When people first hear of forest bathing, they’re often confused. The name does conjure up images of taking a dip in the woods, after all, and why would that be a thing? But it’s actually the woods, and not water, that this Japanese pastime immerses people in. With recent research suggesting that spending time with trees is actually really healthy, forest bathing has suddenly become a hot trend in wellbeing.
So, what exactly is forest bathing? Generally speaking, it involves taking short, meditative walks in the woods, often led by a guide, as a way to de-stress by reconnecting with nature. To be clear though, forest bathing is quite distinct from hiking and other trail-based exercise. It’s not about working up a sweat while music or a podcast plays in your ears. Rather, forest bathing requires practitioners to unplug, slow down and really pay attention to what’s around them. The focus is not on distance or destination, but on using your five senses to fully experience the forest environment while walking very slowly—or sometimes not at all. On a typical two or three-hour outing, a forest bather might not move all that far from their starting point.
Another way to understand forest bathing is to look at its origins. The term is more or less a direct translation of its name in Japanese, shinrin-yoku, but this has also been translated as “taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” This description is probably more accurate; there’s no actual bathing or even water involved, but you do soak in the ambience of the woods. Though forest bathing has parallels in ancient Buddhist practice—walking meditation, especially—the modern activity was really kicked into gear in 1982. That was when Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term shinrin-yoku to highlight the positive effects of the great outdoors on health. Since then, the Japanese government has pumped money into scientific research on forest bathing as well as developing infrastructure for the activity. Today, there are even specially designated shinrin-yoku facilities and trails throughout the country.
Much of the scientific attention on forest bathing has focused on the potential of “forest therapy” as a kind of preventive medicine. Thanks to the Japanese government’s backing, a body of evidence has accumulated over the last 15 years showing a range of possible health benefits relating to stress and relaxation. These include lower blood pressure, decreased pulse rates and other signs of reduced stress of participants after forest bathing outings. Some studies, meanwhile, have further shown a possible link with enhanced immunity. What exactly it is about forests that triggers these effects is still unknown. As some researchers have pointed out, humanity has spent a large chunk of its existence in forests. It’s quite possible that in this modern urbanized age, a part of us still yearns to be back in the woods. Whatever the cause, forest-bathing-as-therapy is now a big part of preventive medicine in Japan.
Given the growing interest in wellbeing and stress reduction here in North America, it was probably inevitable that forest bathing would make the jump across the Pacific. In 2012, Outdoor magazine sent a writer to Japan to take part in a guided outing and write about it, thereby introducing the practice to a Western audience. Not long after, the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) Guides and Programs began training a network of certified Forest Therapy Guides. Here in Alberta, five such guides are either ANFT-certified or working toward certification, including two in the Edmonton area. While a trained guide may help, that’s not to say one is absolutely necessary to get some benefit out of our forests. Simply being among trees—mentally, as much as physically—may be just what the doctor ordered.
Walks with Heidi
Heidi Krieger leads 2.5 hour walks in Whitemud Ravine Park in Edmonton’s river valley.
The Forest Garden
At Larch Sanctuary, Suzanne Klein leads 2-3 hour walks, which end with tea and light snacks.
Balneotherapy: the treatment of disease through immersion in mineral springs (e.g. at spas)
Thalassotherapy: the use of seawater in both cosmetic and disease treatment
Cryotherapy: the use of extreme cold, including cold water, in medical therapy