I wasn’t sure what to expect when I trekked out to Discovery Park one Friday for a forest bathing session. It was cold and rainy, not exactly the best conditions for spending an hour and a half in a forest. Yet as our small group walked along the trail, I began feeling more calm and open to a new experience.
“I’m going to invite you to start by closing your eyes,” certified forest therapy guide Michael Stein-Ross said as he opened the session. “Become aware of your breath.”
As Stein-Ross guided us, we were invited to pay more attention to our senses of hearing, smell, touch, taste, and something called “body radar,” which he described as the sense of your body’s location in space. I found myself noticing the way the air barely brushed my face, the raindrops stayed still on the tips of the leaves, and the soft ground moved under my feet.
Forest bathing, also known as forest therapy or shinrin-yoku, comes from a Japanese practice that began in 1980. It’s a slow, mindful way to experience nature through the senses. Contrary to what you might expect from the name, it doesn’t actually involve taking a bath. There are numerous studies that suggest that forest bathing mitigates stress, boosts the immune system, and iimproves concentration and mood. This may be one fix for hyper-stressed urbanites hoping to feel more relaxed and productive.
“I feel like each time in the forest provides a space for something to happen,” certified forest therapy guide Julie Hepp said. “It may be a moment of healing that brings you peace or solace about something that’s going on in your external life, or maybe you notice that you’re feeling anxious at the start and you’re just like, ‘Oh wow, it feels so much better now.’”
In an official forest bathing walk, the guide leads the group through a series of invitations.
“We craft these invitations to help the participants drop into a different mindset … where we can more readily take in the information that the natural world has for us,” Stein-Ross said. “And by doing so, we start to rediscover a relationship [with the forest].”
The invitations are just that. The guide will not insist that anyone does what they suggest. Instead, participants can choose how closely they wish to follow the guide.
“You can take what the guide is telling you literally,” Hepp said. “Or you can interpret it because you might have something going on with you and your body, or maybe you’re just not into sitting down for twenty minutes and want to sit down for maybe five and then walk around. And that’s OK.”
After each invitation, the guide gives a prompt and then allows the participants to speak or remain silent. This practice of following the guide’s invitation is called a round of council.
“The intention of council is to provide an opportunity for people to share their experience,” Stein-Ross said. “And it’s within council, in the process of council, that much of the wisdom comes out.”
Every forest bathing session ends with a tea ceremony. Typically the guide will bring a water thermos and find something from the forest, such as cedar branch tips, to steep in it. After the last mindfulness exercise, the guide will pour tea for each participant. The tea time allows for a smoother transition from forest bathing back into everyday life.
It takes serious commitment to become a certified forest therapy guide. Prospective guides must undergo a weeklong intensive training and then practice in the area where they plan to offer their services for six months. The training week can take place anywhere in the world. Hepp, the first certified guide in Washington state, completed her week of training in Ireland before returning to the Seattle area.
“It was a really great experience,” Hepp said.
While the official practice of forest bathing is fairly new, the experience has its roots in ancient times.
“This is what our ancestors knew how to do, because they didn’t have TVs and phones and Xboxes to distract them,” Stein-Ross said. “They had nature to distract them, and they had these relationships and understandings with nature that we can rediscover.”
Even without a guide, anyone can experience some of the benefits of forest bathing by spending mindful time in the woods. Next time you’re feeling stressed or unproductive, try going out to Ravenna Park or the Washington Park Arboretum. For a few minutes, don’t think about all the work on your plate. Instead, just breathe in the fresh scent of pine trees.
Reach reporter Leslie Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lesliefish3r