What is Forest Bathing?

With Memorial Day fast approaching, Cape Codders—especially those of us who run businesses—are scrambling to get ready for the summer season.

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This might seem like an odd time to leave town for a week of silent meditation, but that’s been my practice for many years. The quiet and peace of the retreat resets my nervous system and energizes me for the busyness to come.

In addition to meditation and yoga, this retreat offers another precious gift. The woods surrounding the retreat center contain miles of walking paths, and I get to spend a good part of each day rambling mindfully in the woods.

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The late May woods are beautiful. The ferns have all freshly unfurled, dog-tooth violets and lady’s slippers are in bloom, and chance encounters with deer and porcupines sometimes occur. One trail leads to a huge pond, where I can happily spend hours perched on a rock that juts out into the water, emptying my mind of everything but the movement of water bugs and the ripples on the surface of the water.

I think of it as my annual Forest Bath.

Forest Bathing—called shinrin-yoku—was developed in Japan in the 1980s, and is considered an important piece of preventive healthcare in Japanese medicine. With the highest population density in the world, Japanese doctors recognized the need for a natural counterbalance to the high-stress urban environment.

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Despite the name, forest bathing does not involve going into the water, but simply immersing our senses in the sights, sounds, and scents of the forest. Opening to the forest, we release stress, our blood pressure goes down, and our immune system responds. Some of this may be the effect of relaxing, and some may come from breathing in beneficial essential oils such as phytoncides, which are released into the air by forest trees. We don’t need to spend a week in the forest to get these effects - even an hour in the woods can make a difference.

I believe that anytime we can drop out of our thinking minds and into our senses, it’s good for body and soul. It could happen while walking on the beach, passing a blooming lilac bush, or at night when we notice that the spring peepers are still going. We Cape-dwellers are fortunate to have so many ways to bathe in nature. As soon as the weather warms up, I’m ready for an Ocean Bath.



Ann Miller is the owner of Summer House Natural Soaps, makers of organic bath and body care products inspired by the sea, sand, and skies of Cape Cod. She is also an avid traveler, blogger, and a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen.