Forest bathing. Forest, what, you might think – or say, depending on where you first read/hear the phrase. For me, I was perusing the paper and came across an article with it in the title. Being a lover of all things mountain, I read on, intrigued. Forest bathing is more or less the act of simply being present in nature. Proponents of the practice tout its health benefits. Studies from Japan have found that forest bathing lowers your blood pressure, stress and anxiety levels, among other things. The Japanese practice it as part of doctor-prescribed health plans. Interesting, right? But also…strange. Maybe it is just the word choice in the name of the practice – “bathing” paints a very different picture to me than say, “meditation” – or maybe, like most westerners, I experience a knee-jerk skepticism to things like this.
Or maybe it is because I am an avid hiker. The farther and higher into the middle of nowhere that I can get, the better. The faster I can move, the more fun it is. I love the forest and appreciate it greatly. As I move quickly through it. According to forest bathing practice, simply being present in nature means moving slowly, without a destination in mind. It means taking time to be still, and to notice and experience the details of nature around you. Watching videos of forest bathers on Youtube will show people sitting, walking slowly and aimlessly, listening, feeling. There is a bit of a disparity there. Or, if I am honest with myself, it could be my typically Western subconscious need to do everything quickly and with purpose so I can get on to the next thing. Walking around slowly and aimlessly doesn’t really fit in.
But I decided to give it a try, to the amusement of those who know me well. I was intrigued.
I won’t speak to the health benefits that the Japanese claim, but I will say that I can see what they mean. Going into the forest that day I felt like I could use a nap, but also a little amped up. The experience left me refreshed. I felt as if I had just awoken from a nap. I felt calm. I felt clearheaded and ready to tackle the rest of the day, without the hint of a yawn and with a sense of peace I am used to only feeling first thing in the morning. I’d traded my afternoon coffee for forest bathing and felt better for it. That has to count for something in the health vitals department.
Go out and try it! Here are some tips I came up with to help me get through my first experience:
- Having trouble clearing your mind? Focus on sounds, smells, sights and how things feel. If that’s not easy, describe them to yourself or a companion.
- Talk when you need to. If you’re with someone and there is something you’re just bursting to say, say it. You’re in the forest, not a meditation class!
- Choose a close destination to slowly walk to, rather than wandering aimlessly, if that helps you get in the forest bathing groove. There is really no right or wrong way to go forest bathing.
- If you can't be in Estes or don't have easy access to nature, maybe you start by listening to these Estes-inspired nature sounds or by watching videos from in and around Estes like the one below.
Where to forest bathe in Estes Park:
Go with a Guide
Heathen Creek Outfitters offers guided forest bathing trips (called by the Japanese name of shinrin yoku) by a certified forest therapy guide.
My friend Melissa accompanied me for the experience. Melissa worked as a naturalist at Up Yonda Farm in Lake George, New York, in a past life, where she would lead group walks. The pace was slow and she took time to point out details to her guests, asking them to touch, smell and ask questions. Today, she often takes slow nature walks, the goal being to be in nature, breathe the fresh air and take time to be outside. She was once like me – hike far, fast and get to the top of something – but no longer feels the need to reach a particular destination. For her, it’s more about the journey. She was the perfect choice of companion for this experience, understanding where I was coming from and how hard it would likely be for me to slow down.
As it turns out, slowing my body down was easy. We found a nice spot adjacent to a river, shaded by pine and aspen trees. We climbed out onto large rocks that rested in the river and sat. Then we talked. Then we stopped talking because you’re not supposed to talk while you forest bathe. I tried not to let the thoughts of work and other responsibilities tug at my mind as I sat there. I tried not to look at my phone. Slowing down my mind was hard.
Eventually, I put my phone on another rock, out of arm’s length and started actively picking out sights, smells and sounds happening around me as a way to distract myself. I reached down and felt the rough rock I was sitting on, then reached further and felt the cool water flowing around it. Every time my mind started drifting away from the forest I would pick out another detail around me and describe it to myself. At some point I realized a fair amount of time had passed without me thinking about “what I should be doing.”
Slowly, Melissa and I started talking about what was happening around us. I know you’re not supposed to talk, but let’s be real – that’s hard. So, she taught me that one way to identify a Ponderosa Pine is by its sweet, vanilla-like smell. We sifted through the pine needles on the forest floor and found mostly eaten pine cones, then sat quiet and still until the squirrel responsible came out from hiding and scampered around, searching for more food. When I felt the draw to check in on the “real world” by checking my phone or suggesting we head back, I would internally articulate what I was experiencing, or point out something awesome about the forest to Melissa. We were forest bathing.
There is something to taking the time to free your mind from whatever it is occupied with. Now, would I trade it for my destination hikes? No. But I don’t need to. I had been afraid I wouldn’t be able to slow down enough, that I would miss being on the move too much to be able to appreciate it or even do it, but as time passed I found that I did and I could. Really, my desire to go far and tackle mountain peaks has nothing to do with forest bathing. And I benefited from the opportunity to break free from screens and disengage my mind for a while.
I’ll be trying it again. Although, if I had my way it would be called forest meditation. Picturing someone bathing in dirt just doesn’t do the concept justice.