Forest bathing

Don’t let the name fool you — forest bathing has nothing to do with outdoor showers. Forest bathing, also referred to as nature therapy or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, is a practice that promotes the healing medicine believed to exist in the forest atmosphere.

Shinrin-yoku dates back to the 1980s when it became an integral part of preventative health care in Japanese culture. According to the website shinrin-yoku.org, researchers assert that spending time in the forest has proven health benefits that include boosted immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure and stress, improved mood, focus and sleep, increased energy level and quicker recovery from surgery or illness.

Forest therapy has been practiced by many cultures over the centuries and is not unique to Japan. It is believed that being open to the healthy influence of nature can create and develop one’s intuition as it increases the flow of energy and life force.

In 2009, a small Japanese study found that inhaling phytoncides, or tree-derived compounds, reduced stress hormones in men and women while also enhancing white-blood cell activity.

Forest bathing does not involve excessive hiking or strenuous exercise. There is no level of fitness required to participate, just an ability and willingness to quiet one’s inside voice of urgency.

It is simply the act of relaxing one’s mind and connecting to nature through the senses. It is a device-free zone with no sense of urgency or formal purpose.

Amble. Meander. Stop to listen to a bird or sniff a flower. Touch the bark of a tree or dig your fingers into the soil. Follow the lead of your body and let nature in through every possible entry point. Just breathe.

There’s no destination and no finish line to cross. This is simply enjoying nature in a way that mimics the inquisitive and slow exploration of a young child.

Forest bathing should release one’s sense of calm and bring joy. Be it beside a babbling brook or beneath a tall fragrant pine, find whichever setting promotes mindfulness. Allow yourself to tune into every small nuance of nature that surrounds you, close your eyes and clear the clutter from your mind.

Forest bathing can be done solo or in groups, with or without a guide. According to an article on npr.org, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy had set a goal of training 250 new certified guides in 2018 and 1,000 by 2020.

For some of us who have been longtime rat racers, it may be difficult at first to get started and to fully slow down. If you are interested in adding some guided forest bathing to your life, the Harris Center for Conservation Education will host “Forest Bathing by Moonlight” Thursday, March 21, from 7 to 8 p.m.

Nature educators Susie Spikol and Marilyn Wyzga will lead a moonlit ramble across fields, along edges, and into the woods. Participants will learn how to open their senses through gentle yoga poses, deep breathing, “coyote walking” and quiet reflection. Bring snowshoes and dress for winter weather.

The Harris Center is at 83 Kings Highway in Hancock. For more information or to reserve a pair of snowshoes, contact Spikol at 525-3394 or spikol@harriscenter.org.

And the next time life feels too busy or too overwhelming, trust the trees to provide free therapy and head to the nearest park or trailhead.

To learn more about forest bathing, read “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Dr. Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine.