A version of this story appears in the February 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku is about soaking up nature with all your senses. Whereas hiking is usually about reaching a destination, and a nature walk would take an inquisitive look at plants and animals, forest therapy encourages participants to engage slowly and deliberately with nature. Guided forest-bathing sessions typically include deep breathing exercises, suggestions for aspects of nature to focus on, and invitations to share what you’ve noticed.
This mindful approach to nature has interesting health benefits. Research studies in Japan and Italy have shown forest bathing lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. It increases sleep duration and boosts the number of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infected or tumor cells. There are theories as to why it works, but science has yet to prove them.
The rise of guides
In the meantime, the practice continues to spread. Introduced in Japan in the 1980s, it’s now a common custom there, with the government certifying more than 1,700 guides to date. In 2012 wilderness guide Amos Clifford founded the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which certifies programs and trains guides.
I called Clifford to ask how he discovered forest bathing and why I would even need a guide to go play in the great outdoors. He explained that you can do it all on your own, but a guide slows you down and deepens the discipline. Several resorts offer forest bathing, including the Lodge at Woodloch, one of the first resorts in the U.S. to have gone through Clifford’s certification.
Fighting my cynicism, I try to approach it with an open mind and head to the lodge, in Pennsylvania’s Poconos, to see for myself.
Deep dive into forest bathing
I rub the pine needles between my thumb and forefinger. “Really get in there,” Josh Heath says, grabbing a fistful of needles, crushing them between his bearlike palms and inhaling deeply. I follow his lead and roll the prickly red-spruce needles between my hands, bring my palms to my face, and breathe in the citrus scent.
After I do, Heath shows me how to do a fox walk, placing my foot down in a semicircular fashion so I strike the ground with my heel, then my big toe, followed by my little toe. We creep down the path, and he asks me to notice what is moving. I feel more like Elmer Fudd than an observant fox, and I have to quiet my skeptical inner monologue and concentrate on my surroundings. When I do, I notice the ferns bowing and waving. I spot a chipmunk skittering across the path. As we approach the lake, I watch a damselfly skim along the dock.
By the time we reach the dock, I realize that having something specific to look for helps me focus and stay present.
Heath, a former park ranger, admits he didn’t think much of forest bathing at first. But he realized that whenever something was gnawing at him, he would go fishing or head out into the woods. He found that forest bathing essentially took that instinct one step further and encouraged more mindfulness. Heath also used to run a skills-building program for middle school kids and adds that children ask why all the time. Adults don’t do that as easily, but nature encourages us to do so, even subtly.
I wonder if he realizes he’s touching on an idea known as attention restoration theory, which is one of the arguments for why nature is so healing. At its simplest, the theory says our urban environments are draining because they bombard us with a level of stimulation that requires constant, directed attention (responding to emails, navigating traffic). Nature, however, engages our attention in a much more effortless way, and this allows us to restore and reset.
The next night I attempt forest bathing on my own. I meander back down to the tree-rimmed lake, look up, and see the full brilliance of a starry sky unobscured by artificial light. I lie down on the dock, listen to the wind and the waves. I glimpse a shooting star disappear behind the trees. It is an astonishing natural display—and I fully understand the need to soak it up.
Kelly DiNardo is the author of several books, most recently Living the Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom Beyond the Mat. Follow her on Instagram.