Forest Bathing Supercharges Your Mindfulness and Health. Here's How to Do It
Two things that can relax in mere minutes: uninterrupted time in nature and a hot bath (preferably with mineral salts). Put these two together, and I’m in heaven. Sadly, forest bathing is not taking a bubble bath in nature. Forest bathing/forest therapy/nature therapy is the practice of slowing down and immersing yourself in nature. It’s a unique form of mindfulness that marries moment-to-moment awareness with a walk in the woods (or any natural environment really). And, I’ve found that, just like my nightly baths and time spent enjoying Mother Nature, forest therapy helps my stress melt away and puts me in a better mood.
Now that I’ve piqued your interest, let’s get into the details about it and its benefits, what to expect when you do a guided forest therapy walk, and how to do it on your own. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was to find that it’s not as simple as going for a hike. So let’s get into it!
What is Forest Bathing?
A quick history of the practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku (as it’s known in Japan):
Forest therapy originated in Japan in the 1980s when the government noticed the negative effects that the tech boom had on their urban population. In doing research to find ways to counteract modern day stressors, studies found that slowing down and consciously connecting to nature improved sleep quality, mood, blood pressure, ability to focus and stress levels. Shinrin-yoku was born and became a part of the Japanese national health program.
So what does it mean to ‘slow down and consciously connect to nature’? It means getting outside and using your five senses to immerse yourself in a natural environment. (Pro tip: a natural environment includes a park in the middle of the city and your own backyard.) If you’ve never done forest bathing before, I highly recommend doing a guided walk that is led by a trained forest therapy guide. While it seems simple enough to just go outside and “be one with nature,” it’s a lot easier to truly experience this practice if you have someone leading you through different prompts that help you engage in the natural world around you. A guide elevates this practice by forcing you to disconnect from technology (no phones allowed!) and slow down. (Side note: Forest Therapy guides are not required to be a trained “therapist,” but there is a six month training and certification process that is offered by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy. ANFT bases their methods and training on scientifically-backed research in health science so their certified guides can assist participants in receiving the full benefits of their time in nature.)
Finally, if you are like Nicole and I, you want to know what the research shows. The good news: there are hundreds of studies looking at nature and time in nature’s effects on our health. Everything from stress and mental health to immune functioning to heart rate and blood pressure have been studied. Without fail, science shows that spending time in Mother Nature is not just good for our health, but is healing for our minds and bodies. If you do want to dive more into the science, these are two great resources that highlight the many studies out there:
What to Expect When You First Try Forest Bathing
While I’d love to tell you to go into this with no expectations, I know the concept of forest therapy can seem a bit ‘out-there.’ I urge you to try it with an open mind and a willingness to try all the prompts, reserving your judgement until the end of the experience. To set you up for the most success, here are the top things I’ve shared with friends about forest bathing before they’ve tried it. It’s always good to be a little prepared!
It’s not a hike. This is a mindfulness practice so the “goal” is different. You may only walk a half mile to a mile, at a slow pace, with no physical destination in mind.
Guided walks are usually 2-3 hours in length. This may sound like a long time to go no more than a mile and to be connecting with nature. But I promise that if you fully engage with the experience, the time will not drag on.
Leave your phone and smartwatch in the car. The guide isn’t going to yell at you if you need to step away to take a call, but they will gently remind you to put it away if you’re constantly checking your phone/watch, taking photos, or texting. You can’t connect with nature if you’re distracted by your technology.
It takes time to mentally arrive at the experience. Like any mindfulness practice that is asking you to be (fully) present in the moment, your mind may wander a lot when you first start. This is why it’s so important to put your phone away so you aren’t allowing that distraction. When I went on my first guided forest bathing walk, it took me 30-45 minutes to fully engage with the prompts our guide was giving us. Don’t get frustrated if it takes you a while, just keep coming back to your body, your five senses, and the nature in front of you.
You may feel silly. Try your best to set your judgement aside while you are doing this. There is nothing foolish or absurd in the prompts you will be given by a forest therapy guide, but it may seem weird to spend 20 minutes listening to the sounds in nature or notice how things change ever so slightly with the breeze. Don’t roll your eyes -- immerse yourself in the experience. I promise that how you feel afterwards is worth any temporary feelings of being silly for doing it.
Tips for Doing Forest Bathing on Your Own
1. If you’ve never done forest therapy before, find a guide near you and do the experience with them. This will help you understand ‘how to do forest bathing’ better than any article or checklist can.
2. Leave your phone and any other technology (this includes smartwatches) at home, in your car, or silenced in your pocket. This isn’t about taking photos or tracking steps. You’re trying to be fully present with the nature around you, and nothing pulls you out of the present moment like technology.
3. Before diving right in, find a spot to sit down, feel your booty on the earth, close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Take these first moments of your forest bathing to mentally arrive at your location.
4. One-by-one go through each of your senses and see how you can engage them to connect deeper with nature.
a. What can you smell? If the wind blows, does the smell change?
b. How do things feel? I was surprised to find that the bark of trees feels way different, even on trees that look the same. Also different types of grass feel very different. Start touching things (at least those things you know aren’t poisonous.)
c. What do you hear? Notice how what you hear changes if you change what you are focusing on.
d. Close your eyes, take some calming breaths, and then open your eyes to look around as if this is your first time seeing the world around you. What do you notice that you didn’t see when you first started this experience?
e. Taste is a bit tricky because I wouldn’t recommend licking or eating things you find unless you are trained in edible plants. But you can breath in through your mouth and notice if the air has a taste to it.
5. Go S-L-O-W with everything you do. Think snail’s pace. You should not be rushing to check off your five senses. Forest bathing is more about being than doing.
Bonus tip: Take some time to reflect on what lessons nature is teaching you. Do this while you are still forest bathing by looking at all aspects, big and small, of the natural environment you are in. What do you notice?
Recent studies have found that the “average” American spends 93% of their time indoors. Couple that with the fact that the air inside our homes can be up to 500x more polluted than outside air, and I think we can all agree that we need to get outside more often at the very least. Forest bathing is a way to supercharge this time that you spend outdoors. While I don’t see doing a 2-3 hour nature therapy walk fitting into my schedule daily, there are ways to incorporate this mindfulness practice into a daily routine that allows you to consciously connect with nature in your own neighborhood and reap the benefits of forest bathing. If you listen to our episode with certified Forest Therapy guide Jeanne Iovinelli, you’ll get some good tips on how to consciously connect with nature every day.
Oh, and if you are still loving the idea of a relaxing soak in a bath while out in nature, I can give you some amazing recommendations of spots to check out in Big Sur, CA and Iceland!