The COVID-19 pandemic has left most of us on edge. Given the ubiquitous nature of the novel coronavirus, that's understandable. But if experts agree on anything regarding how to counteract the stress and strain of life under a cloud, it's that getting into nature is good not only for our physical but also our mental and emotional well being.
All these factors explain why "forest bathing" – also known as forest therapy – is enjoying a renaissance. The practice promotes immersion in the natural world, a mindful meditation that embraces our surroundings. Forest bathing, said Nadine Mazzola, a forest therapy guide,is "connecting with the healing powers of nature for well-being, health and healing by simply being in nature, slowing down, and allowing ourselves to use our senses, not our minds."
"Typically, (it includes) a leisurely stroll of about a mile with pauses along the way to notice, reflect, sit, or wander and if one wants, share with the group," said Mazzola, who is certified by the Association Of Nature and Forest Therapy and founder of New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting. "I feel so nurtured and supported by, and appreciative of, the living world, the forests."
The practice is inspired by Shinrin-Yoku, a term coined in 1982 by the Japanese Forest Agency. In Japanese, "shinrin" means forest, and "yoku" refers to a "bathing, showering, or basking in," and the practice is defined as "taking in, in all of our senses, the forest atmosphere," according to Mother Earth News.
At the root of forest bathing is the concept of encouraging people to get out into nature, to bathe the mind and body in green spaces. Today, forest bathing is practiced around the world, throughout North America and Europe. For example, in Finland, the legal construct of "Everyman's Right" allows access to most forested lands regardless of ownership, giving people ample opportunity to try forest bathing.
The growing popularity of the practice is a good thing. Research has shown forest bathing's effectiveness as preventative healthcare as well as treatment for many stress-related illnesses. Mazzola has led forest bathing sessions for charter school students, people affected by brain injuries or cancer, correctional facility inmates, seniors and assisted-living residents, and corporate programs for team-building or stress-management strategies.
Tam Willey of Toadstool Walks leads forest bathing walks at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum in Boston, and partners with groups like the Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the Appalachian Mountain Clubto offer similar sessions. But she stressed it can even be done indoors, with house plants.
"Forest bathing can be done anywhere, anytime, regardless of the weather," said Willey. "Somewhere on the globe, you can find a forest bathing walk in the desert, along the beach, in the snow, in the rain, and in the smallest of urban parks. Forest bathing can even happen in prisons, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals."
While recovering from breast cancer treatments, Mazzola learned about "phytoncides" emitted by trees and how they boost the "natural killer" or NK cells in human immune systems. Both Mazzola and Willey said anyone can benefit from forest bathing, but those benefits increase with repetition.
"Forest bathing is most effective when practiced regularly over time," said Willey, a certified forest therapy guide. "It takes time to build up NK cells in the blood and lower the production of stress hormones. The more time one spends absorbing the phytoncides released by trees, the more lasting the results can be in our bodies.
"I've noticed that I'm healthier," she said. "I get sick less, and when I do get a head cold, it doesn't last as long, which tells me that my immune system is stronger. I'm less stressed out and more grounded overall."
Willey, an avid hiker, discovered forest bathing in 2016.
"While I was aware that I had been experiencing a great deal of healing as a result of spending extended time in the mountains, I didn't have a language for it," said Willey. "Forest bathing enabled me to find that sense of freedom and gave me almost instant access to the stress reset button, without needing to go into the deep backcountry for days."
Rachel "Rage" Hezekiah, a poet and educator, said she was introduced to forest bathing through a program entitled "Our Original Playground" offered by the Boston Shambala Center.
"It emphasized a connection with nature, and the title reminded me of being a young child spending whole days playing outdoors," said Hezekiah. "I trusted that I could get a lot out of it if I kept an open mind. I remember feeling a little unmoored and unsure about how the day was going to unfold.
"But even as a meditator, a nature enthusiast, and a former outdoor educator, I was amazed out how different the experience of forest bathing was," she said. "It called on me to really be present to my experiences and to share my reflections as well. It was a really lovely day."
Hezekiah's session underscores the importance of having a good guide, or "facilitator."
"A skilled and sensitive facilitator can literally make or break a guided group experience like this," said Carol Dorsey Staszewski, a retired psychologist. "Given the nature of the material, an even greater level of sensitivity to dynamics and what's alive in the group, moment to moment, appears to be essential."
However, while having a guide is beneficial, it isn't necessary. Here are a few tips to help you get started on your own:
- To increase your comfort level, choose a wooded area that you're familiar with, and go on a nice day (as inclement weather induces stress). An uncrowded forest or park with gentle walking paths or trails is ideal.
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes (and pack extra clothing if the forecast calls for any sudden temperatures swings). Bring bug spray, to limit distractions.
- Don't rush. Walk at a nice, easy pace. Stop often, take in your surroundings. Be present.
- Engage all your senses. Look around. Listen to the wind rustling the leaves, babbling brooks, or birds chirping. Feel the sunshine. Touch trees and even the dirt. Breath deeply and enjoy the many smells of the forest.
- Keep distractions to a minimum. Leave any electronic devices behind (either at home, or in your vehicle). If you have to bring your phone, put it in airplane mode.
For more information on forest bathing, visit natureandforesttherapy.org. To find a local forest therapy guide, visit the same web site, and click on the "Find A Guide" link under the "Experience Forest Therapy" tab.