Many of us think of the great outdoors as a place to be active— complete with gear from REI. National parks are for hiking, rockclimbing, fishing, mountaineering, and sleeping only if you can manage to carry your belongings on your back. For some (and sometimes for me), these activities are exactly what we need in order to experience rejuvenation.
At other times, what we need is to soak up the beauty of our surroundings, without an obligation to strenuous activity. This is why I love the idea of forest bathing: the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest.”
As you might have imagined, there is no literal bathing involved in this activity. It is a metaphor describing the act of receiving and relishing your surroundings. While all nature can be beneficial to our wellbeing, forests are wonderful for this in particular because of the way they surround us on all sides, and top to bottom. Forests invite us into their own world, sometimes thousands of years old. Learn more about forest bathing here.
Forest bathing brings a mindful attentiveness to enjoying our time in nature. We are not primarily there to reach a great view, break in our new hiking boots, or get in our 10,000 daily steps. Soaking in the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the forest are exactly the point. Noticing the the soft hues of moss, tracing the lichen-rich rocks with our fingers. Deep-breathing the complex, earthy scent of the forest floor: a mix of dew drops and new shoots and fallen brush.
If you’re like me, you might not have been raised as the “outdoorsy” type (although both my parents studied forestry in college, so perhaps I did inherit a passion for trees). I am not particularly sure-footed and am intimidated by hikes that are longer than a few miles. In other words, certain rigorous activities can raise my stress levels.
But going into the forest simply to soak it in? That releases anxiety like none other.
A few tips for first-time forest bathing
1. Find a forest or park that isn’t too crowded. If you live in an area with a popular outdoor gathering place, try to either find a less populated area, or go when it’s least likely to be busy. This is likely early in the morning, when you may find yourself in the company of just a few others also trying to enjoy the quiet solitude.
2. Leave distractions behind. You may want to bring your phone or a companion, but set your intentions clearly. Put your phone on do-not-disturb, and resist the urge to listen to music or a podcast. If bringing a friend, invite them to observe the same quietness as you do. If they would prefer to jog or aim to complete the whole trail, allow them to go on before you, and embrace the time to yourself. Remember, the purpose is to soak in your surroundings, not necessarily to see the view or log a certain distance.
3. Make sure you are comfortable. Since you may take a slower pace, wear sufficient clothing. Check the weather for any conditions that may affect your time in the forest. The less worried you are about keeping pace, the more you can focus on being present.
4. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 meditation. If you find your thoughts scattered, try a meditation that can help ground you in your new environment. The 5-4-3-2-1 meditation goes like this. Pause and mindfully identify:
5 different colors you can see
4 things you can physically sense/touch
3 different sounds (not you)
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
5. Give yourself time and don’t forget to breathe deeply. Set aside enough time for yourself to adjust to this mindful experience when you first try forest bathing. Be kind to yourself in the process. It may take a few minutes of walking before you can truly leave behind the numerous thoughts weighing on your mind. If you struggle to ground yourself, take several deep breaths. You may want to try repeating a mantra as you do so, such as “release” or “I am here.” You may also like to choose an affirmation to repeat in your mind as you breathe.
Let’s celebrate and protect our forests.
It is no secret that the world’s forests have been severely depleted and continue to be at risk. In addition to enjoying the embrace and calming effects of trees, we can do our part to protect them. Here are a few ways.
- Give to organizations dedicated to fighting climate change and deforestation. Here is a list compiled by Vox.
- Support your local state parks, reserves, and gardens through contributions or memberships.
- Focus on agricultural sustainability in your diet, particularly by increasing your intake of locally-grown plant-based foods and reducing your consumption of beef. It’ll be good for your overall wellbeing, too!
- Support brands that emphasize climate action or sustainability. For example, check out the herbal teas and essential oils by Juniper Ridge, my favorite local company harvesting delicious scents from the California forests.
Feel free to share your ideas in the comments!