Over the glorious Memorial Day weekend, I had the privilege of participating in my very first forest bathing experience at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. What is forest bathing, you ask? Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with water or swimsuits, as my husband eagerly suggested.
Straight from the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT): forest bathing (or forest therapy) is derived from the relatively recent (1980s) Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku. It is “a practice that promotes healing and wellness through immersing oneself in the calming and restorative atmosphere of forests and other natural environments.”
That’s all well and good, but what does that really mean in practice? I was eager to find out. Doug Jones, PhD, our illustrious facilitator and Certified Forest Bathing Guide, described the process of what we were about to do as a series of “invitations”. Each invitation begins with some general guidance from Doug – for which he was very clear that there was no “right” way to follow (or not) the guidance. We were free to interpret the suggestions in any way we desired, in a way that was comfortable to us, personally.
My Forest Bathing Experience
Still unsure, we began the first invitation in a grassy clearing within the garden. It was sensory-based as Doug asked us to close our eyes (if desired). Then, sense by sense, pay attention to what was going on around us. We listened, we smelled, we felt, all to the skillful guidance of Doug’s reassuring voice.
During the invitations we are encouraged to pay attention to “what we notice”, and have an opportunity to share this with the group. Some people noticed birds chirping, others noticed pleasing odors. Me, I noticed that as I sat there with my eyes focused softly on the ground (choosing not to close them), a wave of relaxation came over me. In truth, I started feeling very tired as a result.
It was a good thing our next invitation was movement related as I needed to start to get my blood flowing again. We were to walk into the woods, following our guide at his pace. During the walk we were supposed to notice what was in motion. We stepped on the path into the woods, and the air immediately shifted and I felt at peace. It just smelled so fresh! There was soothing green all around me, almost like nature’s hug enveloping me. In about a 15 minute span, we covered just a couple hundred yards. The pace was slow, deliberate, easy. I noticed all manner of trees, shrubs, and insects. I breathed it in, enjoyed the slight breeze and perfect temperature for a walk in the woods. It was divine!
There were two more invitations during this event, both involving being present, taking it all in, noticing. My sense of peacefulness continued throughout, and I resolved to get out into the woods more frequently. My body and mind were considerably more calm than when I started.
Herbs Complement the Experience
To close out our experience, Doug gathered us around in a circle, near the Lotus Pond. There we enjoyed some lemon balm tea and a scrumptious muffin baked by Doug’s wife and forest bathing partner, Beverly. To my delight Doug described the health benefits of lemon balm, admitting that he chose this herb for its calming properties (that, and the fact that it’s a particularly safe herb for the general public). As an herbalist, I was impressed that he really did his homework on this wonderful plant. I wrote about lemon balm, and other calming herbs, in a previous post.
Tying it all Together
But I digress! Doug also provided additional information on the considerable health benefits of forest bathing. As I mentioned at the onset, this practice originated in Japan, where researchers conducted clinical trials to study the effects of forest bathing on a cellular level. What they found, Doug explained, was that oils called phytoncides that are emitted by the trees to protect themselves from microbes are also effective at increasing our own immune system defenses. Research also showed lower levels of cortisol (a hormone our body produces when under stress) after spending time in the forest. Therefore, one can expect a decrease in feelings of depression and anxiety. Similarly, those who spent time in the forest showed markedly reduced blood pressure than those who did not.
Doug continued on to explain even more benefits of forest bathing (do you really need more incentive at this point?). You can read more about them here. Then, after being invited to share anything that would benefit the group, I asked everyone to look inward and consider our own experience in how this forest bathing experience affected us personally. Did we feel different from before we started this adventure? YES! Most, if not all, seemed to agree that they felt better in some way. For me, I explained, all the science and research was great, but my own, perceived benefit was really all I needed to know. I liked feeling more calm!
In closing, I would like to give Doug and Beverly a hearty THANK YOU for introducing me to this experience in an inclusive, inviting, encouraging way. I’m already looking forward to my next forest bathing walk. To find your own forest bathing experience, search for a walk (including virtual!), a venue, or a guide here.