Forest bathing: a walk in the woods is exactly what you need

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By Sarah Sekula, special for USA TODAY

Santa Cruz, Argentina — When we arrive at Aguas Arriba Lodge, a cozy hideaway in the heart of the Patagonian Andes, we don’t waste any time. Our cheerful guide, Julie, spreads out a map of the surrounding land—packed with glaciers, thick forests and aquamarine rivers—and talks about the dozens of hiking trails. Her enthusiasm comes as no surprise because this happens to be one of the trekking capitals of the world.

With Patagonia’s long list of superlatives, it’s perfect timing for something I’ve been wanting to try out: shinrin-yoku (aka forest bathing). No, it’s not what you may be thinking. It does not involve stripping down and scrubbing off in the river. Instead, think of it as a purposeful walk, a mobile meditation of sorts. The practice, used by the Japanese for decades, means “taking in the forest atmosphere” and was developed specifically to combat stress.

When we set out on the trail the next morning, I shut off my cell phone so I can fully soak up every facet around me. Raindrops hit the hood of my jacket with a kerplunk. The lenga trees sway back and forth sounding exactly like creaky haunted-house doors. And the stream we hop over has that soothing gentle hum.

The key tactics to getting forest bathing right are: breathing in deeply, sitting down occasionally and focusing on using all of your senses. That said, I touch the thick green moss on the nearest tree trunk as Julie explains that it only grows in areas with pure, unpolluted air. And I nibble on a pinky-size berry shaped like an apple when she hands them out.

As a result, when we get back to the lodge a few hours later, I am seriously Zen-ed out. Was it simply because I was surrounded by greenery? Because I had ditched the civilized world for a few hours and purposely slowed my thoughts? Yes, I am super calm and content, but isn’t forest bathing really just a trendy buzzword for hiking?

Not necessarily. There are a few distinctions, according to Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku LA. “A hike is generally oriented as a journey from point A to point B, whereas forest bathing is not about reaching a physical destination,” he explains. “The destination in a forest-bathing walk is more like a mental space of effortless relaxation and awareness.”

While it may not be as strenuous as a hike, the health benefits are still there. A study in Japan showed that when people walked through a forested area their cortisol levels dropped 16 percent more than when they walked in a cityscape. Plus, after 15 minutes, their blood pressure levels lowered, too. Researchers have also discovered that phytoncydes play a big part. In the 80s, around the time that forest bathing starting taking shape in Japan, Tokyo-based researcher Qing Li, MD, PhD began a scientific journey to investigate the effects of forest medicine.

“Li discovered that when humans stand beneath trees, they absorb some of these phytoncydes, which in turn triggers the production of natural killer cells in our bodies, a type of white blood cell that fights cancer and tumorous growth,” says Page.

Likewise, another study shows women who spent up to four hours in a forest on two consecutive days had almost a 40 percent increase in white blood cells.

Where to unplug

“If I could teleport you to anywhere in the world and guide a walk for you, I’d choose the experimental forest on Maui,” says Page. “Of all the trails I’ve seen in the world, that one is extremely well suited for this practice. That being said, I’ve guided at Japanese gardens, botanical gardens, in the desert, on mountains, and they have all been awesome. In my current practice, I really enjoy guiding at the Switzer Falls trail in the Angeles National Forest. Personally, I really like trails with rivers or creeks, and especially waterfalls.”

In the U.S. there are no guidelines that qualify trails as shinrin-yoku ones. However, in Japan, shinrin-yoku trails are only labeled as such if blood-sampling studies show the natural killer cell count is raised to a certain level. In other words, forest bathing is a practice that’s taken very seriously there.

“If you think about where yoga was 30 years ago and where it is today, you can understand that these practices move from the fringe to mainstream as people come to recognize their value,” Page says. “I can already see that this is quickly establishing itself.”

Amos Clifford, wilderness guide who founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy in 2012, concurs. He’s seen the interest firsthand while training guides since 2014. So far, he’s certified 130 guides from 11 countries and this year plans on training another 120 in California, Massachusetts, British Columbia, Australia and Ottawa.

Hotels are even getting in on the action. You can partake in forest bathing at Canyon Ranch in Tucson; Mohonk Mountain House 90 miles outside of New York City; The Mayflower Grace in Washington, Conn.; or at L’Auberge de Sedona under canopies of sycamore trees in Arizona’s red rock region.

Even though more studies need to be done to really understand the effect of nature on our brains, we all know traipsing through the woods can be beneficial. Even if you don’t live near a tree-lined trail, studies show that even just looking at greenery can boost your mood and lower your blood pressure. Either way, if you make time for it, your brain will thank you.

If you go:

To find a forest therapy guide, visit natureandforesttherapy.org.