Take a Forest Bath to Open Your Senses

There are thousands of trained, certified guides around the world, several best-selling books have been published, and the first international forest-therapy conference will be held in July at Sonoma State University.


Photo by Beboy_ltd/istock

Time has collapsed. Supposedly about 20 minutes have passed, but such silly ticks and tocks mean little here in the wildlands of the Presidio on this chilly April afternoon. Is it April? Is it afternoon? Is this San Francisco? A nearby dewdrop jiggles on a tender leaf, winking in the sunlight. It knows no such bounds of time or place. It just … is.

A wolf howl from our guide pulls our group back to a central clearing. We emerge from the trees and our reverie, now calmer, softer. We are a pack of nine strangers who have become momentary friends, sharing solitude and togetherness and nature — people who will never see each other again, but it doesn’t matter and everything matters because we and Mother Earth are at one.

We are forest bathing. Nothing to do with tubs and soap bubbles and getting naked in the woods. This is a mental cleanse, freeing thought from the clatter and crush of the world. It’s a nice long soak, absorbing everything around you, reconnecting with the natural world.

And it’s a growing movement in the wellness community, alternative and mainstream alike, stemming from the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, roughly translated as forest bathing, an immersion in nature as a way to clear the mind and open the senses.

“Breathe deeply. Let the organic nutrients in the air molecules just wash over you,” says our alpha wolf and certified forest-bathing guide, Hana Lee Goldin, who smells faintly of lavender. Goldin’s forest-therapy practice, The Sacred Wilds, offers such walks in places like the Presidio and the botanical garden at UC Berkeley. “Every way we as humans can be improved — physically, emotionally, mentally — forest bathing has it all.”

Numerous studies have shown health benefits like lowered blood pressure, enhanced immune systems, and better sleep. There are thousands of trained, certified guides around the world, several best-selling books have been published, and the first international forest-therapy conference will be held in July at Sonoma State University.

“[Forest therapy] is about slowing down — being here rather than trying to get there,” said Amos Clifford in a recent phone interview. He’s the author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing and founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. The Santa Rosa group trains guides in nearly 45 countries. “Connecting with nature, being present in the natural world — these things don’t come naturally to our people anymore,” Clifford said.

Most bathing walks run about $40 to $50 for a two-hour experience. Wellness experts say going with a guide brings focus to the experience, rather than just wandering about like a lost puppy.

For today’s walk, we’ve gathered at the Presidio’s Arguello gate. Our group consists of a young couple who work in tech and are admittedly stressed out, a woman who works for the SPCA, and a husband and wife who’ve brought their teen daughter and her friend.

With a calm ebullience, Goldin explains the process as we head into a eucalyptus grove. She says she’ll invite us to join in a series of meditative activities among the trees, then we’ll gather to share what we’ve experienced. The first involves standing in a circle with eyes closed, taking deep breaths, “opening our senses” one by one.

“We’ll let our senses unfold themselves in this moment,” she says. “Start with the vision sense. Look around. [Long pause.] What does this place look like? [Long pause.] What colors do you see? [Pause.] What’s the biggest thing you see? What’s the smallest?”

We move on to sound and similar questions, tuning out the beep-beep of a truck in the distance and focusing on birdsong, the crunch of rocks and twigs, and the wind breathing through the branches. Then smell: green and damp and dirt.

“We are now going to calibrate our physical bodies to the speed of the natural world. We’re gonna get real slow,” she says, quoting the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” She tells us to spread out in the woods and she’ll signal our return with a wolf call.

Then we start to walk, very slowly, as if moving through molasses. It really is a different way to walk. And it works. I begin to notice intricate designs in the bark of a tree, like ripples of wave currents. I look out to a meadow where clover flowers dot the hillside — yellow freckles on the green cheeks of a giant.

Eventually, we hear the wolf call and return. “The eucalyptus really struck me — how beautiful it is, the smell, so powerful,” says forest-bather Kiko Guedez. “This is the here and now and that’s all that needs to be.”

Kristin Dodds says she was entranced with acorn caps. “All the colors, whites and blues and greens. All the treasures around.” Amanda Chiu, one of the tech workers, says, “I felt completely embraced by everything around me. When I opened eyes, I felt like I was coming out of a pod, almost reborn in that moment.”

Goldin leads the way to a redwood grove and a series of similar meditative activities. We spread out again. More nature is observed. More blood pressure drops. More time collapses. A final howl brings us back to the original clearing where Goldin has prepared a tea ceremony with snacks of nuts and dried fruit laid out on a blanket. There are 10 cups for the nine of us — one for Mother Earth, she says. 

“This is a healing practice,” Goldin says. ”There’s no right or wrong way to do it. We’re all welcome in nature.”

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