As a nature-loving resident of New York City, I often lament my lack of exposure to greenery and wild life. (Most days, the only “natural” things I see are a few sad, spindly trees lining the street or the miniature potted succulent on my desk.) But even though I don't have easy access to wildflower fields or mountain trails, I was determined to get my nature fix.
I sought guidance from Brooke Mellen, founder of Cultured Forest, who's certified in Forest Medicine (who knew that was a thing?) and holds a Certificate in Forest Therapy. She suggested I try forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, which is a Japanese wellness practice that involves mindfully immersing yourself in a natural atmosphere to restore well-being and relax the mind.
The ritual has origins in an ancient Japanese religion, but the term was coined in 1982 by researchers in Japan, Mellen explains. Think of it as one-half hiking and one-half meditation — and no, there’s no nudity or water involved in this type of bathing. All you need is a city park, or really, just a tree will do!
"Think of it as one-half hiking and one-half meditation — and no, there’s no nudity or water involved in this type of bathing."
Buoyed by Brooke’s assurance that I can, in fact, get in touch with nature in New York City, I headed up its most famous green space — Central Park — on a recent Saturday. There, in the tree-filled, hilly section in the northern part of the park, I met Brooke and a group of fellow forest-bathers.
Brooke opened by leading a short meditation, then we observed the woods around us with fresh eyes. Moving slowly through different locations in the park, we participated as a group in a number of peaceful (if silly-sounding) activities, including getting to “know” a tree, observing rocks, and even creating art from various natural materials, like sticks and leaves.
This outdoor exercise may not have been the equivalent to a week spent in the mountains of Montana, but I definitely felt more relaxed and recovered from the stressors of the city than I had in months. And as it turns out, science agrees with me.
The Health Benefits of Nature
Nature-as-medicine isn’t exactly a new concept (hello, vitamin N). Yet we aren’t taking as much advantage of it as we should: Research shows that most of us spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors! And it's not like doctors are handing out prescriptions for nature walks — though maybe they should.
“Getting into green space daily, if possible, and definitely every week, is as vitally important as eating your greens,” says Dr. Frank Lipman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at THE WELL in New York City. “It’s not just good for your brain; it can also deliver some powerful medicinal benefits.”
He's right. Research has found that spending time in nature helps you focus, improves your mood, boosts your immune system and can even lower blood pressure. What’s more, one leading researcher in the field of nature therapy believes that the aromatic chemicals released by pine trees (known as phytoncides) are responsible for turning on the powerfully anticancer “killer cells” of your immune system, Lipman says.
Three Forest Bathing Exercises to Try
To reap all the brain- and body-boosting benefits of forest bathing, Brooke recommends one of these simple yet powerful exercises.
1. Breathe With a Tree
Find a tree. It can be anywhere — a nearby park or even on a street. Take a moment to simply place your hands on the tree. Notice the texture of the tree. If you don't mind getting strange looks from passersby, sniff it. Does it have a specific smell? Remember, we have a symbiotic relationship with trees. They produce oxygen for our use, we produce carbon dioxide for theirs.
Now, close your eyes and notice your breath. Take 10 breaths in and out. Imagine the tree drawing in the carbon dioxide from your exhale, and imagine taking in the oxygen produced by the tree with your inhale. Feel gratitude for this give-and-take relationship with nature. When finished, thank the tree, whether out loud or in your mind.
2. Collect Rocks
Go to a nearby park, beach or forest and look for a rock that appeals to you. Consider how old the rock might be and where it came from. Imagine what it might have experienced to get there. How might it have formed? Hold it in your hand and feel the connection between the surface of the rock and your skin. Consider the nerves, muscles and bones in your hand that allow you to detect temperature and texture. Perhaps there is something burdening you, and you can imagine transferring that concern to the rock to hold for you.
On a particularly stressful day you can carry the rock with you in your pocket and hold it to help calm and ground you. Keep it on your bedside table or desk at work where you can see it and enjoy the memory of where you found it.
3. Fine-Tune the Senses
This exercise can be done anywhere there is a bit of nature, whether it’s a patch of grass you find on your lunch break or somewhere deep in a dense forest. Simply step outside and get comfortable in a seated or standing position. Close your eyes. Notice your breath, but don't make any judgements: Do you breathe from your stomach or chest? Through your nose or mouth? Shallow or deep? Don't try to adjust, simply notice.
Next, just notice how you feel in this space. Notice what you smell. What do you feel? Is there a breeze? If so, from what direction? What do you hear? Imagine that you can turn up the volume on natural sounds and turn down the volume on the less natural sounds. Take a few breaths. Are you carrying any tension you can release with your exhale? If so, let it go. When you are ready, open your eyes, and when you do, imagine you are seeing the nature around you for the first time as if you were a child again. What do you notice?
Imagine you are seeing the nature around you for the first time as if you were a child again.
While we shouldn't need science (or doctors) to tell us that going outside is good for us, sometimes city dwellers like myself need the reminder. My forest bathing experience proved that we don't need a full-on hike through the woods to reap the benefits either. In fact, "doing nothing in nature except being present initiates a cascade of beneficial effects," Lipman reminds us. Now, with these exercises and ideas in your back pocket, you're fully empowered to commune with nature — anytime, and anywhere.