Bathing in Tranquility
Forest bathing involves no tub, but helps you 'scrub' your mind clean.
By Pam LeBlanc • Photos by Sonja Sommerfeld
When I first heard the term “forest bathing,” I imagined a bathtub billowing with soap suds, set beneath a canopy of leafy trees. I could barely resist the urge to grab a washcloth and head for the woods.
That’s still an appealing image, at least for me, but it turns out you don’t need soap — or even a tub — for a proper nature bath. What you do need is some time outside, sequestered away from the buzz and grind of daily life.
I think I’ve always suspected this, at least vaguely. As a kid, I preferred sitting next to a campfire and staring up at stars or feeling mud squish between my toes to sitting in front of a blaring TV. Just turning a prickly pinecone over in my hand made me happy.
A whole forest bathing movement has emerged since I traipsed through nature as a 4-year-old, but the appeal remains the same. Have you ever inhaled the spice of a wild onion, shut your eyes and listened to a stream sing or stared at a rippling field of wind-swept grass? It’s way better than the latest version of a reality cooking show, with screaming chefs and elbow-jabbing contestants, and you feel a lot more satisfied afterward.
Forest bathing became popular in Japan in the 1980s, when a public health program highlighted the physical and mental benefits of spending mindful time outdoors. Advocates said that focusing on things like the sound of chirping birds, the aroma of crushed leaves or the feel of a smooth river rock could improve one’s mood and even lower cortisol levels and boost immunity.
The concept grew into a worldwide wellness movement that today encourages stressed-out people who spend too much time tapping keyboards and listening to cellphones ping to ditch the electronics and head into the forest just to slow down and breathe.
To me, the benefits are as obvious as the smile that spreads across my face when I ease into a river, huge cypress trees rubbing shoulders overhead and slippery, moss-covered stones paving the shore. How can anyone not feel better after walking barefoot through crunchy leaves or lying belly-up in tall grass?
All that factors into why I tagged along last winter when naturalist and writer Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places and Rejuvenate Your Life, came to Texas to lead a hike at Camp Moody, an 85-acre camp in Central Texas owned by the YMCA of Austin.
Choukas-Bradley grew up in Vermont, where she experienced what she describes as a “free-range childhood,” full of roaming and wandering the hills around her home. A few years ago, after reading about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, loosely translated as forest or nature bathing, she got certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy as a nature bathing guide. She now leads hikes, mostly around Washington, D.C.
Seven or eight of us met her at the camp near Buda, where she led us silently down a dirt trail into a meadow alongside Onion Creek. There, she rang a tiny bell and invited us to breathe deeply and focus on our surroundings. It felt a little silly at first, but I did it, and I’m glad I did.
Even with my eyes closed, our little chunk of plant- and rock-covered solitude, not all that far from Interstate 35, sprang to life inside my brain: the quivering leaves, the buzz of insects, the smell of warm dirt and fresh-snapped twigs. When we opened our eyes, we made it a point to slow down and absorb our surroundings, engaging all of our senses one by one. We swished our fingers in the cold creek and scoured the shore for hidden treasure, which we found in the form of hawk feathers and a snake’s shed skin. We picked up seed pods, passed around rocks and admired a tiny frog. We hugged trees, literally.
The practice of forest bathing — spending mindful time in the woods — has been shown to improve people’s mental and physical health.
In the end, we sat in a ring in the grass, where we staged a nature-themed tea party, complete with maple-sweetened water sipped from wooden cups. Choukas-Bradley read a few quotes from conservationist John Muir, and we talked about how the hike made us feel.
That hike reinforced my love of the outdoors. It gave me a quick, concentrated dose of what I felt when I spent 15 days hiking the John Muir Trail, or when I paddled from San Marcos to the coast during the Texas Water Safari.
As I mulled over everything I love about the outdoors — from the feral feeling I get wading through knee-deep mud to that heavenly feeling of exhaustion after a day spent hiking — a giant walking stick crawled into sight. That strange-looking bug reminded me once more of the wonderful weirdness of the real world outside the air-conditioned offices where we work, if we just take the time to look.
Nature bathing, for me, is regular hiking with the mental dial turned up to 11. You might not exert as much physically, but your brain works harder. And because it does, the flush of happiness that the outdoors delivers sinks in a little deeper and sticks around a little longer.
“I find that my mood really improves (when I forest bathe),” Choukas-Bradley says. “If anything is bothering me, if I’m turning over a problem in my mind, once I’m out in the woods for 20 minutes I feel so much better. I just feel happy and alive, optimistic and joyful.”
These days, science is starting to back up what Choukas-Bradley and I already know: mindful minutes spent outdoors can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. In 2019, researchers at the University of Exeter found that people who spent a meager two hours in nature each week were more likely to report good health than those who didn’t. Even doctors are starting to prescribe time in nature to anxious patients.
Does that really surprise anyone?
Who doesn’t feel better hiking quietly along a pine needle-covered trail and listening to owls hoot than they do sitting in rush-hour traffic while car horns blast? Forest bathing soaks away the mental dirt and grime of a hectic day — you don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail to get a fix.
“The first thing I urge people to do is find a wild home,” Choukas-Bradley says. “Your own backyard, the park down the street or even a particular tree that caught your eye will work, but find a natural area close to home that you can visit often. The idea is to slow down, by either walking slowly or sitting and breathing deeply.”
Pay attention when you do. Notice the clouds, feel the sun, listen to the chatter of nature. Visit your place often and get to know it in all its moods: stormy, sunny, windy, warm or lethargic.
In a world when so many of us spend our working lives indoors, tethered to a desk, we could all use a little more forest bathing.
Go on, grab a washcloth and head out to the forest.
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