The un-hike: Forest bathing for beginners
The clothes stay on. That’s the first thing to know about forest bathing. And there is no soap involved, not even a pine-scented bath bomb.
Before embarking on our forest-bathing adventure, we attended a funeral, followed by a four-hour stint in typical Friday afternoon traffic. To cope, we chugged caffeine, devoured candy, and cranked up the volume on our Spotify playlist. And so began our weekend of mindfulness and tranquility.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan in the 1980s, and it is becoming a staple of preventative healthcare and healing in Japanese medicine. Although the practice is growing, it is still relatively unknown here. Basically, forest bathing is immersion in the forest as a way to clear your mind and open your senses. “It is not a nature walk where you’re leading with your head. It’s not a hike. It’s not exercise where we’re trying to get our heart rate up. It is using our senses to connect with nature,” says Nadine Mazzola, a certified forest therapy guide and founder of New England Nature & Forest Therapy Consulting in Acton. Mazzola leads groups and individuals on forest bathing walks, and is currently helping develop a forest bathing curriculum for a charter school in Fitchburg.
Testing the waters
“I hope you have a joyful afternoon!” chirped the woman at Mohonk Mountain House as we headed to our forest bathing excursion. “Everybody’s way too polite and happy here,” said Connor Bair-Cucchiaro, who accompanied his mom to this Victorian castle in the mountains for the weekend. Maybe it was something in the air, or the forest? We’d soon find out.
This family-owned resort in New York’s Hudson Valley has been incorporating mindfulness into its woodsy excursions for several years, according to Nina Smiley, who leads forest bathing walks at the 1,200-acre property. Smiley, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is coauthor of “Mindfulness in Nature” and a firm believer in the power of the forest to calm and heal.
“We’ll be fully clothed and fully in the moment,” said Smiley to the dozen of us who gathered with her at trailside. “I’m going to invite you to call out your senses as you do this,” she said. “Let’s allow the spaciousness of nature to become the spaciousness of our minds as we let our thoughts go.” To those who were a bit skeptical about the touch-feely aspect of this, Smiley referenced the science behind it. “Studies suggest that when you’re in nature, the trees and plants emit oils called phytoncides that enhance the immune system.” We’ll remove toxins by breathing in and out, gently and fully, she explained, enhancing the paralytic nervous system — the opposite of the stress response.
As we silently (per Smiley’s directive) made our way along the wooded lakeside path, our guide urged us to engage our senses. “Feel the crunch of the bluestones under our feet.” And then, “Close your eyes. Feel the wind on our skin, hear the ripple of wind on the water. Listen to the tapestry of sounds. . . ” But quieting the mind isn’t easy for some of us with Inner Voices demanding to be heard.
And then it happened: As we stood beside the lake, eyes closed, inhaling the spring-green breeze and listening to the mingled sounds of birdsong and children’s voices, our senses took over. We felt the sun emerge from the clouds and warm our eyelids; a little blessing, unexpected. Would we have noticed it on an everyday hike in the woods?
“Open your eyes slowly and let the light come in. Perhaps things look different now,” Smiley said. And they did: The landscape seemed brighter, with more clarity, as though someone had put a filter on it.
“Now turn around and look at the ancient cliffs. Get close — touch and smell the rock,” Smiley urged softly. And so we did, noticing the black lace of lichen on white stone. Just a few steps beyond, a wondrous sign of spring: tiny buds of mountain laurel ready to bloom. “See nature blowing on each bud. How remarkable that is!” Smiley exclaimed. Walking along the trail, we took the time to appreciate the beauty and texture of the landscape around us. As we hiked, our guide reminded us to “feel the shimmer and the peace” of life, and to breathe fully and gently, centered within, one moment after another.
“Forest bathing is really ‘mindfulness meets nature,’ ” Smiley says. “It’s a way to see with new eyes.”
Once we quieted our steady stream of random thoughts, this active form of meditation felt good. To us, it seemed like guided meditation with a component of sensory awareness. The residual stress from that miserable trip on the Mass Pike: Vanished into the mountain air. Really paying attention to the nature around us inspired relaxation, and awe — a far different experience than trekking through the woods staring at a fitness tracker. Bair-Cucchiaro felt it, too. “That was seriously powerful for me,” he said. “It helps when you have a soothing guide to lead you — it slows everything down in an important way.”
Compare it to doing yoga. You can attend a class or go on your own, depending on your preference. Smiley suggested that, after learning the technique with her, we venture out on our own forest bathing excursions.
Wellness in the woods
With or without a guide, a brisk walk in the woods would seem like an obvious balm for stress, but is there something special about forest bathing? Mazzola, who is a breast cancer survivor, is a true believer in the physiological and psychological benefits of the practice. “What was most amazing to me is that the phytoncides emitted by trees — their immune systems — are beneficial to humans,” she says. “Japanese researchers found that people who spent three or four days in the forest had their [natural killer] cells — one of the types of white blood cells that guard against tumors and infections — elevated by 50 percent. That effect lasted a month,” (measured at 20 percent elevation after 30 days) she explains. “There is science behind this.”
Numerous studies have looked at the health impact of forest bathing, indicating benefits such as lowered cortisol levels (the stress hormone), plus lowered blood pressure and heart rate, when compared with walks in the city. There’s evidence that forest bathing may help alleviate depression. (For a closer look at the research, check out the website of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides at www.natureandforesttherapy.org.)
While nobody is suggesting you throw away your prescriptions and become a full-time forest bather, it’s intriguing to consider that something as simple as a walk in the woods can be good for what ails you. “It is fascinating that research is confirming what we inherently know, by determining how and why we feel better after spending time in nature,” says Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, an OB-Gyn and integrative medicine physician in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who prescribes nature therapy and serves as medical director for the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy. “Nature heals. It’s real medicine!”
Ready to give it a try? In addition to the excursions offered by Nina Smiley at Mohonk Mountain House and Nadine Mazzola locally, check out forest bathing programs at Woodloch Lodge in Hawley, Pa. (www.thelodgeatwood
loch.com), Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. (www.blackberry
farm.com), L’Auberge de Sedona in Sedona, Ariz. (www.lauberge.com), and Trout Point Lodge in East Kemptville, Nova Scotia (www.troutpoint.com).
For information on forest bathing at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., visit www.mohonk.com/mindfulness; Nina Smiley leads group excursions and private forest bathing sessions.
Nadine Mazzola leads forest bathing tours for groups and individuals at sites in Massachusetts including Tower Hill in Boylston and the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden in Harvard (www.nenft.com). For general information on forest bathing, contact the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides (www.natureand