“We need the tonic of wildness” – Henry David Thoreau

You can shake off that image in your head of nude people bathing in a forest beneath towering evergreens, surrounded by bubbling hot springs or clear rushing rivers. Although “forest bathing” can be that, it’s certainly not what the Japanese government had in mind when it started promoting the concept back in 1982.

In its most basic form, forest bathing is simply a term for being in the presence of trees. But the effects of engaging in this eco-travel/eco-therapy trend are multi-faceted. Whether you’re joining one of the new shinrin-yoku forest tours in America or creating your own local version of forest bathing, here’s “the skinny” on this botany-based way to foster good health and a sense of wellbeing.

Trees Please: Natural Health Benefits

If you’ve ever tromped through a forest, you know the feeling it evokes: tranquility, serenity, awe – and the inexplicable urge to breathe deeply. In his 1854 book Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau described this as the “tonic of wildness” and spoke of a need to “smell the whispering sedge.” Years later, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, reflected that in the “great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness … the galling harness of civilization drops off and wounds heal ere we are aware.”

As it turns out, our early eco-fathers Thoreau and Muir were on to something more than just an aura of euphoria based on escaping hectic daily lives. According to in-depth studies by Japanese officials, scientists and medical-school professors, forest bathing/therapy can produce a slew of major health benefits.

These include lowering blood pressure and heart rate; reducing the production of stress hormones; boosting your immune system; and increasing the body’s “natural killer” cells, potentially aiding in cancer prevention. Inhaling essential oils known as phytoncides, which exist naturally in various trees and plants, triggers the benefits. For more on the science behind it all, check out details from Science Alert and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

How to Forest Bathe

It’s still hard to picture what a forest bath actually involves, so just think of it this way: like the Zen masters of Japan, you’re essentially doing nothing. You’re just walking and “being” with the trees. There’s no predetermined agenda, no fitness goal and certainly no electronic Fitbits or smartphone apps involved.

This isn’t about endurance hiking, exercise or manipulating nature to a perceived benefit; it’s more about mindfulness of your surroundings and relaxing in the presence of trees, breathing deeply, strolling, reading – anything that truly takes you away from the stress and goal-oriented lives we all succumb to on a daily basis.

Where to Go Forest Bathing

Japan’s forest ministry created the term shinrin-yoku when incorporating the concept of forest bathing and “topiary therapy” into the national public health program, subsequently devoting at least 48 trails for forest bathing throughout Japan. If your plans don’t include foreign travel anytime soon, no worries; you can easily make your own simple shinrin-yoku trek through a forest near you. For some tips on getting the most out of the experience, order a free Forest Therapy Starter Kit or find certified forest bathing guides in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Go ahead and give it a try; there’s little to lose and potentially a heck of a lot to gain.

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. “ – Henry David Thoreau


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