I sit cross-legged, eyes closed, beside a lake outside Victoria, British Columbia, breathing in the scent of cedar trees. There are several others seated upon the same grassy knoll—close enough that I can feel their presence but not close enough to touch. Together, we're focusing on our breathing while taking in the surrounding sounds—water lapping against the shore and wood warblers piping in the distance.
We are taking part in the meditation portion of what's known as “forest bathing"—or shinrin-yoku, as it's called in Japan, where it originated―an immersive nature experience that incorporates all five senses and has been scientifically proven to enhance both physical and mental health. Unlike hiking, forest bathing focuses more on mindfulness than physical activity; participants seek to become fully engaged with their surrounds. This means everything from experiencing the feeling of a piece of moss-covered tree bark between your fingertips to taking in deep nasal breaths of the pine-scented forest. The practice has been a covered part of Japanese heath care for decades and has recently been creating buzz across North America. There are now guided forest bathing walks and meet-ups from Connecticut to California.
Ryan LeBlanc is the owner of the Natural Connection, a Victoria-based company that offers guided forest bathing walks, each one personalized for an individual's or group's needs and/or skill levels. He's leading our group of four on a 1.5-hour forest bathing excursion around Vancouver Island's Thetis Lake Regional Park, about a 20-minute drive northwest of downtown Victoria. The park is a popular spot for sunbathers, but after brief stretches in the parking lot, LeBlanc directs us onto a trail where we're alone within minutes.
As we embark on our leisurely walk through the forest, LeBlanc points out some of the nearby flora. On either side of us spring bushes sporting the budding fruits of huckleberries, salmonberries, and salal berries—which LeBlanc says are high in antioxidants—lush sword ferns, and loads of fir and maple trees. LeBlanc encourages us to touch a sap-oozing tree trunk and crush a fallen leaf between our fingers. At one point, he suggests that we each wander solo—with a few yards between us—allowing one another the opportunity to truly enjoy the sights, scents, and sounds of the forest. A black-capped hawk soars overhead as we continue along our needle-covered path to the lake.
Studies related to shinrin-yoku show that spending as little as 20 minutes a day in a natural setting can decrease blood pressure and pulse rate, increase concentration, and lower stress hormones. Others report immune system boosts and sparks in creativity. There is no time limit or set distance to cover, and while the practice typically includes stretching, meditation, and tactile experiences, it often features additional activities such as journaling and deep breathing to alleviate stress. No wonder people are flocking to forest bathing in droves.
After sitting for a few minutes near the lake’s edge, LeBlanc quietly asks us to open our eyes and spend a few moments readjusting to our surrounds. I see a patch of flowering lily pads that I hadn't noticed earlier and hear a fish gurgling its way through the water. The persistent tension in my shoulders has subsided a bit, and I feel more relaxed than I did a few hours earlier. Even more remarkable, my iPhone has been in airplane mode the entire time—something I willingly employed without being 30,000 feet in the air—and I hadn't missed being connected one bit.
Other Ways to Experience Forest Bathing in the West
The San Francisco Bay Area boasts its own Forest Bathing Club meetup. It's open to everyone, with more than 550 members and counting. Outings take place around the Bay Area in spots like Marin County’s Mount Tam and San Francisco's Mount Sutro.
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs provides an interactive map for finding forest bathing guides across North America, in such places as Portland, Seattle, and Twin Falls, Idaho. Along with contact information, the map also provides details on each guide's level of training and certification.
Salt Lake City's new City Creek Shinrin-Yoku hosts forest bathing meetups in City Creek Canyon, close to the capital city's downtown. Guided sessions may include journal practicing, spoken gratitude, and/or sensory meditation.