Why are people forest bathing? Here’s everything you need to know

forrest bathing shoes on grass
Photo credit: Photoboyko/Getty Images

The UN estimates that by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. While that might be helpful for the convenience factor, it also means that we are more disconnected from nature than ever. In fact, Americans spend, on average, 90 percent of their lives indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Yikes.

Enter forest bathing, a term coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, who at the time was the director general of the Agency of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan. Noticing the uptick in city-dwelling, Akiyama advocated for healing through spending time in nature. It has only become more relevant as we have become more focused on work, more stressed and more addicted to technology. The best part? Forest bathing is a free, healthy way to connect more deeply to yourself and the planet, and it is deeply healing.

I spoke to certified Forest Therapy Guide Cat Pantaleo about forest bathing, how it works and the impact it has on humans and the planet.

What is forest bathing?

Forest bathing, in short, is spending intentional time connecting to nature.

“Forest bathing, based on the Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, is, in essence, a slow sensorial saunter in the woods consisting of facilitated invitations that create opportunities to slow down and rejuvenate body, mind and spirit. It is literally bathing in the atmosphere of the forest,” Pantaleo explained.

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I spent time on a forest bathing experience guided by Pantaleo, and though I spend a fair amount of time outside, I was able to look at nature in a new way, focusing on the movement of the leaves, the sounds of the forest, and more. I think intentionality is a key element around forest bathing — it’s not just going on a strenuous hike in the woods. It’s basking in nature and connecting with it mindfully, and, in turn, it provides you with medicine.

What health benefits can I get from forest bathing?

I’m constantly blown away by how healing nature can be on a spiritual, emotional, mental and, of course, physical level.

According to Pantaleo, some of the physical benefits include increased immune function, decreased blood pressure, decreased stress hormone production, decreased anxiety and depression, and decreased anger/hostility, with a fair amount of science to back up these findings. The experience has been shown to increase Natural Killer (NK) cells, which help our immune system fight cancer. One study indicated that even thinking about going into nature on a forest bathing experience helped to lower the total hemoglobin concentration in urban-dwellers’ left prefrontal area, as well as salivary cortisol — meaning, they were calmer by simply thinking about the experience.

Forest bathing, however, is not only about our health as humans, it is also an exchange between us and the planet. “Let us not forget that spending mindful time in nature not only benefits human health but planetary health: The more connected we are, the more we care; the more we care, the more we protect. We cannot be healthy on a sick planet; it simply does not work that way,” Pantaleo said.

And it has mental and emotional benefits as well. According to Pantaleo, “Melding mindfulness with nature immersion clears the way for inner calmness and gratitude for the wondrous beauty of the natural world. It is a much-needed balm for the spirit in these troubled times.”

So, how do I forest bathe?

Forest bathing requires a bit more mindfulness than just stepping into a forest or a park or going for a run amongst the trees. Instead, it focuses on using all of our senses to connect deeply to nature.

To forest bathe, head somewhere with trees — it can be a forest off the beaten path, or a park in your city. Disconnect from technology (yes, I am recommending leaving your phone at home!), and walk slowly through nature, activating all five senses. On my forest bathing experience with Pantaleo, we walked in silence, observing movement amongst the plants. It was fascinating to see where plants moved faster and slower, and how they interacted with one another. We considered the smells and tastes of the space. We listened for the sounds of nature — man-made and natural. We felt the air on our skin and what it was like to physically be in nature. Spend at least 40 minutes in nature if you can — and up to two hours is great. If you only have a 20-minute break, that can still be beneficial. In fact, research shows that even looking at trees out your window can be healing.

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It is important to remember that forest bathing isn’t any time you pass through nature — rather, it’s practicing presence and slowing down. “In our predominantly fast-paced, technology-filled lives, we have all but forgotten how to experience present moment awareness and take notice of the magnificent mystery that the world in which we are embedded in actually is. When this happens, a deep knowing and sense of belonging reawakens, which not only opens a door for our own healing, but stirs in us a recognition of our interconnectedness and caring for the Earth. We remember that all life is sacred, and that we as humans have a very important role as caretakers to fulfill — a role we are currently failing in,” Pantaleo said.

When you’re ready to forest bathe for the first time, you can head out on your own, or perhaps try your first experience with a guide in your local area who can walk you through the experience.

Why is forest bathing so trendy?

At this point, it’s probably clear why forest bathing is becoming so popular in this overly connected and stressful world. Chronic illness is on the rise, and our planet is suffering deeply as well. Forest bathing isn’t a panacea, but it is a powerful link between our personal health and the health of the planet. “The Earth is in pain and we feel that, even if it is subconscious. The number of mental health-related illnesses (anxiety and depression) in the U.S. today is unprecedented and of epidemic proportions. It is no coincidence that our own health declines as the health of the Earth is declining,” Pantaleo explained.

For many of us, we are feeling driven to slow down, be less stressed and take care of ourselves — essentially reconnecting to the way the world was before technology, which, for many, has caused us to stay inside more and be less connected with each other and the planet. Pantaleo shared, “For the majority of human history (a total of 6 million years with modern humans for about 200,000 years) we have lived in a close, respectful relationship with the Earth. It is only very recently that we have disconnected from the truth of our interconnectedness with all life — humans currently spend less time in nature than ever before. We are focused more on what we want and how we can get it than taking care of that which sustains us.” Forest bathing is an accessible, affordable way to ground yourself back into the energies of the Earth, get out of your phone and heal.

After my forest bathing experience, I felt calmer and as if I had experienced something new in nature I had never seen before. I was in dialogue with the plants and the trees. It encouraged me to be more present and aware of my surroundings. I can’t wait to go again.

You might not be able to escape to nature every weekend, but you can bring nature to your home. Learn about vertical farming below.