Though new in the U.S., forest bathing has seemingly become a darling of wellness gurus overnight. So what is it, what are the benefits, and how can you try this therapy practice yourself? You just need some forest at your fingertips.
Contrary to what you might think, forest bathing does not require a bar of soap or bathing suit. It’s the currently very trendy therapeutic pastime of immersing yourself in the sights, smells, and sounds of nature that is giving more mainstream wellness crazes (yoga) a run for its money. But can sitting in the middle of the woods for a few hours really reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even lower blood pressure as supporters claim?
Montréal-native Helene Gibbens believes so – so much that she founded and is co-owner of Adirondack Riverwalking, a Lake Placid–based guide service that leads sensory-immersion excursions into the wilds of the Adirondacks, right near Lake Placid Lodge. In fact, having taught yoga, meditation, and wellness for over 20 years, she was an early adopter of the practice, even becoming a certified guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which was founded in 2012.
First Thing’s First: What are the Benefits of Forest Bathing?
Decades before it arrived in America a few years back, forest bathing – also known as “shinrin-yoku” – was big in Japan. The Japanese government has been promoting the activity, which literally means “bathing yourself in the atmosphere of the forest,” since the 1980s, when studies first revealed that it can lower blood pressure and stress hormones, relieve depression, and boost the number of cancer-fighting “natural killer” cells. It’s even supposed to help you get better sleep. How? By breathing in phytoncides, which are organic, antimicrobial fluids emitted by plants that give human immune systems a jump start. One study from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that the positive effects of phytoncides on humans can last for more than 30 days. That means you can see real benefits with just a monthly dose of forest bathing.
So How Does Forest Bathing Work?
“Forest bathing isn’t just taking a walk in the woods. And it’s not entirely meditation,” says Gibbens. “It’s about people simply connecting with nature.” And there’s no better place to do that than in her surrounding home of the Adirondacks, a six-million-acre forested wilderness in Upstate New York that’s larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon national parks combined. All you have to do is follow these steps – what are referred to as “invitations” – each in 15-minute increments that play upon your five senses: see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. Then sit back, and wait to discover if you can feel the results.
Invitation 1: Start with a Quick Breathing Exercise
As you enter the woods – whether that’s a nearby park or a patch of trees in your own backyard – stop for a few quiet moments of deep breathing. “Close your eyes, turn your palms forward, and feel the forest around you,” says Gibbens. It’s okay if your mind wanders, just make a concerted effort to note the smell of the air, any warmth from sunlight streaming through the trees, or any cool breezes against your fingertips.
Invitation 2: Study the Forest’s Natural Rhythms
Observe what is moving around you. Is there a breeze rustling the leaves above your head? A chipmunk scampering across the path? A small bird hopping along a dead log? At one point, you may even realize that the forest is perfectly still and that the only thing that is moving is you.
Invitation 3: Listen with “Deer Ears”
Amplify the forest’s sounds by using your hands to gently cup your ears forward. Hone in on those sounds – maybe the plop-plop-whoosh of the brook, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, or the high-pitched whirring sound that a red squirrel makes. “Each time you stop, you might discover how any extended periods of silence can seem deafening,” says Gibbens.
Invitation 4: Smell the Earth or Vegetation around You
Don’t be shy: Sniff a clump of damp soil, take a whiff of pine branches, or place your nose on the bark of a tree and inhale. What do certain smells remind you of? Which ones surprise you? Or which ones virtually have no scent at all?
Invitation 4: Touch the Forest
Run your hands over the bark of different trees, rub moss on a tree limb, dip your fingertips in any nearby body of water. Note the differences in the textures – which ones appeal to you more?
Invitation 5: Find a “Sit Spot” & Taste
Find a bench or simply sit on the ground. For this invitation, Gibbens always brings a thermos of hot water, where she brews a tea out of a few sprigs of balsam and a generous pinch of wood sorrel that she harvests during her walk. Let your own concoction steep for a few minutes and sip. You may find it’s pleasantly sweet on its own – no sugar or honey necessary.
Fancy Some Forest Bathing in the Future?
The beauty is that you can do it anywhere – so when it comes time to travel again, here are some of the best national and state parks and preserves to put this practice into play on an upcoming vacation.
Adirondack Park, Lake Placid & Lake George, NY
The six-million-acre forested wilderness in Upstate New York offers an extremely diverse amount of landscapes, including pristine waterways, boreal forests, and the Northeast’s 46 famous 4,000-foot peaks.
Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME
Known for its rocky coastline, mountains, forests, ponds, marshlands, and fields, Acadia comprises 47,000 acres of land on Mount Desert Island and offers roughly 120 miles of trails.
Camden Hills State Park, Camden, ME
A well-known retreat for migrating hawks, this park offers 5,500 acres of wooded hillsides and a signature scenic vista of Penobscot Bay and its islands from atop the 800-foot Mount Battie.
Where to Stay Samoset Resort
Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Copeland, FL
A thread of forested swamp that is part of the northern section of the Everglades, this 85,000-acre watery wilderness is home to some of the U.S.’s rarest botanical delights: royal palms, endemic freshwater sponges, and 44 different species of orchids.
Where to Stay Edgewater Beach Hotel
Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach, FL
“Florida’s Best Park” – as Money Magazine proclaimed in 2018 – features a three-quarter-mile boardwalk that crosses between open-water pond areas and islands with shrubs and snags to foster nesting and roosting of the 178 bird species that call this preserve home.