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OUTDOORS

Trees? Yes, please. How forest bathing can help you heal

Karen Fluet Roy, of Fitchburg walked through the Acton Arboretum.
Karen Fluet Roy, of Fitchburg walked through the Acton Arboretum.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

By now, you’ve probably heard about forest bathing — or shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of immersing oneself in the woods as a way to open your senses and calm your mind. We first wrote a story about forest bathing four years ago, prompting a commenter on bostonglobe.com to respond: “California frou-frou!”

But as the evidence piles up that nature is good for us, few are mocking forest bathing now.

Biologists from Konkuk University, in Seoul, wrote in 2017 about the health benefits of “showering” in various forest aerosols. (You can read an abstract of their work on the National Institutes of Health website). They noted that “studies in recent decades have demonstrated that terpenes [a main component of plant essential oils] exert anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting various proinflammatory pathways in ear edema, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin inflammation, and osteoarthritis.”

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This comes as no surprise to Nadine Mazzola of Acton. A certified forest therapy guide and author of an award-winning book, “Forest Bathing with Your Dog,” Mazzola discovered these ideas as a cancer survivor. Looking for ways to keep her immune system strong, “I stumbled upon Japanese research that revealed that people who spent time in the forest boosted the NK (natural killer) cells,” Mazzola said in a recent phone interview. She went all in, and believes that immersion in the woods (particularly terpene-rich conifer forests) enhanced her immune system and aided her healing from the treatment she received for breast cancer.

But you don’t need to read scientific papers — or battle a serious illness — to realize that being outside is rejuvenating. “We all know in our bones that it works, and that we feel better when we spend time outside. We instinctively want to go to the forest when we are upset. We evolved from nature, and we’re connected to it,” Mazzola said.

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Being in nature makes you more aware that plants and trees have their own senses, she noted. ”Plants have little hairs that are similar to, and share some of the same DNA with, the hair in our own ears.”

Rhododendron frame a path that winds through the Acton Arboretum.
Rhododendron frame a path that winds through the Acton Arboretum. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The desire for a connection to the outdoors has been amplified by the pandemic. “People are craving it more,” Mazzola observed. “My [forest bathing] sessions are filling up quickly. Participants say, ‘I needed this so bad!’”

The social aspect to forest bathing is especially appealing right now, she added. During an outing, “you’re doing invitations, noticing what’s around you, with all your senses. You’re totally in the present.” In this group setting, you share what you’re noticing. “This shared sense of noticing — perhaps the hue of a rhododendron, or the smell of freshly-cut grass — connects us in multiple ways. It’s simple but powerful.”

Being with a guide and group adds layers to the forest bathing experience, Mazzola said, and it’s a great introduction to the practice. But you can enjoy the benefits solo, too. Or with your kids, or a buddy — especially a buddy of the canine persuasion. “Dogs are natural forest bathers,” she noted. “My dog Juliet immediately sticks her nose up when we go outside. It reminds me to be in a more sensory realm.”

Walking your dog is the perfect way to incorporate forest bathing into your life, Mazzola said. Recounting her own experience, “Juliet will stop and pause, and I’ll suddenly notice a shaft of sunlight or a patch of moss. She’s been a huge inspiration for me to pause, notice things, smell things, and just breathe.”

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If you’re out with your family, walk quietly and then share what you’ve noticed, she suggested. “Ask your kids, ‘What do we see? What do we hear? What do we smell?’ and maybe collect some small things,” like pine cones. You’re tuning into the simple pleasures, and letting that joy in, she added. “You’ll feel connected to your garden, your yard, the plants and animals, every tiny violet — just by paying attention.” During the pandemic, “the relationships with the places we cherish have become really important.”

Want to make it an excursion? “Look for places with an open understory, and wide trails with spots to pause and sit among the trees,” Mazzola suggested. A pine or conifer forest with a pond or brook is perfect. Her favorite places to go include the Acton Arboretum, Tower Hill Botanic Garden, and The Trustees of Reservations properties, especially Farandnear Reservation in Shirley. The Arnold Arboretum is a great spot for forest bathing, as are conservation lands and state parks.

Once you realize how good it feels, you’ll want to seize these moments when you can. “We crave the sense of being among living things. We want to relate to nature and be outside and react to the trees and butterflies,” Mazzola said. “It’s a feeling of pure joy and delight.”

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And if it’s good for you, all the better.

For a schedule of Mazzola’s forest bathing excursions, visit www.nenft.com.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com