you get there, take your time. Breathe. Relax.
2. TRY A WALKING MEDITATION
Dr. Smith said walking meditation can be therapeutic. The idea is to focus on the feel of your feet as you slowly walk through a natural setting. Literally, thinking about that heel-toe, heel-toe movement over a pebble and across a root, etc. When your mind wanders, return to focusing on the feeling of your feet traversing the earth. This practice helps you be in the present moment. It's a freeing feeling to let your worries fall away and focus on how your feet connect to Mother Earth.
3. FOCUS ON YOUR SENSES
Think about what you’re smelling. Are those some marsh side marigolds or lilacs in bloom? Or identify what you’re hearing. Are those blue jays or robins chirping? Touch the water of a bubbling brook or feel the tops of tall grasses blowing in the breeze. The more you zero in on what your senses are experiencing, the easier it will get. Your mind will calm. Your heart rate will lower. You’ll feel yourself destress.
4. FIND YOUR SIT SPOT
Your "sit spot" is a place that you return to over and over again. Maybe it’s on a large, smooth rock beside a creek or a stump along a lake or a grassy spot next to your favorite tree. This connection with nature is like a relationship. As you return there, it will feel like your special place.
Dr. Smith said connecting with nature this way encourages feelings of gratitude.
“Being out in nature is a way to help pull yourself into the present, to help pull yourself out of those negative ruminations that create that brain chemistry that creates more depression," she explained.
And forest bathing can also have a positive impact on the world in which we live.
"It’s benefiting the earth itself because when we’re disconnected, we kind of lose compassion for this place that’s feeding us and housing us and just giving to us all the time. When we get out there and we reconnect, we remember," said Dr. Smith.