Turns out, escaping the modern world for just a few hours could be one of the healthiest things you do.
I work a full-time desk job. Most of my days are spent staring at a computer screen in my cubicle. Sometimes I’ve got so much piled on my plate that I want to pull my hair out and jump from the 11th-story office window. Thankfully for my sanity—and that of my coworkers—a few years ago, I began identifying and treating my stress and panic with an unlikely medicine: nature.
In a 2001 survey sponsored by the EPA, results showed that Americans spend an average of 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in their cars. That’s over 90% of your life closed off from the natural world.
So maybe it wasn’t completely unlikely that nature was the cure for my stress–the Japanese have touted the health benefits of a nice walk in the woods for decades. Developed in the 1980s, the Japanese method of Shinrin-yoku was created to alleviate the compounding stress experienced by urban cubicle-dwellers. Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bathing” because of its intrinsic ability to cleanse the meltdown off your skin. The practice seeks to reduce stress from jobs, cities and our fellow humans by engaging natural world with all 5 senses. Some of the benefits of forest bathing include: lower blood pressure, a reduction in stress, more energy and improved sleep.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” – John Muir
The practice differs from many of today’s therapeutic hiking or wilderness excursions in that there is no set destination or agenda. Instead, forest bathing offers the opportunity to slow down and to see and appreciate things that are rarely noticed in the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives.
Here’s a look into my first experience with forest bathing.
How I felt Before
Tired. I’d been out late drinking whiskey with friends and really didn’t feel like waking up, let alone sitting in the woods for hours looking like a crazy person. I felt exhausted and dreaded the exercise. It felt like a boatload of hippy-dippy crap.
Where I Went
I decided to find a convenient spot close to my house, which also means it’s convenient to a whole bunch of other people too, so I opted for an early morning stroll, starting before 7 am on a Sunday. The trail was relatively empty, but I still the space felt too routine, breaking my need to rush to the top. Instead, I traversed away from the trail, scrambling up an unmaintained side of the mountain. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend meandering off the trail with your eyes closed, I do think taking a few steps away from the norm can enhance the effects of your meditation.
What I Did
I’d read that I shouldn’t hike and further than 3 miles in three hours (challenge accepted!), so I popped a squat on a rock and stared at basically nothing. In all honesty, it felt weird. Like the time I tried meditating in my living room to the sound of my neighbors screaming obscenities at their dog (#calm). I could still hear cars and my own turning thoughts. Well, shit. I suck at this mindfulness thing.
It wasn’t until I went a little deeper and stopped thinking about how I should feel, that I began paying attention to the things around me. Winding my way through branches and brush, I realized I was in it. I noticed the way the forest breathed, bending its branches against the wind’s soft howl. I paid attention to the rustling of brush and found a few curious forest creatures. It was so quiet, I could hear my exhales before they even escaped my mouth. I saw things I would’ve normally passed, moving quickly in the direction of the summit, of a defined destination. I smelled the charred flesh of trees once engulfed in the flames of forest fires. I tasted the salt of my own sweat dripping from my brow. I suddenly felt calm. Mother Nature and I huddled together in a corner, chests rising in unison—up and down and up again.
What You Shouldn’t Do
Don’t get lost. My experience was great. I slowed down and paid attention to everything around me. But in all seriousness, I got real freakin’ lost. Like shit-I-didn’t-bring-snacks lost. I’d done this hike at least ten times and somehow wound up scrambling up a steep, undisturbed portion of the mountain, not another soul in sight. Not to mention I was wearing pajamas and didn’t bring water with me (#rookie). But what goes up, must come down, so I figured heading to the top for a vantage point then back down would at least lead me back into town—even if I had to hitchhike a few miles to my car. Spoiler alert: I’m writing this from my new home in a cave. Jk, I made it.
How I felt After
It works. I felt light for the rest of the day. Normal things that perturb me barely scratched the surface. I didn’t think about work, deadlines, social media likes or drama with friends. I experienced a soulful relationship with the natural world I love so dearly. Even if meditating or quiet isn’t your thing, I think you’ll be surprised by the health and wellness benefits of this practice.
Tips for Your Own Shinrin-yoku Practice
- Make a plan based on your location and outdoor experience.
- Take a buddy! Though I did this exercise alone, you can still practice Shinrin-yoku in a group setting.
- If you do go with a group, make a conscious effort to avoid speaking with one another. You can discuss your personal experiences after the exercise, but try and be mindful of silence during.
- Bring water or tea. Drink when thirsty.
- Leave behind the electronics. Phones, cameras and other toys can be distracting.
- Rest when tired. A pause from time to time to appreciate things around you.
- Move slowly and aimlessly. Allow your body to instinctively dictate your movements.