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Place your hand on a bed of cool, soft moss. Listen to a songbird chirping in the trees. Breathe in the rich scents of the forest. Calm your mind and open up your senses.
This is shinrin-yoku, a traditional Japanese practice that involves immersing yourself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. In recent years, this health-centered activity has rapidly gained popularity in the United States, where it’s referred to as “forest bathing” or “forest therapy.”
“It’s like meditation focused outward,” said Jeanne Christie, a certified forest therapy guide from Windham. “I find it enjoyable in a very unique and special way.”
As the world struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic, forest bathing might be the perfect activity for people looking to relax, try something new and maintain their health. It’s a practice that can be self-taught and conducted in solitude. All that’s required is access to an outdoor space, even if that’s just an open window.
“It’s really good for stress and anxiety, which I just know is overpowering right now,” Christie said. “It’s just getting outside and not thinking of much of anything at all, just wandering around and taking the time to touch and smell the bark on a tree.”
The benefits of forest bathing
Though it’s believed that humans have always practiced forest bathing in one form or another, the formal practice of Shinrin-yoku surfaced in Japan in the 1980s as a part of preventative healthcare and healing. Since then, dozens of studies have examined the potential health benefits of the practice.
Many of these studies indicate that forest bathing can alleviate stress and lower blood pressure, while heightening feelings of awe and gratitude. Other studies suggest that the practice can have therapeutic effects on the immune system, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
“We evolved in the outdoors,” Christie said. “So from my perspective, it makes total sense that part of our immune system is in the outdoors.”
In addition, more general studies have been conducted on the overall benefits of people spending time outdoors, whether it’s forest bathing or engaging in another activity, such as biking or flying a kite.
Some of these studies have focused on the benefits of phytoncides, which are vaporized oils emitted by trees and other plants. Others have examined the importance of Vitamin D, a nutrient that our skin naturally creates when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is needed by the human body for multiple functions, including maintaining strong bones and fighting off invading bacteria and viruses.
Also of note, forest bathing may help some people cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation, said Nadine Mazzola, a forest therapy guide and trainer from Acton, Massachusetts. As people practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, this aspect of forest bathing may be especially helpful.
“I feel a sense of community when I’m in the forest, with just all the life that is there,” Mazzola said. “I feel a sense of belonging that’s really wonderful.”
How to get started with forest bathing
As forest bathing has gained popularity in recent years, many Maine land trusts and other outdoor-related organizations have offered public forest bathing events, led by experienced guides such as Mazzola or Christie. Many of these guides are certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, which was founded by M. Amos Clifford in 2012 and is based out of California.
“We don’t call ourselves therapists,” Christie said. “The forest is the therapist. The guide just opens the door.”
When Christie guides a forest bathing event, she usually follows a flexible schedule that includes group introductions and exercises to help people get in touch with their senses. And like most guides, she ends each outing with a traditional tea ceremony.
Learning in a group setting like this can be helpful, Christie said, but it’s not necessary. And at a time when people are practicing social distancing and forgoing unnecessary travel, it’s simply not doable. Fortunately, forest bathing can be self-taught, she said. In fact, it’s “intuitive.”
“It’s fun, using all our senses to observe what’s happening around us,” Christie said. “Once you figure it out, it becomes easier and easier to do. It’s intuitive. Everyone knows how to do it. You may have forgotten, but you know how to do it.”
To help, several books (and ebooks) have recently been published on the topic, including “Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature” by M. Amos Clifford, and “Forest Bathing with Your Dog” by Mazzola.
“Forest bathing is really about switching to sensory mode,” Mazzola said. “It’s just the way dogs are. Dogs are amazing forest bathers.”
An easy forest bathing exercise
First thing’s first. Find an outdoor location, and it doesn’t need to be a forest. Shinrin-yoku can be practiced in any outdoor space — a field, a beach, a desert, in a canoe in the middle of a lake. It can even be practiced by gazing out a window.
Sit or stand — whatever is comfortable for you. Then close your eyes.
“Take the time to explore each one of your senses individually, leaving sight for last,” Christie said. “Once you’ve gone through all your senses, reach out to all that’s around you. You don’t need words. Just let go of them. Maybe feel your feet reaching down like roots and connecting with the trees below. Maybe your hair is branches with the trees above.”
Get creative, Christie said. A part of Shinrin-yoku is allowing yourself to use your imagination, as well as your senses.
“When you open your eyes, take a really slow walk — like really slow,” Christie said. “Take a step and look. Take two steps and look. And then after that, maybe you want to follow a sound or stand and look at something. That’s how I fall into it.”
This may work for you, or it may not. Don’t be discouraged, Christie said. Some people find it difficult to turn off their busy mind and fully immerse themselves in nature.
“Every time your brain starts talking to you, just invite yourself to kindly observe [instead],” Christie said. “Look at the trees. Look at the ground. Breathe the air. Focus on the senses rather than the words. It’s not easy, and so if you do it for 10 seconds and start thinking again, that’s OK. Also, some days it’ll come easy, and some days it’ll be really hard. We know we can’t turn on and off our emotions or what’s going on, but I think trying and giving yourself permission is really important. If the first day isn’t successful, go out on another day.”
Mazzola believes that everyone has the ability to forest bathe, but it may take some practice. Many people have a tough time turning off their busy minds and focusing solely on their senses and immediate surroundings. Often things in nature will spark memories. That’s OK, Mazzola said. The important thing is not to dwell on those memories or thoughts.
“Follow your sensory attention and your curiosity,” said Mazzola. “We’re all so concerned with stress these days, and rightly so. Slowing down and switching to our sensory mode is one of the fastest ways to trigger the relaxation response.”