Have you heard of forest bathing?
Since its beginnings about 30 years ago in Japan, forest bathing – a mindful movement through trees to “bathe” in their calming atmosphere – has grown and become more popular worldwide.
What Is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing started in Japan, where it’s called shinrin-yoku.
Shinrin-yoku translates as “forest bathing.”
In the 1980s, the Japanese government decided to combat increasing stress among the population by promoting relaxation. It designated certain forests as places to enjoy forest bathing (or “forest therapy,” as it’s typically called in the U.S.).
Forest bathing is a way to connect deeply with nature by spending time among trees. Specially trained guides lead groups through forests, facilitating a meditative experience that engages the participants’ senses and intentions in order to produce a calming and restorative effect that enhances happiness as well as physical well being.
According to Yoshifumi Miyazaki, author of Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, forest bathing not only reduces stress but lowers blood pressure, strengthens mental focus, increases energy, and improves mood.
Here is the U.S., forest bathing has become better known in recent years. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs trains people to lead these healthful walks in nature. Founded by M. Amos Clifford, by the start of 2019 the organization had trained more than 700 people in 46 countries.
Clifford wrote Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature. As he said, “The forest is the therapist. The guide opens the doors.”
My Forest Bathing Walk
Yesterday, I went on a forest bathing walk at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle to see what this relaxation opportunity is all about.
The class description said: “Experience the healing and wellness promoting effects of Shinrin-Yoku, the practice of bathing the senses in the atmosphere of the forest. Take a slow and mindful walk with a certified Forest Therapy guide on a trail at the Morton Arboretum as you awaken your senses and reconnect with nature. The walks will visit different locations at the Arboretum and will include a variety of sensory awareness exercises. The walks will conclude with tea made from edible plants foraged along the trail.”
My walk originally was scheduled for this past December, but a major snowstorm the night before brought enough snow that the arboretum canceled that date and rescheduled it for March.
I was thinking that timing was perfect, anyway. We’re currently in the Pisces time because the Sun is moving through this zodiac sign. Pisces (and its planet, Neptune) are associated with the feet. So a walk at this time is a perfect way to get grounded, literally, but putting my feet on the earth out in nature.
Getting Ready: Winter Weather
Although the calendar says March, it’s still early March and therefore winter here in northern Illinois.
The weather is living up to the season. I checked the weather forecast online the night before my forest bathing walk and found it would be 29 degrees that morning. With the wind chill, it would feel like 20 degrees.
Also, we had had a time change the day before. We “sprang ahead” an hour, which gives us more hours of daylight at the end of the day but makes mornings dark until later.
On walk day, I got up before 6 a.m., and it was still dark. And cold. Because of the time change, I would be experiencing the weather as if it were an hour earlier and therefore even colder than usual.
The walk started at 9:30 a.m., so I knew I couldn’t rely on sunshine for much in the way of warmth. Sunshine can be elusive in March around here. When the Sun does shine, it may feel warm inside a building, car, or other enclosed space, but outdoors the wind blows away any warmth those rays otherwise would provide.
Getting Ready: What To Wear And Bring
About a week before the walk, the arboretum emailed me with advice.
“Dress for the outdoors; we’ll be outside for the entire time.” The email also re recommended wearing layers of clothing plus “a warm coat, warm pants, heavy wool socks, and waterproof, insulated shoes or boots. A hat, scarf and gloves are also recommended.”
As for what to bring, the email suggested water or a warm drink. “Also you may want to bring a mat or portable camp chair, as well as journals and/or sketchbooks.”
I wore jeans and heavy alpaca socks with mid-calf rubber boots (pink with purple soles!). On top, a soft wool short sleeved sweater, then a cotton cardigan, then a heavy and long (low hip length) fleece cardigan.
For outerwear, I put on my heaviest and heartiest coat: a sports parka with hood and big pockets on the front. Plus a shearling hat. And a hand knitted neck warmer. And a pashmina shawl. And two hand knitted wool scarves.
For my hands: I have some beautiful, form fitting gloves, but in this case I decided to go for warmth. First I put on a pair of old pink cashmere gloves I’ve repaired countless times over the years because I love the color, the softness, and the extra layer of warmth. (The homestyle equivalent of “cashmere lined!” that can be found in many winter gloves.) Over those, I wore some old black suede gloves that are very heavy and have a loose fit that works with the cashmere underlayer.
In addition to all this, I decided to bring a tiny lined notebook and pen in case I wanted to jot down ideas or sketch. Also a large insulated mug of hot tea. And I needed a purse to carry all those things you need when you go somewhere: car and house keys, cell phone, multiple pairs of glasses, pens, notebook, wallet. Plus all those personal comfort items including tissues, lip balm, lipstick, and aromatherapy vials.
Getting Ready: What To Carry
I left very early and made good time, so I had 45 minutes before the walk began to get myself settled and organized.
I sat in my car with the engine running to keep myself warm. Going through my purse, I pulled out the things I wanted to carry with me so I wouldn’t have to carry the purse itself.
I took the car key, for obvious reasons. And my cell phone – not because I wanted to use it but because it was too cold to leave it outside and I figured even in an outside pocket it would get a little body heat and so stay warm enough to prevent interior damage from the cold and resulting moisture/condensation.
I put these in my parka’s front pockets, along with tissues, handkerchiefs, lip gloss, and eyeglasses for distance vision. And the notebook with pen. That left me with only the mug of tea to carry.
Checking In: More Stuff To Carry
Soon it was time to check in at the meeting place, where I met our guide, Brenda. She’s a longtime nature buff and has received official training to conduct forest bathing walks.
In total, about a dozen of us came for the walk (not including Brenda). We convened at an outdoor shelter, where a volunteer had a roaring fire going in the enormous natural stone fireplace on the far wall. What a welcome sight, and how wonderful to warm my hands before the flames.
Brenda pointed to additional supplies provided by the arboretum: little packs of tissues, hand warming packs and fleece blankets. I took some tissues and one of the warming packs, which went into my coat pocket. And then opted for two fleece blankets.
So now I was carrying two blankets plus the mug of tea. (In addition to all the stuff in my pockets, which were starting to get pretty full.)
Brenda did a wonderful job leading our group. She was gracious, nurturing, and knew her subject (as well as the arboretum). She also has a wise woman quality, as she’s a grandmother and longtime volunteer for various eco and nature groups.
She led us on a journey down paths, onto fields, and through wooded areas. At various points along the way, she stopped the group to present a series of what she called “invitations.”
The first invitation was to get in touch with our five senses. As part of that, she had us close our eyes, turn slowly, and stop once we felt inwardly that we were facing the direction best for us. Then we opened our eyes to look at what was before us.
Talking Objects And Sharing
After each invitation, Brenda picked up some object such as a stone or a feather, dubbing it the “talking object.” She’d ask who wanted to share an experience, and after that person shared, the object was passed to the left in turn until each of us had shared.
In the first invitation and exercise, I noticed a large group of trees that mirrored our group: we were doing our thing while the clump of trees was a group doing its thing by growing and interacting in the landscape.
In another invitation, Brenda asked us to notice thresholds. That is, the boundaries or shifts from one type of place to another (such as from a wooded spot to a meadow) or from one type of energy to another (closed and dark to open and more cheerful).
I noticed that these thresholds are all around us: a large branch that had fallen created a boundary from one place to the next, and I felt I was in some kind of initiation as I moved around it and entered, literally, new territory.
The Ball Exercise
Yet another invitation involved squishy balls. Each ball had the globe printed on it in bright colors, and we were supposed to throw the ball and then follow where it went to inspect the ground where it landed.
The balls were lightweight, so they didn’t go very far – even with a hard throw. I tried overhand and underhand. Mostly, I found the ball frustrating because there wasn’t any way to control the trajectory and throwing it never felt satisfying like the feeling of tossing a heavier, harder object that really travels after you let go.
By this time, I was starting to feel the weight and annoyance of all the things I was carrying. I was tired of having things in my hands, so I draped the fleece blankets around my neck like shawls. The wind kept blowing them around, though, so I had to keep adjusting them. Also, I didn’t want to carry the mug of tea anymore, so I drank most of it and then shoved the mug into one of my parka pockets.
So then each time I bent down to pick up that ball, the front of my coat would crunch with all the stuff in it. Most of which I never used.
Carrying Too Much
I found it was too cold to take off my gloves, so I didn’t use the notebook and pen. I used one handkerchief (everyone’s nose was running from the cold), so I didn’t need all the ones I’d brought from home, nor the extra pack I picked up at checkin.
I also didn’t wear my glasses because of the cold and all the commotion going on with my outerwear. With all those scarves, blankets, and shawls, the back of my hat kept getting pushed upward, which meant the front brim kept moving down to my eyebrows and made it hard to see much. So I felt hemmed in by my own hat, limited visually by something I needed yet wished I could remove.
I did use my cell phone to take a few photos (the ones you see here in this post). Each time I needed to take off both pairs of gloves and then put them back on separately. And I ended up poking a hole through one of the fingers in the pink ones while putting the gloves back on.
I did share my frustration during the “talking object” part of this invitation. It turned out others didn’t care for the ball exercise either, so I was glad I spoke up – I went first, in fact, because I wanted to get it off my chest and let it go.
The last invitation was called “Let’s.” And it became my favorite.
Brenda told us to partner up and pretend we were children again who felt free to simply play by inviting each other to play by saying “Let’s….”
As I looked around for a partner, I saw the woman I’d paired with earlier already was connected to another person, as was everyone else. So I became a group one one – and was really fine with that.
Another pair called over to me at one point, saying “Want to climb a tree with us?” And honestly, I did not. I thanked them and shared my enthusiasm for their “Let’s” activity and then enjoyed my own solo.
I went over to some ice and looked at the patterns from melting and freezing. I rubbed my toe over smooth and clear patch of ice over a pool of water. I crunched my pink and purple boots into some of that clear ice to break it and watch the water rush around.
And on the way back to the shelter, I picked up two big sticks and pounded them against each other to make loud sounds. And then ran them over fencing to make more sounds.
“You’re making music!” Brenda said to me. Yes, I was.
I also was releasing all the pent up energy from having to walk slowly in the cold while my muscles were getting tighter and tighter. I realized I just wanted to be running, jumping, playing – and warming up! When we were more free to move around, my inner child felt so much joy.
After the “let’s” invitation, we headed back to the shelter.
The first had been stoked by the man volunteering to tend it, so we crowded around to warm up.
Also, Brenda had asked us to pick up objects during the final leg of the walk so we could use them as picnic table decorations for the tea time segment that would close the experience.
I picked up everything in twos (in homage to Mercury, which is retrograde and, as the sign of the Twins, often has us experience things that come in twos). Two branches, two sticks, two chunks of wood.
We sat down at picnic tables pushed together to accommodate us all, which Brenda had covered with tablecloths. She had an iron teapot and cups, a thermos of hot water, and herbs she’d foraged last summer. So she made us a forest brew consisting of wild bergamot, red clover, and different types of mint, among other things.
I told her it was “wonderfully strange” and delicious. And I welcomed the warmth after nearly two hours in the cold.
What I Learned
I learned so much from this experience, and ultimately I was glad I went.
On my evaluation, I gave the session high marks. As well as Brenda, who did an excellent job of setting the tone (she started with a gratitude sharing and closed with the tea ceremony that included offering some tea to the earth).
The arboretum did a great job describing the class, communicating with participants, and providing every possible comfort such as the hand warmers, hot tea, and warm fire in the shelter. Also, I liked the other people in the group and really enjoyed what they shared after each “invitation.”
And I enjoyed learning the history of forest bathing and being outside in nature.
Besides all these learnings about others and the forest bathing concept, here’s what I learned about myself:
- But as much as I appreciated the experience and enjoyed the concept, I learned that forest bathing in a group may not be for me – at least not during really cold weather.
- I realized I am more uncomfortable in cold weather than I knew. For most of my life, my body “ran hot,” and I felt fine in subzero temperatures. As I approach 60, however, I feel cold even when it’s in the 40s and even when I’m dressed for the temperature. So I’m unlikely to sign up for an outdoor walk in cold months.
- The part of me that got most cold was my feet, despite wearing rubber boots and heavy socks. Although I could have put one of the warming packs in my boots at some point, I didn’t think of it while we were on the walk. Also, there wasn’t any place to sit down to do that (except on the – very cold – ground).
- Ditto the warmers when it came to my hands: I forgot about them while were were on the walk.
- I also realized I really dislike having to carry stuff when I go out into nature. I want to feel free to experience instead of having to be responsible for objects that keep my hands bound up and muscles tensed with holding them. I’m an artist, and I don’t even want to sketch (or take photos) while on a walk unless I’m specifically there to do that.
- I was glad to have the warm tea with me, but it became an impediment until I realized I could just stow it in a pocket to free up my hands.
- Being out in blowing winds requires extra thought: at one point, I wished I’d had some safety pins to hold the fleece blankets in place. Also, I need to rethink my head gear because I’m an air sign and want to look at the sky but I couldn’t do that easily because my hat blocked the view.
- Also, I’m so used to taking walks by myself that it was a challenge to keep myself in sync with the group. I think that’s why I liked the let’s exercise at the end: I finally felt free to operate on my terms, at my chosen pace. Normally, I’m one for slowing down to smell the roses (or whatever’s in bloom), but in cold weather I want to move around quickly at first to get warmed up.
After the walk, I had an appointment with a chiropractor scheduled.
I went and found out that my hunch about my muscles was right: they’d really tightened up from being in the cold and not being free to move around at will.
Luckily, a few little adjustments took care of that and had me laughing away any frustrations and realizing how helpful I found the experience.
Try Forest Bathing And See
So I recommend trying forest bathing for yourself to see what you think.
I plan to try it again, by myself, once the weather’s warmer.
In the meantime, I’m reflecting on how much I learned. Not so much about forest bathing but about myself.
And that well repaid my time out in the cold, many times over.