Into the Woods

by Celia Shatzman

It’s no secret that nature can do wonders for the body and soul. That’s something the Japanese have known for centuries. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Forest Bathing was given a name—"Shinrin-yoku," which means "taking in the forest atmosphere.” It’s a popular form of wellness and healing in Japan, and has become a craze in the U.S.

“Forest Bathing is a ‘nature is medicine’ concept of bathing your senses in nature,” says Cindy Present, Director of Fitness & Activities at Lake Austin Spa Resort, which offers Forest Bathing. “It’s about looking, listening, feeling, hearing the scrunch of pebbles and trail, feeling the breeze on your face, the light on your skin, and watching the butterflies and dragonflies with curiosity, intent and awe. There is scientific data supporting that being in nature can be therapeutic, a form of medicine, if you will.”

In fact, Forest Bathing can increase mental and physical energy, short term memory, creativity and the ability to focus, while it decreases stress and cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure, inflammation, and depression and anxiety. That’s why it has become so popular. “Our culture needs natural, easily attainable remedies,” Present says. “Nature—and water, which has similar benefits—can be found anywhere. The more the health and wellness industry can talk about, promote and utilize these natural remedies, the more intentionality of their use will increase.”

Spending time in the forest is also a way of piquing the imagination and unleashing an emotional connection. “When we see patches of moss, clusters of mushrooms that speak of nearby fairies, thatch-roofed cabins in the middle of the forest, ancient trees with twisted roots, all the beauty and magic of the deep fairytale wood, it evokes a deep passion and longing,” says Carolyn Turgeon, novelist and Editor in Chief ofEnchanted Living magazine.

Though many places offer guided forest bathing, it’s easy to go the DIY route. Simply going for a mindful walk in nature can do wonders. To make the most of the experience, truly unplug—don’t take photos, text or make calls. In fact, try to leave your phone and music behind completely. “Truly commit to 10, 15, 20 minutes of taking in the environment,” Present says. “Be intentional in the beginning and inquisitive. Have a child-like spirit—what can you find? How will the wind feel on your skin? Have you stopped to watch a butterfly lately, or gazed into a stream at what lives below the surface? Have you sat on a ridge and breathed in the sweet air, looking and wondering at what lies in front of you?”

Present recommends forest bathing as often as possible. Of course, the reality is that it isn’t easy to get away and enjoy forest bathing whenever you feel stress coming on or need a break. But you can take small steps to bring more nature into your life. Present suggesting finding a park, planning a trip, listening to nature recordings, placing a fountain in your room or office, taking a walk outdoors during your lunch break, using a screensaver with nature, or placing a photo in your office. “Or, better yet, a memory photo with you and/or your loved ones in nature or by the water—your mind will remember the experience and similar effects will occur as if being there,” she says. “Can you find nature in your daily schedule, even if it’s just 10 minutes? Can you park your car farther away where you're forced to walk on a sidewalk with trees—and then not just walk by the trees but notice the bark, the leaves, what may be living there? How the breeze sounds in the limbs? Could you take your coffee on a Saturday morning and find nature near you? You don't need to run, jog, or bike, but walk and look, listen and feel.”

By experiencing forest bathing whenever you can, you can call on that calming sensation when you’re worried about a meeting at work, for example, and envision your last stroll through greenery. “When times are tough or the day is stressful, find your ‘nature is medicine’ as your go to,” Present says. “Instead of sitting on the couch, tell your family you need some nature and go for 20 minutes. And more importantly, if your child, friend or partner has had a tough time or day, inspire and empower them to do the same. What you will find is they will in turn offer that to you—and the intentional use will become a culture to you and yours.”

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