Rain softens everything in the redwood forest. Fallen giants slowly return to the earth, while ferns dance from the tapping of water droplets. I’m walking beneath the tallest trees in the world near dusk, while enveloped by the misty breath of the woods. The path meanders between the massive redwood trees and is littered with evergreen needles, weathered stones, and stray roots. The increasing flow of rain forms two paths, one for gentle streams and one for feet. The footpath leads me further into the quiet, dreary forest.
Forest as Healer
In search of a way to decompress from city noise and clatter, I have come to the forest to relax. In the book Your Guide to Forest Bathing by Amos Clifford, the author introduces us to forest therapy, which is based in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku. Developed in the 1980’s by Tomohide Akiyama, it was presented as a way for urban dwellers to decompress from their busy lives, while reaping some of the many health benefits of forest bathing. It has been adapted in the United States by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. Their website defines forest therapy as “the practice of spending time in forested areas for the purpose of enhancing health, wellness, and happiness.”
The defined practice of forest bathing is relatively young, but the intuitive act of healing in nature is age-old. We evolved in forests, and forest bathing has been shown to decrease levels of stress hormones, improve the immune system and mood, and increase creative problem solving. I am certainly not the first to write about the benefits of spending time outdoors. In the words of John Muir, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
Refining Our Relationships with Forests
Wilderness is fundamental to our health and well-being, but unfortunately too many people suffer modern ailments like Nature-Deficit Disorder due to a separation from wild places. These ailments spring from a division that has been brewing in our society throughout history and is illustrated by culture and language. The idea of woods as foreboding places is so ingrained that even words like “savage” derive their roots from the Latin word for the woods. The forest has been regarded in stories as a place for witches, werewolves, and wild danger. What if instead, it was the cultural norm to regard forests as a place to feel safe and protected?
Perhaps we would plant more trees.
Fundamental to forest bathing is changing the way we build relationship with the forest. We have an opportunity to view forests as places of mutual healing, rather than a resource to colonize. This is one of the more important concepts of forest bathing in my mind, because we are more likely to protect what we appreciate. Forest bathing practice not only allows opportunities for rejuvenation, but helps to reduce the apathy that has led to the disappearance of our wild places. After having practiced forest bathing in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, it was much more shocking when I learned I was walking in only 5% of what remained of an ancient redwood forest. Context can be cruel.
The relationship between our selves and the forest is inherit, so it is a surprise that we have lost touch at all. During my forest bathing experience, an Alan Watts quote crept back into my mind, “You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Practical Methods for Forest Bathing
Forest bathing is generally centered around having mindful experiences in nature, but it can help to have specific activities to structure your practice and help you along. The following “invitations” were found in Your Guide to Forest Bathing, by Amos Clifford.
Don’t worry about distance, just take a relaxing stroll and try to be present during your walk.
If you know of a trail that would be good for barefoot walking, then give it a try. It will help keep you sensitive to the environment. Bring along some sandals for rough patches.
During a walk in a forest take some time to practice deep breathing. Stop and inhale for 8 seconds, hold for 5, and exhale for 10. Do this at least 5 times.
Sit by Water
Try to find a stream or body of water to sit near for about ten minutes. The sound of running water will support your practice.
Most importantly, don’t worry about doing it right or wrong. Just showing up is a win!
During my experience in the ancient forest at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, I encountered a bridge about midway through my trail. It was a massive redwood tree that had fallen across an area carved out by a stream. In the process it unearthed the surprisingly shallow roots of the giant tree. The tree was flattened and turned into a bridge where you enter through the root system and then walk across the trunk to the other side. It was just another piece of the ancient forest that made me feel like an ant, part of something much larger than myself.
Further Reading on Forest Bathing
If you try any of the activities above, please leave a comment and share your experience and check out these books for further reading.