Stopping by woods and breathing in deeply
Few activities go by a name that is as comprehensive as “forest bathing.” The practice encourages immersion in the natural world, a mindful meditation that embraces our surroundings rather than excluding them.
Forest bathing, said Acton’s Nadine Mazzola, is “connecting with the healing powers of nature . . . 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.”
While recovering from cancer treatments several years ago, Mazzola learned about “phytoncides,” described by the National Center for Biotechnology Information as “aromatic volatile substances” emitted by trees that boost the “natural killer” or NK cells in human immune systems. Certified by the Association Of Nature and Forest Therapy as a guide for such therapy in 2015, she then founded New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting .
Mazzola has led forest bathing sessions for students, people affected by brain injuries or cancer, inmates at South Middlesex Correctional Center, seniors and assisted-living residents, corporate programs for team-building or stress-management strategies, and even dog owners.
“I feel so nurtured and supported by, and appreciative of, the living world, the forests,” she said.
Jamaica Plain’s Tam Willey of Toadstool Walks 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, I find it doesn’t last as long, which tells me that my immune system is stronger.’’
Willey said she discovered forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, in 2016 when she signed up for a daylong outdoor retreat.
“We met at a forest just outside of Boston, and our meditation teacher began by introducing us to Shinrin-yoku and led us through some invitations,” she said. “The practice immediately clicked for me.
“While I was aware that I’d been experiencing a great deal of healing as a result of spending extended periods of time in the mountains, I hadn’t had a language for it,” said Willey, an avid hiker. “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 from Watertown, said she was was introduced to forest bathing during “a program titled ‘Our Original Playground,’ which was offered through 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.”
“The program took place at Willowdale State Forest in Ipswich, and I really wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Hezekiah. “Even as a meditator, a nature enthusiast, and a former outdoor educator, I was amazed at how different the experience . . . was. It called on me to really be present to my experiences and to share my reflections as well. It was a really lovely day.”
West Roxbury’s Laura Campagna, an astrologer, grew up in Brookline, and has visited the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plains since she was a child. “But my forest bathing experience with Tam [Willey] allowed me to see the land through completely new eyes,” she said.
“At the beginning, we sat and set an intention for the experience. Tam described the fascinating history of forest bathing in Japan, and explained which path we would follow through the park,” said Campagna. “At various points we stopped, and Tam lead led me through a series of mindfulness exercises that included listening, talking, and writing.
“It felt like the time flew by, even though we were there for two hours,” she said. “I had such a magical experience connecting with the land, trees, birds, grass, and animals in a way I never imagined possible in such a busy public park. It felt like true communion with nature.”
For Watertown’s Annie Meyer, a studio artist and woodworking teacher with Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts, forest bathing provides an intimate bond with her work.
“Forest bathing helped connect me with my medium in a new and interesting way,” said Meyer. “It’s easy for woodworkers to mentally disconnect their material from its origin. While forest bathing, I was able to meditate in a deeper and more meaningful way on a natural material that I interact with every day.”
Willey leads regular forest bathing walks at the Arnold Arboretum, but like Mazzola, is also partnering with groups such as the Trustees of Reservations , the Massachusetts Audubon Society , and the Appalachian Mountain Club to offer similar sessions throughout the eastern suburbs, including Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Yoga Space at the Farm in Canton, and along the Bay Circuit Trail.
“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.”