Forest bathing isn't what the name implies. Rather, it's a new way to slow down and experience the natural world around you.
The first time I heard about forest bathing, I imagined a claw foot bathtub, dappled by light, under a canopy of gently blowing trees. Dozens of questions filled my head. How would the water get into the tub? Where would you hang your clothes? Would other people be around? But, most importantly, why? Why would anyone take a bath in a forest?
Even when I learned forest bathing had nothing to do with actual bathing, I still had a hard time understanding what it was or why to do it. I read something about lying down and letting the forest “wash” over you. Then someone told me, forest bathing involved walking in the woods. Still baffled, I had to try it for myself.
The Story Behind Forest Bathing
Forest bathing dates back to the 1980s when stress and anxiety began taking a toll on Japanese workers, both mentally and physically. To offset this, medical practitioners instructed their patients to spend time in local forests, using all five senses to slowly experience what was around them. And, it actually helped. Shinrin-yoku—literally “taking in the forest atmosphere”—reversed the negative trends the Japanese were experiencing at the time.
Researchers have since noted that forest bathing has many health benefits. It can improve sleep quality, mood, ability to focus, and stress levels. (Elevated stress levels can lead to anxiety and depression.) Additionally, forest bathing can lower your blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, reduce muscle tension and improve your immune response. The affects make a lot of sense when you think about it, according to Jenny Harrow-Keeler, co-founder and executive director at Integrative Healers Action Network in Santa Rosa, California.
“We’re inside a lot with artificial light, looking at our devices,” says Harrow-Keeler, who leads forest bathing experiences in the Sonoma area. “We’re responding to every ping, every notification.”
Forest bathing hits a pause on our frenetic lives. It lures you away from the stress of modern life and forces you to slow down—to look, listen, touch, smell, and taste—the natural world around you. Although relatively new to the United States, Harrow-Keeler says it seems to be catching on, especially since COVID.
What to Expect from Forest Bathing
I had a chance to see what forest bathing was all about and experience some of its benefits on a press trip in June 2021. With Harrow-Keeler in the lead, we stopped under redwoods at the edge of Zephyr Farms, a vineyard under the Red Car label. It was cool in the shade, and a light breeze tickled my cheeks. Casually, I noticed the pattern of the bark on the redwood next me and put my palm on it, feeling the rough surface. Without realizing it, I was already forest bathing.
As the experience began, Harrow-Keeler instructed us to gather in a circle. Some choose to sit; I remained standing. After we went around the circle introducing ourselves to her, Harrow-Keeler explained the history of forest bathing and how you practice it. I was actually surprised at how straightforward it is.
Forest bathing is essentially a slow, meditative walk, she explained that day. You use all of your senses. Of course, you should appreciate the natural beauty around you and the warmth of the sun on your skin, but Harrow-Keeler encouraged us to also breathe deeply, touch the trees, and even stick out our tongues and taste the air.
Pointing to the tree line across the vineyard, she told us she would meet us there in 15 minutes. Until then, we were to take our time “bathing” in the redwood forest and walking across the vineyard to our rendezvous.
My Experience with Forest Bathing
While our group fanned out, I lingered, not because I found myself connecting with nature but because I wanted to get a photo. Of course, I knew that defeated the whole purpose of forest bathing. Here I stood, under giant redwood trees, in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and I couldn’t put down my devices. (In my defense, I was working on an assignment.)
I took a few photographs and guiltily tucked my phone in my pocket and let my DSLR rest on its strap against my hip. And, then it happened. I forgot about the others already in the midst of the vineyard and looked up at the silhouetted branches above. Inhaling deeply, I could smell the damp earth and the faint aroma of sap. I heard—really heard for the first time in a long time—dry grass crunch under my feet as I stepped into the sun and towards the vines.
My senses sharpened, and I felt my breathing and pulse slow. Picking an empty row, I let the vines swallow me. A bird circling above gave out a loud “caw,” and I blinked against the sunlight until I spied him. Turning my attention to grapes, I touched a leaf, rubbing it between my index finger and thumb, feeling its midrib and veins. It had been a long time since I’d paid any attention to a leaf, I realized, and it made me a little sad to think how often I took nature for granted.
Wrapping Up the Forest Bathing Session
After regrouping in another circle, Harrow-Keeler invited us to each share our impressions of the experience. I honestly can’t remember what anyone said, other than a few people mentioned hearing the bird. For once on a press trip, I wasn’t furiously taking notes or photographing the sites. I was in the moment.
Later, I reached out to Harrow-Keeler to learn more about forest bathing. She says my experience with forest bathing is fairly common. Modern humans live in a fast-paced, technology-driven culture, and forest bathing is way to remember what is intrinsic in all of us.
“Our human DNA evolved in nature,” she explains. “The vast majority of our history we were connected to nature and to the rhythms of nature.”
Forest bathing brings us back to those rhythms, and once we understand how it works, it’s something we can practice on our own. Harrow-Keeler adds, “The first time, it’s helpful to have a guide and go in a group to learn to slow down, but you can do it on your own.”
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Another Walk in the Woods
The next morning, the beginning of our last day in Sonoma County, our group headed to Jack London State Historic Park. We started inside the House of Happy Walls Museum, the home of Jack London’s widow after his death. Next, we headed to what remains of Wolf House, the author’s 15,000-square-foot estate that burned before its completion.
As we walked the roughly half mile to Wolf House, I found myself slipping back from the group I had been walking with and settling into my own pace, just quick enough to keep a distance from those behind me. I let the voices briefly fade and, instead, focused on the sound of the leaves dancing in the wind above me. I noticed the pleasant coolness of the air, the curve of the trail ahead of me and a log lying haphazardly on its side like a discarded piece of firewood. Again, my breathing slowed, and I was more aware.
That’s when I realized forest bathing was something that would be with me the rest of my life. I would always see a little more and appreciate a little more because of forest bathing. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. You can discover more about the wonders of Sonoma on Wander. We also have a selection of other wellness and spa travels that may help you relax and unwind.