"You should look into forest bathing," my coworker suggested after I revealed my weekend plans to escape the city and go hiking — my go-to-remedy for stress relief.
Unaware of the term, a quick Google search led me to a string of articles on the Japanese practice "Shinrin-yoku," which means "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing."
Forest bathing was coined in the 1980s in Japan as a form of ecotherapy to balance out the stresses of urban life, especially tech-burnout. Despite its decades-long existence, the practice just started to gain popularity in the US only a few years ago.
My deep-dive into forest bathing uncovered an array of health benefits stemming from a simple mentality: immersing yourself in nature in a relaxed way can offer restorative and rejuvenating advantages.
I learned that the key to forest bathing is to meditatively connect with natural surroundings using your five senses. Simple actions like leaning against a pine tree in the woods, breathing in the earthy scents, or observing nature's beauty around you can be a form of forest medicine.
By doing this (especially while incorporating exercise), your body begins to combat stress hormones, like cortisol, which contribute to a multitude of mental and physical ailments. Studies have even shown that walking in forests can spike your level of natural killer cells (which the body uses to fight cancer) and white blood cells.
Come Saturday, I gathered at the bottom of Bear Mountain in Westchester, NY — workweek hangover (i.e. lower back pain from sitting all day and the remnants of a migraine) and newfound forest bathing knowledge in tow. I powered down my phone, deserting it at the bottom of my backpack, and mindfully began my incline.
Five minutes in, I came to terms with the fact that I definitely have a cellphone dependency. I was tempted to snap photos of the scenic foliage as a way to distract my buzzing mind, but I stayed true to my tech-free commitment and tuned into my surroundings.
The soothing sounds of wind-blown leaves, aromatic gusts of fresh air, and colourful scenery quickly washed away the anxiousness of urban life. At the peak, I found a smooth rock, seemingly fitted for an exhausted hiker, and rested beneath the sun. I soaked in what would be some of the last warming rays of the year. I felt centreed, and appreciative of this self-care moment.
The anxiety-reducing benefits of forest bathing stayed with me as I returned to the city. When I crawled into bed Sunday night, I was able to fall asleep without battling my racing thoughts — a typically regular occurrence. I even woke up for work feeling calm and ready to take on the week.
Nature has always been an escape for me, but learning the science behind forest bathing gave me a greater appreciation for the power of being outside underneath the trees. The practice has empowered me to be more mindful about taking advantage of my time in nature by powering down the technology and tuning into my surroundings.