Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Forest bathing: It’s more about mental and physical restoration than it is shampoo and rubber duckies. Amanda Ogle dips her toes into this Japanese-born phenomenon.
I’m holding a sprig of cedar and a small note in my hand as I stand at the edge of a dense forest.
The forest, on Oregon’s coast, is where I’m experiencing forest bathing—or shinrin-yoku as it’s known in Japan: The practice of going into the forest in search of mental and physical healing.
Before entering the forest, or “threshold” as my guide, Erin Bowman, calls it, she encourages us to place an offering of some kind—our sprig of cedar, a tiny pinecone, or whatever speaks to us —on the ground. The offering is a gift to nature for letting us enter. I place my cedar sprig neatly on a pile of greenery in front of me, then step into the forest ahead.
Beneath a canopy of Western red cedar and Douglas fir trees, I listen as Erin gives us advice. “As we walk along, feel free to place the note you chose wherever feels like the best spot for it to be,” she says.
I unfold the note given to me before entering the threshold and see that it’s a quote from Japanese monk, Shunryū Suzuki: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Erin then tells us to think of something we need guidance on, and to ask nature to help us with it. I think of the “beginner’s mind” quote in my hand and the “many possibilities” ahead, and, as I slowly descend into the forest below, my career-driven brain decides to ask nature to help guide me through the world of book publishing.
Shinrin-yoku began in Japan as the practice of immersing oneself in a forest for meditative purposes. The idea is to use one’s senses to smell, touch, listen, and see the forest in a way like never before.
Forest bathers are encouraged to listen for forest noises like crunching leaves and chirping birds, and to feel things like fuzzy moss on trees and soft edges of rocks. And while the practice is known for its therapeutic benefits, it actually started as a way to combat depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
Japan turned to the trees—since about 70 per cent of the country is forested—and in 1982, a national health program introduced ‘shinrin-yoku’ (forest bathing) to its people.
Japan has a notoriously high suicide rate, stoked by a toxic mixture of historical practices (for example, the ancient Samurai practice of seppuku, or the kamikaze pilots of WWII), isolation, financial pressure, extremely long work days and competition for jobs, and hikikomori—a type of acute social withdrawal triggered by a dependence on technology.
Add to that an average of 1,500 earthquakes a year that take a toll on family life and property, and it’s no wonder Japan had to find a way to help its citizens unwind. They turned to the trees—since about 70 per cent of Japan is forested—and in 1982, a national health program introduced shinrin-yoku to its people.
Listening to a gurgling creek below, Erin instructs us to reach out and feel the air getting cooler as we trek down into the forest. I reach my hand out, wiggle my fingers, and sense the cool air shadowed by trees. Although it feels too silly for me to partake, she encourages us to speak to the trees.
Instead, I quiet my thoughts and immerse myself in the woods. I look up above me and, through the filtered light, see tiny pine needles falling like snow. I smile as Erin says this pine needle shower is the forest’s way of welcoming us.
As I cross a wooden bridge over the creek, I reach out and touch a mossy tree trunk, then examine berries while listening to birds call out to each other. When we reach a ridge, Erin asks us all to pick a spot to sit and meditate at for 10 minutes. She gives us ‘forest breathing’ techniques—inhaling for eight seconds, holding for four, then releasing the breath for 10 seconds—and tells us to calm our minds.
I remember my earlier request of asking the forest to help guide me through the world of book publishing, then quickly ditch that thought process as I realize my mind is racing. Up ahead, I see a patch of moss with two trees shooting up from each side of it, and decide to settle in on this natural blanket for my 10 minutes of meditation. Overall, I feel relaxed, but I can’t help but wonder how this is actually helping us physically. Until I remember Erin’s pre-forest briefing on phytoncides.
Research has shown that forest bathing aids in stress management and lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, reduces cortisol (stress hormone), and improves quality of sleep and concentration.
Phytoncides are airborne chemicals that plants and trees give off to protect themselves from insects and germs; the antibacterial and antifungal properties help them fight disease. And when we breathe them in, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that kills tumor- and virus-infected cells in our own bodies.
Research has shown that forest bathing increases our count of NK cells long after leaving the forest. Other studies have shown forest bathing aids in stress management and lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, reduces cortisol (stress hormone), and improves quality of sleep and concentration.
Feeling serene after 10 minutes of meditating, we’re back on the trail examining a giant skunk cabbage and sword ferns when Erin points out a nurse log—a dead, fallen tree trunk that has new trees growing out from the log.
She tells us to think of it as a metaphor, and I ponder how. Is it a metaphor for life after death? Does she mean that something good can stem from something bad?
Brushing my hands along the log, I start feeling more in tune with my surroundings. I ask Erin about her take on connecting with the woods. “We feel a deep sense of connectedness in the forest,” she says. “We can slip into a more primal, fluid state of being and remember that we are just part of the web.”
Moving along, I understand the “web” to be our planet. If we only care about ourselves, and not the rest of the web, it falls apart. In order for our lives to be well, nature also has to be well. I understand how we’re all responsible for caring for the planet and I understand how, in turn, the forest can heal us.
“When you forget where you are going and experience the richness of where you are … that is forest bathing.”
Walking back towards the forest edge, I take a few final looks around. It’s hard to look away from the treetops swaying gently above, but when my eyeline comes back to ground level, I notice another nurse log with a massive tree growing out of it. I place my note in a nook of the log, hoping to give someone else wisdom about the “beginner’s mind”.
Erin tells us to find another small offering to leave upon our exit. I find a small pine cone and place it at the edge of the threshold, thanking the forest for my current state of euphoria.
Walking away, I remember what she said about the magic of the forest: “In the forest, a willingness to be vulnerable and accepting—to liberate oneself from expectation and simply be present with the earth—is less complicated. When you forget where you are going and experience the richness of where you are … that is forest bathing.”
The writer was a guest of Salishan Resort on the Oregon coast.
Amanda Ogle is a freelance writer and editor based in Texas. She writes about travel, health and fitness, food and drink, and has a passion for sustainability.