The Healing Effects of Forest Bathing


Forest bathing isn’t a new nudist outdoor activity. The term, from the Japanese shinrin-yoku meaning “bathing in the forest atmosphere,” was coined by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982 to describe an increasingly accepted preventive medicine technique. But centuries earlier, the profound thinkers Emerson and Thoreau promoted the benefits of walking mindfully in nature. Today the practice of taking slow, meditative, wilderness walks is catching on as a path to healing and rejuvenation.


That’s especially true here in Marin, as a growing body of research links forest bathing with therapeutic benefits like stress relief and prevention of stress-related illness. A Stanford University study found that immersion in nature can lower heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduces risk for coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. With so many of us overwhelmed by hectic schedules and hooked on technology, a slow nature walk might be some of the best medicine out there.


Who takes part?

Forest bathers include people of all ages, sexes, races and economic backgrounds. Most who join the Forest Bathing Club in San Francisco are curious and open-minded, founder Julia Plevin says, and their reasons range from wanting a new meditative practice to trying to trade their selfie stick for a walking stick. Others might be battling an illness, making up for lost outdoor time or seeking an antidote to indoor office life. Plevin hosts walks around the Bay Area for everyone from venture capital partners and tech workers to yoga teachers, bookstore owners and tourists.


What should you expect?

Forest bathing is not a long, strenuous hike. The walk can last two to four hours, but you take it at a very slow, leisurely pace so the body and mind can relax in a deep and different way. It also doesn’t cover a lot of distance — usually only half a mile or so. “The practice of forest bathing is about non-efforting,” Plevin says. “We don’t have a destination. It’s about engaging your senses, and when all of your five senses are engaged you are by definition present, not lost in your head.” The experience can vary according to leader and setting, but in general you might walk in complete silence and stop at “activation points” where you are asked to smell and taste a leaf, share observations with the group or engage in meditation or yoga. “People will come away with a new perspective, tools for connecting to nature, and a community that supports them,” Plevin says. And it’s not about snapping selfies, she adds, so leave your cellphone at home.


Where do people forest-bathe?

With Marin’s diverse wilderness — serene open spaces, towering redwoods, and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers — finding green spaces isn’t a problem. While forest bathing can happen in any natural environment, including the seashore and deserts, the ideal places are quiet, non-strenuous trails that include a forest canopy and meadows and where the only sounds are the wind, birdcalls and babbling brooks. “There are countless ways to connect with nature; however, the greater the biodiversity, the greater the psychological benefits,” notes Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children and Nature Network and author of numerous nature-focused books. According to the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the county’s five best forest-bathing spots are Muir Woods, Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes, Mount Tam, the Marin Headlands and Audubon Canyon Ranch.


Who should do this?

Because the practice is gentle, forest bathing is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels. Dr. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician, researcher and advocate of nature’s healing power, prescribes “nature” for her young patients and their families as an alternative healing approach at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, where she founded and directs the Center for Nature and Health.


Why should you try this?

In addition to the health benefits cited above, nature immersion is linked to reduced risk for chronic disease and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Research suggests that direct and indirect contact with nature can help with recovery from mental fatigue and the restoration of attention, as well as help restore the brain’s ability to think,” Louv adds. “Nature is an antidote to stress — children, parents, just about everyone feels better after spending time in the natural world, even if it’s in a backyard or neighborhood park.”


How does it work?

There are many plausible explanations for the benefits: green spaces promote physical activity, social interaction and exposure to vitamin D, all of which can boost health in various ways. “Earthing — or walking on the earth in bare feet or with soft-soled shoes — is proven to decrease inflammation and chronic pain,” Plevin adds. “Plus, trees emit oils called phytoncides that increase natural ‘killer cell’ activity [which] helps prevent cancer.” And as Louv observes, “Research, experience, and common sense suggest that our attraction to and need for natural landscapes and involvement with species other than our own is fundamental to our health, our survival and our spirit. This connection is part of our humanity.” m We don’t have a destination. It’s about engaging your senses, and when all of your five senses are engaged you are by definition present, not lost in your head.


This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine's print edition with the headline: "Tree Time".