Let’s get this out of the way right up top: forest bathing is not the practice of bathing in a forest. It’s the practice of immersing yourself in nature, not just hiking briskly through it for a cardio workout but really stopping to let yourself be surrounded by a world that’s different from an urban environment. Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a nature and forest therapy guide whose new book, The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life, is a pitch-perfect guide about how to use nature to center yourself and to help you bolster a sense of self. I recently asked Choukas-Bradley about forest bathing and what it means to her.
Forest bathing is defined as “full sensory immersion in the beauty and wonder of nature.” How is forest bathing different from a walk in the park, for example?
It’s all about pace and awareness. On a forest bathing walk you slow way down, breathe deeply, and tune into your surroundings with all your senses. When you grow quiet and open your heart, mind, and senses to all that’s around you, it’s extremely restorative. Your “to do” list and the day’s headlines cease to vie for your attention as you unplug and connect with your natural surroundings. A walk in the park is a wonderful thing, good for your mental and physical health. If you slow all or just a part of that walk down while paying mindful attention to all that surrounds you, you can easily transform it into a forest bathing experience.
What are the benefits you’ve felt after forest bathing?
After a forest bathing walk I feel calm and happy. I often feel inspired to write or do something else creative. If there was a problem that was bothering me before the walk, I’m apt to feel that the time spent in nature has helped me to solve the problem or make peace with it. The feelings I have after a forest bathing walk are akin to how I feel after a satisfying yoga practice. I’m ready to face the world from a calm and centered place. I also carry with me memories of the ephemeral beauty I’ve witnessed during the walk: butterflies nectaring, clouds flying overhead, the song of a wood thrush, falling leaves or snow. If I’ve participated in a forest bathing walk with a group, I have the added joy of knowing that I share collective memories with other forest bathers.
How does a person who’s new to forest bathing get accustomed to practicing it?
Find a natural setting as close to home as possible—a neighborhood park, garden, or even your own backyard—and think of it as your “wild home.” Go there as often as you can until you become familiar with the trees, birds, wildflowers, cactuses and other living things who also call it home.
In my book, The Joy of Forest Bathing—Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life, I outline the steps of a forest bathing walk, breaking them down into three major components. Step one is to disconnect from your daily routine and your electronic devices. You can think of the airplane mode setting on your smartphone as “forest bathing mode.” Step two is to breathe deeply and begin to connect by tuning in with each of your senses. Notice what’s in motion; listen for birdsong and the wind; smell the flowers, leaves and earthy fragrances emanating from the ground; touch the stones and rocks, plants and trees. Commune with a tree in any fashion that feels comfortable for you. Get close to a pond, lake, stream, river or ocean. Listen to the water’s sounds and observe any reflections in the water and the life living in and around it.
Step three is your transition back to daily life. You may wish to read or recite some poetry, drink some tea and have a snack. Think about what you want to bring back to your daily routine from your forest bathing experience and make the transition as smooth and easy as possible. Once you become familiar with the practice of forest bathing, you can do it anywhere, anytime. I forest bathe as I’m walking to my car, taking out the trash, emerging from the metro. It becomes habitual to notice the sun, moon and stars, feel the air, and listen for all sorts of natural sounds blending in with the sounds of the city.
Is there one time of the year that’s best for forest bathing?
Have you heard the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothes”? If you’re properly dressed you can forest bathe any time of year and in almost any weather. I live in a climate with four distinct seasons and there are special forest bathing joys associated with each of them. In the winter I tune in to the beauty of the ice and snow, the architecture of the winter trees, and the dramatic changing skies. In the spring, I enjoy the newly emerging leaves and wildflowers, returning songbirds, and the sweet smells of the earth. Summer forest bathing delights include going barefoot, foraging for wild strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries and watching butterflies nectaring in the fields. Fall forest bathing evokes both excitement and melancholy. I love to kick through fallen leaves and watch squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns for winter as the days grow shorter and colder.
What is your advice for people who live in cities who want to practice forest bathing?
Most American cities, including yours (Austin) and mine (Washington, DC), offer numerous opportunities to forest bathe. You can forest bathe in a city park or garden, on a school campus or in a churchyard. If your office building is surrounded by trees, you can walk outside for a few minutes during your lunch break and commune with them, enjoying their leaves and flowers, and the birds in their branches. I lead forest bathing walks in some unlikely urban places: among the bonsai trees in a walled garden inside the National Arboretum; in a garden behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall; and at the U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill. Once participants slow down, breathe deeply and tune in to our surroundings, we quickly experience the full immersion nature of a forest bathing walk, as the city hums all around us. I actually find the city sounds to be a harmonious aspect of the urban forest bathing experience. I love forest bathing in the city and I think you will too!
Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief.