In this post we will explore how to forest bathe, whether alone or with a guide. We will touch on different forest bathing activities, principles of forest bathing, how long should you forest bathe, the healing properties of forest bathing, how long the benefits of forest bathing last, and most importantly – does forest bathing involve water?
So, pardoning the pun, let’s dive right in!
Forest Bathing: A Brief Primer
Before we look at the HOW, let’s begin with the WHAT. What is forest bathing? You may have heard this term recently, either in news articles or while scrolling one of your many feeds. Forest bathing originated in Japan – a country that is nearly 70% forest. While forest bathing first came to the forefront in the early 1980’s, in my opinion it stretches back to ancient times.
Japan’s native belief system is Shinto, a polytheistic and animistic religion that sees Gods – called Kami - within nature and natural objects such as trees, water, and stones. With such a cultural touchstone, the outgrowth of a wellbeing practice rooted in nature seems to me a reasonable evolution. The original Japanese term for this experience is Shinrin Yoku. Shinrin = forest, Yoku = bath. It translates as ‘taking in the forest air with all one’s senses.’ So how does one forest bathe?
Forest bathing explained.
To experience a traditional forest bath, you must dedicate some time. “How long should I forest bathe?” you ask? Two to three hours to be exact. When I trained to guide forest bathing walks we completed a three-hour walk each morning for a week. It was spectacular. We were taught that three hours is the perfect amount of time for a forest bath experience to truly take root in your psyche, for your body to slow down to a more receptive and liminal state.
However, while most of us rarely have three-hour blocks of time to dedicate to this practice, carving out two hours seems a more reasonable request. This brings up another question: “How often should I forest bathe?” Interestingly, two hours is also the amount of time that recent studies have suggested is the ideal amount of time to spend outside each week. This amount of time can be done all at once, or split throughout the week. So, to answer the how often question – I would recommend as often as you feel comfortable. Forest bathing is viewed as a practice much like yoga or meditation. As such, the more you practice, the more you benefit.
You can go alone, or be professionally guided on a forest bathing walk. There are numerous books available that offer creative ideas for how to forest bathe by yourself. As a professional guide, I can tell you that being guided offers another level to the experience that one may not tap into by doing invitations from a book. Just like yoga can be done in front of your television or in a class with others, so too forest bathing.
What are forest bathing activities? What are the principles of forest bathing?
Understanding the activities and principles behind forest bathing will help you to see how forest bathing is different than hiking, a related outdoor activity.
First and foremost, unless it happens to be raining, there is no water involved in forest bathing! You won’t be wearing swimwear, or need towels, or be playing Marco Polo amidst the trees. What do you wear to a forest bath? Whatever you might typically wear to go for an outdoor hike – this is where the similarities end.
Forest bathing is about experiencing a place with ALL of your senses, in an intentional way. As one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, said: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Forest bathing requires us to slow our bodies and our minds down enough to focus on the details around us. Humanity now holds the regrettable designation of having a shorter attention span than a goldfish! We can’t seem to focus on anything for more than 8-9 seconds. I believe that’s a direct corollary with the exponential increase in handheld technology and the infotainment mentality that is ubiquitous in today’s world. Too much information to take in disintegrates our attention – analysis paralysis.
Forest bathing allows us to relearn how to focus on details, on how to pay attention to our surroundings. When you devote your attention to exploring sylvan realms on a regular basis, interesting things begin to happen. For one - your senses heighten.
Motz Studios walks always begin with a wander through the senses. This experience reignites a new level of concentration on what your senses are telling you. We look at the typical five senses, plus a few more you may not be as familiar with. We begin with this because enlisting your newly tuned senses throughout the remainder of the forest bathing walk enhances the depth of the experience.
I have had many people express to me that they walk through the woods regularly, but they admit never having experienced their woods in this distinct way. One of the reasons for this: they are now paying attention at a deeper level.
Another principle is slowness. Humans move through the world incredibly fast. We have a lot to do each day, we have to move fast, right? Kids, work, house, yard, activities, meals…rinse & repeat. We also have a work culture that values long hours as a badge of honor. This was actually an impetus for some of the original forest bathing research in Japan. People at the time were working 100+ hour weeks, every week. Suicide was at a high point. The Japanese even coined a word for ‘death by overwork’ – karoshi.
What we’ve learned over time and through ongoing research is that our bodies were not designed to be always on. We need to rest, recuperate, rejuvenate in order to perform at our best and most optimal. Intuitively, we know being outside in nature is good for us. What’s fascinating is now we have the metrics to prove our intuition was right all along. And when we find respite in the forest, when we experience it in a slow and deliberate manner, the benefits are exactly what our bodies need. I’ll touch more on this later.
On Motz Studios walks we continue to slow down and focus our attention with a slow wander – using our senses to truly pay attention to what we are moving past. Moving super slow can be difficult for many because we aren’t used to it, it takes practice. As Sherlock Holmes said:
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."
What I love about this part of the walks is seeing the joy and awe blossom in people when they describe what they noticed by moving so slowly and with resolute sleuth-like attention. It’s nearly always followed with a statement of how they would have never noticed those particular things moving at their typical speed.
There are also instances on Motz Studios walks where we sit still for minutes at a time. This is like applying a magnifying glass to attention. When your field of vision encompasses the two square feet surrounding you – you begin to see details that were previously invisible. Many metaphors begin to bubble up for the observant practitioner around this time if they choose to see them.
A Series of Invitations
After focusing our senses and slowing ourselves down, we are now primed to take advantage of the transformational or liminal nature of the forest. On Motz Studios walks this is the time when I guide my participants through a series of invitations that vary in length and intention. The invitations I choose are influenced by the place we are forest bathing, the weather, the time of day, the season, the people on the walk, and more.
Everyone experiences an invitation differently – some may deeply resonate with a particular prompt, while others may find another invitation on the walk more meaningful. My influences run from Stoic philosophy to the Christian Mystics; from Buddhist/Taoist ideas to modern psychologists and business coaches. I love anything that promotes community and connection between humanity and nature.
Depending on the length of the walk, we may experience between 2 to 5 invitations during this part of the forest bath. Some invitations are quick – 5 minutes and some are lengthier – 20 to 30 minutes. I consistently hear how fast the longer invitations go by and how participants wish they could last longer. These comments reinforce how much we are craving quiet time in nature and how little of it we get on a regular basis. This is why forest bathing is referred to as a ‘practice’ like yoga or meditation. The more one does it, the better you get at just being and the more you begin to notice.
Closing the Walk
Each of Motz Studios walks closes with a special ceremony that helps us to incorporate all we’ve experienced into a form we can remember going forward. Sometimes that ceremony involves a ‘forest tea’ made from tea plants picked in my garden or along the path we travel.
These walks are a modern interpretation of ancient practices that have been going on in cultures across the world in various forms for millions of years. The common ground is the deep-seated, DNA-level connection between humans and trees and forests – it’s called biophilia. We all need this connection at a primal level; it is rooted deep inside of each of us. This connection has been slowly atrophying over the past century and has now exponentially accelerated with the advent of smart phones and social media.
Forest Bathing Benefits
I often get asked what are the healing properties of forest bathing, and how long the benefits of forest bathing last? The short answer – there are a LOT of benefits.
Let’s start with stress relief. An oft-repeated and validated study tells us that after a 20-minute walk in the forest, both our stress hormone – cortisol – and our blood pressure reduce by approximately 20%. What’s more fascinating is that this benefit only happens when walking in the woods. People who walked in a tree-lined neighborhood or a downtown environment saw no change at all.
Forest bathing can improve your immune function. Trees emit compounds called phytoncides – these microscopic compounds help the trees stay healthy and fight off invaders. We breathe them in and absorb them through our skin. When they integrate into our biome, they boost the levels of cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body. After a 4-hour walk in the forests, some noticed an increase in these levels of 46%! This increased boost stuck around for a week to a month afterward, depending on each person’s physiology.
Forest bathing can enhance your creative potential. After clearing your mind during a forest bathing session, studies have shown that people perform much better on creative tasks.
People are kinder after forest bathing – altruism has been shown to rise measurably after people spend meaningful time in the woods. Moods are also boosted after forest bathing.
So now that you know what’s involved in forest bathing, I hope to see you on one of my forest bathing walks. And remember, leave your bathing suit at home!