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March 1, 2024

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What is forest bathing? How to get started in therapeutic practice and where to go near Seattle

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You’re going forest bathing. Will you need a towel?

It’s a question that Michael Stein-Ross, a founder and guide at Seattle’s Cascadia Forest Therapy, hears often.

The short answer is no — though in Seattle, you might want to dress for wet weather. In outdoorsy Western Washington, you can find a certified guide to get you started on forest bathing, or pick from numerous public parks, gardens and trails where you can forest bathe on your own.

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a therapeutic Japanese practice that involves spending time in a forest, often walking slowly or sitting, while using all your senses to take in the atmosphere.

“Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge,” wrote medical doctor and researcher Qing Li in Time magazine. “By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.” Stein-Ross described it as “adults playing really slowly in the forest.”

The Japanese government coined the term shinrin-yoku and launched a national program encouraging it in the 1980s. The list of scientifically documented health benefits attached to time in nature has grown longer over the years: a strengthened immune system, improved cardiovascular and metabolic health, better sleep, and reduced stress, anxiety, depression and anger.

Stein-Ross has seen local interest in forest bathing increase significantly in recent years, from the number of people signing up for sessions to organizations wanting to form partnerships.

Shinrin-yoku

Not quite hiking, a guided nature walk or a sitting meditation, the therapeutic practice of forest bathing is “one of those things that can be hard to just talk about,” Stein-Ross said. “It’s so experiential.”

As a nature lover, I was eager to try a Seattle forest bathing session. At one of Cascadia Forest Therapy’s public guided sessions ($25), the practice of intentional, sensory time in nature felt somewhat familiar, but I was surprised by how much forest bathing shifted my state of mind.

On a cold, sunny morning in Washington Park Arboretum, forest bathing guide Chloe Lee gathered about 10 forest bathers in a circle under a giant cedar tree. To kick off the 90-minute excursion, Lee guided us through a standing meditation that turned our attention to each of our senses — the sounds coming from different directions, the temperature of the air, the shape of the ground beneath our feet. She encouraged us to smile if we found any of these sensory inputs pleasurable, which I tried to follow, but it felt a bit awkward.

Once we’d grounded ourselves, we quietly set off, meandering down dirt and gravel paths as joggers, runners and parents pushing strollers seemed to whiz by us. Sometimes we paused to gather as a group and share observations, while other times we ventured on our own. Lee offered “invitations” to focus on — looking for things in motion; finding tiny, beautiful things (like pine cones or small rocks) to carry; or thinking about something we’re grateful for with every step.

Each invitation gave my brain something to latch onto as my never-ending stream of mental chatter started to slow down. Eventually, it felt like all my senses had turned up one notch, and I couldn’t believe how many textures, patterns, noises and sensations there were to take in. Smiling over some of them — some bright purple berries, the sweet smell of a maple leaf — no longer needed forcing.

Shortly after I’d entered this new, peaceful state of mind, Lee called us back into a circle for our closing ceremony. This time we sat on mats on the ground, underneath another massive cedar, drinking tea that Lee had prepared using a branch from the tree.

As we sipped our hot drinks from wooden cups, Lee explained some of the physiological perks of what we’d just experienced, like breathing in the phytoncides (oils that plants such as evergreen trees release to protect themselves from insects), which has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and physiological stress.

Reflecting on the experience, some of my fellow novice forest bathers talked about other nature activities they’ve enjoyed, including mushroom foraging or outings with Duvall’s Wilderness Awareness School. Others shared more personal emotions and thoughts that had come up during the session, like memories of a late loved one.

Given that we’d spent the majority of the past 90 minutes in silence, it felt like the group of mostly strangers had grown surprisingly close, and we headed back to the parking lots in pairs or small groups, chatting with new nature-loving friends.

That fast-building sense of community is one reason people may choose to forest bathe with a group, Stein-Ross said. You also might appreciate the guide’s prompts and knowledge, plus some structure and accountability — there’s no worrying about where you’re going or whipping out your phone to distract yourself from the first uncomfortable thought that pops up.

All that said, you can certainly forest bathe on your own, even if it just means spending 20 minutes of your lunch break in a city park, Stein-Ross said. You can also bring in activities like nature drawing and journaling, meditation or yoga.

What’s most important, Stein-Ross said, is your relationship with nature and getting outside in a way that’s accessible to you.

In forest bathing, he said, “the forest is the therapist,” and the guide’s role is just to “open the door.”

Ready to give it a try?

Cascadia Forest Therapy offers public and private forest bathing sessions in the Seattle area and beyond. Visit cascadiaforesttherapy.com for upcoming winter sessions and events and more information.

The University of Washington’s Botanic Gardens offer self-guided forest bathing, including a handout on the practice, an audio guide and a map with recommended forest bathing locations at the Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma campuses. Find these resources at st.news/UW-forest.

To find natural areas to forest bathe at, check out Puget Sound Public Gardens at pugetsoundgardens.org, Washington Trails Association at wta.org or your city’s parks and recreation website.

Friends of North Creek Forest in Bothell sometimes offers guided forest bathing sessions. Check for updates at friendsnorthcreekforest.org.

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