WE MIGHT AS WELL start by acknowledging that, on first utterance, the term “forest bathing” can strike people as a bit awkward. Fear not: There are no string bikinis or vanilla-scented body washes involved. In fact, the idea is merely to “bathe” in the atmosphere and essence of the woods. To be present in the company of trees. To slowly explore nature and bask in its inherent glory.
Regardless of your initial mental imagery, forest bathing is a hot trend and one that you might want to immerse yourself in, or at least dip your toes.
Many of us probably already share the sentiment that gardening and spending time in nature are relaxing and therapeutic pastimes. However, when it comes to forest bathing, there are studies to prove it. In its homeland of Japan, the practice is known as Shinrin-yoku, and it has been under study for decades in an effort to understand the health benefits of nature therapy.
As a formal practice, Shinrin-yoku is a relatively recent invention. It was conceived by the Japanese government in the 1980s to help reduce stress in the country’s urban population. Studies have been conducted on its health benefits since. Recent studies indicate that Shinrin-yoku can significantly reduce blood pressure and stress hormones, even after you leave the forest. Another commonly cited study indicates forest bathing allows you to absorb airborne oils emitted from conifer trees, known as phytoncides, and that these oils can be beneficial to your immune system.
Although I try to keep current on all things botanical (Rhododendron classifications notwithstanding), I only recently was introduced to the idea of forest bathing. Judy Beaudette, a delightful forest-bathing guide who helps organize monthly excursions with the Friends of North Creek Forest, recently invited me to tag along on a spring outing. Even though I don’t know my baseline blood pressure and cortisol levels, I thought I should experiment with Shinrin-yoku. Perhaps I’d be able to just sense a standard deviation.
North Creek Forest is a unique ecological gem in the city of Bothell and an inspiring conservation story. This 64-acre woodland was recently safeguarded from development and placed into permanent conservation. A large and dedicated group of volunteers spent seven years fundraising, lobbying and raising awareness in the community about this threatened natural area. While this narrow, relatively small forest runs adjacent to highway 405 and is surrounded by development, it is home to more than 100 plant species and an amazing breadth of wildlife.
I arrived at the forest on a Sunday morning to join a guided, small-group forest-bathing experience. Our bath was about an hour long, and we covered perhaps 300 yards of terrain. As Judy says, “Forest bathing is not a natural history lesson, and it is not a hike.” I can vouch for both of these facts. Indeed, it is an incredibly slow meander through the woods, just being. While this might seem impossibly boring, I found that the meditative qualities of the experience made it quite the opposite.
Forest bathing allows you the opportunity to appreciate the spectrum of sensual input you can receive from nature. I noticed subtle sounds of water and wildlife, slight changes in the light filtering through the trees and surprising temperature fluctuations along a short stretch of trail. While I typically hike fast and try to log miles, I was thrilled to spend 15 minutes staring at a piece of moss on the trunk of a vine maple.
Although I did not have a sphygmomanometer handy at the end of our walk, I am certain that I felt more relaxed and contemplative than when I began. In fact, after my Shinrin-yoku experience, I had a great day, and probably have the forest to thank for it.
Forest bathing can easily be undertaken as a solo project without a guide, or you can find a group walk in your area. If you live in or near Bothell, I encourage you to sign up for a free walk with the Friends of North Creek Forest group. This has the added bonus of giving you a reason to visit this unique urban oasis. Whether you forest bathe or not, you probably should get outside this weekend and get some fresh air.