Colorado has 24.5 million acres of forest, and sometimes it feels like there are almost as many forest bathers. The Denver Botanic Gardens is offering forest-bathing walks for the first time this summer; Boulder’s free forest-bathing experiences are now in their second year. Vail is hosting forest-bathing guided walks, too.
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, was developed in Japan in the 1980s as a technique for preventative health care and healing, countering the clutter and noise of urban life with a return to the forest, to heighten and renew all the senses. Since then, the widely touted benefits of forest bathing have sent people around the world into the woods in droves.
“The idea of taking a walk in the woods is not new,” explains Kate Sim, head of spa operations for the Oberoi Group, which operates the world’s leading forest-bathing spa, on 8,000 acres in the Siswan Forest in New Chandigarh, India. “People have always sought and found refuge in nature. It has become a trend again only because we now realize that excessive screen time is energy-depleting, and therefore, exhaustion is commonly pushing people to rediscover the healing power of nature.”
The practice has become so popular that the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy was founded in Sonoma County, California, in 2012, to offer training and set standards. Today there are over 700 ANFT-trained guides leading programs in 46 countries. One of the organization’s founders recently started the Global Institute of Forest Therapy, which focuses primarily on Canada and the United Kingdom.
“Before embarking on this practice, I always felt connected to nature. Yet my training as a guide, both during my weeklong intensive in Slovenia in June 2018, as well as the subsequent six-month practicum, has deepened my relationship to nature in new and unexpected ways,” says Leona Campbell, who trained at ANFT. “I bring that deepened awareness to every walk I guide. My training gave me the tools to facilitate nature connection with participants through guided sensory invitations that promote deep mindfulness and embodied awareness.”
After her training, Campbell created Wind in Pines, a Denver-based company that offers public forest-bathing events as well as private walks, for which she gets many requests. Campbell will also lead the DBG programs this summer.
“As someone who has always spent time hiking and backpacking outdoors,” she explains, “I love how the practice of forest therapy encourages me to experience nature in a way that is quite different from those activities — to slow down and engage with nature in a mindful, deeply sensory way that is focused on the present moment rather than the destination.”
There are scientifically proven benefits to shinrin-yoku, according to ANFT, which suggests that forest therapy can result in boosted functioning of the immune system, with an increase in the count of the body’s natural killer cells, reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level, improved sleep and increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD.
“Living in South America, I spent much time with my neighbor, a natural healer,” says David Ford, recreation coordinator for the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department. “She would take me on forest walks for self-study. I fell in love with the practice, and was thrilled when the City of Boulder asked if I could incorporate forest bathing into their 2018 programming.”
Ford leads groups of ten to thirty participants into the foothills for two- to four-hour sessions, which are free and subsidized by the city. “In leading these hikes and actually seeing the benefits participants get from them, I only wish even more people knew about it and participated,” he says. “It seems doctors and insurance companies across the nation are catching on. It just makes sense.”
Into the Woods
It just made sense for me to give forest bathing a try, so I signed up for a free sample walk with Campbell this spring.
I met up with her and my classmates — who all happened to be women who’d found a few free hours — one afternoon in Cheesman Park. We immediately shed ourselves of cell phones and purses, an essential step to bathing (we kept our clothes on, however). Campbell invited us into a circle to begin the journey, and offered a ten-minute introduction to the practice of shinrin-yoku.
“I find children to be natural forest bathers,” Campbell says. “They have few inhibitions about engaging imaginatively and immersing themselves fully in the moment.” If, as an adult, you find yourself bothered by the presence of other people in the park, imagine that you are a squirrel in a tree observing them, she suggests.
She then cued us to close our eyes and explore our environment, using all senses but sight to focus on the journey, letting breath, wind gust and bird chatter fill our minds for several minutes. We continued the exercise facing in different directions, noting the variations between north, east, south and west, then shared our individual reactions.
Then it was time to walk and bathe in the forest — or as close as Cheesman comes to that setting. “There’s no goal, no assignment; rather, it’s simply the pleasure of immersing your senses in the landscape,” explained Campbell. We were given the perimeters for the area we were to cover as well as an owl call that would signal when it was time to return, then were sent on our way. There were ample evergreens and blooming deciduous trees to explore, along with views of the golden-roofed State Capitol and mountain peaks to enjoy on the bluebird day.
The owl call alerted us to return and share our observations. After that, we were sent off to become closer to a specific tree for ten minutes, until we could embody the moment and purpose of the tree.
I stood under a leafless, budless, massive deciduous tree, mesmerized by the arching shadows that only this tree was expressing. While the evergreen shadows were all blobs, this barren tree still gave grace to the grass below. I was so captivated that I didn’t even notice the other bather next to me. Birdsong gave us a clue that our trees’ residents were just as content to observe. Even a squirrel seemed to be bathing in the forest, watching me take in his tree; apparently, he, too, had listened to Campbell.
By now, two hours had elapsed and it was time for our Douglas fir tea ceremony, unique to Campbell’s practice, which provides an opportunity for a natural cleanse while celebrating the intensity of what we’d just experienced.
“I run this park almost every day with my headphones on,” remarked one woman. “I always look forward to the section by the Botanic Gardens because of the pine smell, but when I removed the music, I saw and felt much more; there was a layering of sounds that was symphonic.”
“I feel at home and comforted,” explained another. “When I face west, the sun warms me and I feel safe. Nearly a decade ago, my father planted 10,000 trees on our property back home. I feel their growth and energy in this forest when I face west!”
We all felt relaxed and refreshed, with a heightened awareness and appreciation of nature.
Be the Tree
The effects of forest bathing last longer than your standard shower.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average American spends 93 percent of life indoors and another 6 percent in automobiles. But you don’t need to spend much time bathing in the forest in order to be renewed.
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“There is not a recommended amount of time for forest bathing, but lucky are those who live near a forest or wooded area and are able to wonder in it daily,” says Sim, of the Oberoi Group. “The secret to a meaningful forest-bathing experience is to permit a sense of wondering, with no agenda, no time restriction, and be fully aware, fully present of your senses.”
So many people want to be fully present that Boulder has had to put a cap on participants. “We will be adding more sessions shortly due to popularity,” Ford notes.
The Denver Botanic Gardens programs this summer are also sold out.
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for all the tree bathers.