Not so long ago, relatively speaking, humans existed and subsisted in natural spaces. There was no way to “get out” of nature.
But succeeding generations have grown increasingly estranged from the wild. “We live most of our lives indoors, use more technology, and ingest synthetic foods and artificial scents,” says Tom Bezek, a Minneapolis-based shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” guide. “All these things push us further from nature, on which we’re interdependent.”
Bezek compares our modern disconnect from nature to a couple in a relationship growing apart. In order to improve the relationship, he says, you need to communicate and spend time together.
Strengthening that connection is the foundation of forest bathing. The concept was developed in the early 1980s by Tomohide Akiyama, then Japan’s minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, who saw it as a way to connect an ancient Japanese practice with health-oriented ecotourism.
A shinrin-yoku session or retreat is typically guided. It begins with an invitation to interact with the natural world. After a designated amount of time in the wild, the group gathers to share experiences: how different senses engaged, what thoughts or feelings emerged, what truths crystallized. Sessions sometimes conclude with a brief tea ceremony.
I had the opportunity to experience shinrin-yoku last fall at the Tofte Lake Center, outside of Ely, Minn., while enjoying a weeklong writing residency. I hardly wanted to be cooped up in my cabin alone, so I was thrilled to discover the Gaia Forest Bathing and Wellness Retreat.
Once I learned what shinrin-yoku really was, that is. I knew it reconnects people with nature in a mindful way to improve their health and well-being, but I didn’t feel disconnected from nature.
I prided myself on getting outside daily — for exercise, to walk the dog, to work in the yard — no matter the weather. I wasn’t sure what someone like me could learn from a weeklong “bath” in the woods, but I was certain there was no such thing as “too much nature,” so I was eager to experience this new-to-me approach, especially surrounded by the last splash of autumn color in northern Minnesota.
That first evening, I joined the group and searched the grounds for something representing a worry to leave behind for the week. We strolled in various directions, at our own speed, scanning the forest floor for the best representation of needless stress.
When my eye caught a discarded pencil, I knew I’d found my object. It perfectly symbolized what I feared for the week: Despite an abundance of time and freedom, I wouldn’t be as creative or productive as I hoped.
The Benefits of Slowing Down Outside
The next morning, we gathered around the fire pit for our first official walk. Bezek, who spent 37 years as an assistant superintendent at a juvenile-corrections residential treatment facility, is well aware of the calming influence nature provides. The groundwork for his teaching, he said, came in his youth as a graduate of both Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School.
While taking an online course on nature therapy in 2015, he learned about the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. He later traveled to California to attend one of their certification programs.
Bezek shared the science supporting the health benefits of interacting with nature, including Japanese studies on forest medicine showing how exposure to trees reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol. (For more on these findings, visit “How Forests Boost Immunity.”)
What’s more, our immune function improves, thanks to phytoncide, an essential oil that trees release to guard against insects and disease. The oil increases our production of natural killer cells that fight cancer and disease — cells that remain slightly elevated even after we leave the forest.
Not only does shinrin-yoku make you feel better in the short term, but a regular walk in the woods can act as preventive medicine, too.
Although such research can inspire people to spend time in nature, I didn’t need to be convinced. I already know that I feel better after being outdoors. What I didn’t realize is that these results aren’t a product of vigorous exercise. You don’t need to go on a brisk walk; you don’t need to elevate your heart rate.
That may be welcome news to the sedentary population, who by way of getting outside will likely move more, but I, a multitasking mover (listening to podcasts, returning phone calls, checking my step count), resisted the idea of remaining still. I mean, how would I get everything done? And how would this support my effort to be more active?
Bezek offered our group one surprising selling point in his pitch for stillness: It takes the natural environment about 20 minutes to adjust to your presence and carry on as before. “Being present allows everything around you to settle down, and then you become a part of it instead of a visitor or intruder or part of an environment you need to control,” he explained.
He had me at “control.” I began to reconsider my multitasking walks.
To help reframe my thinking, I told myself shinrin-yoku is to a brisk walk on my favorite trail what restorative yoga is to a class of sun salutations. We need both. We need to move and find time to be still. The win-win is when we can do both while in nature.
Meeting the Trees
In our first session, Bezek invited us to stand and orient ourselves to different directions. We spent a few minutes facing north, west, south, and east — first with our eyes closed, then with them open.
He asked us to consider what each direction represented in our lives. What memories came up? What emotions? What did we notice as our perspective changed? Then he suggested we gaze in the direction that felt most comfortable.
Facing south toward my Texas hometown, and where the heat of the sun warmed my face, I considered how a direction can trigger emotions and memories as much as food or scents, a photograph or song. I made a mental note to pay attention to the direction I take on my daily walks.
Next, Bezek extended an “edgy invitation” to step out of our comfort zones. He wanted us to not only be in nature but engage with it.
First, he told us to find a tree that stands out for us, then introduce ourselves. Get up close, touch it, smell it, even listen to it. Notice where it sits in relation to other trees in the forest. Look at the branches, the bark, the leaves.
He reminded us that trees are living, breathing organisms, and to approach them as we would when introduced to a person. When we first meet someone, he said, we notice a person’s hair, eyes, hands. As we develop a relationship, we come to find similarities.
While I had not planned to join every shinrin-yoku session — I had writing to do, after all — I couldn’t ignore the invitations. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to forest bathe at night.
Because our sense of sight was diminished in the dark, Bezek invited us to pay attention to our other senses. It’s hard not to lean heavily on sight, but in the dark we couldn’t let our sight hog the experience. What did we hear? What did we smell? In the light of the waxing gibbous moon, how did the evergreen, maple, and aspen trees appear compared with how they looked during the day?
As the week progressed, I found shinrin-yoku wasn’t infringing on my productivity at all. The writing was pouring out of me, despite my taking time to slow down and step away to immerse myself in nature. (To learn how rest improves productivity, visit “Deliberate Rest.”)
The apex of the retreat was a hike to nearby Kawishiwi Falls. This was an opportunity to use all the tips Bezek had taught us, to appreciate a place teeming with beauty: robust evergreens surrounding the waterfall, the smell of decaying stumps and oversize mushrooms, the sound of rushing water and bird calls.
As we moved along the trail, we used our vestibular and proprioceptive senses (which assist balance and motion as well as spatial awareness), feeling our way over fallen trees and exposed boulders. We took Bezek’s advice to find a “sit spot” — and “belong there.”
Though I’d signed up for this session because I saw it as an opportunity to hike, I learned it was really designed to help us get at something else.
Amos Clifford, who founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs in 2012, distinguishes forest bathing from a walk in the woods in his book, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature. “Forest bathing is not the same thing as hiking,” he writes. “The destination in forest bathing is ‘here,’ not ‘there.’ The pace is slow. The focus is on connection and relationship.”
By week’s end, I had achieved a comfortable equilibrium among stillness in nature, productive writing time, and moving my body. This symbiotic relationship was not lost on me. I can’t explain how I was both extraordinarily productive and relaxed at the same time, except to say, nature provides.