My hiking boots sank into the dampened earth as me and my fellow “forest bathers” climbed a trail in Muir Woods, a redwood forest located 19kms north of San Francisco. Even though I did not dress for rain and my feet blistered, I felt unusually calm.
The Japanese practice of forest bathing — basically, just being among trees — is starting to catch on, where stressed-out locals seek natural remedies to improve their physical and mental wellness. It didn’t feel any different from hiking, though we were instructed to quiet our inner monologue and cell phones and immerse ourselves in nature.
In 1982, Japan’s ministry of forestry elected to make forest bathing part of a national public health program. The agency believed spending time in nature would promote heart health and wash away stress. After investing AUD$5.34 million in research, it had the science to back it up.
More than 30 years later, San Francisco’s Forest Bathing Club cropped up as an outgrowth of this trend. I recently joined the Meetup.com group in a retreat to see what the buzz is about.
Hear the phrase 'forest bathing' and you might imagine a group of open-minded hippies showering under waterfalls or rolling in muddy pools of water. (I certainly did.)
But the wellness ritual involves no public nudity or law-breaking. Rather, nature-enthusiasts take to the woods to be with trees and disconnect from reality. You can sit, stand, or hike.
The Forest Bathing Club, founded in 2016, organizes meet-ups in Bay Area parks and guides attendees on their paths to relaxation and restoration. It meets once or twice a month.
'So much of what we look at is on a screen. You forget about the tactility (of life) -- taking time to touch a leaf,' said Julia Plevin, the group's founder and an industrial designer.
The Japanese coined the phrase forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, in 1982, when the nation's forestry ministry made relaxing among trees part of its national public health program.
Forests blanket some 67% of Japan's landmass, so there's no shortage of bathing areas. The country designated close to 50 nature trails for shinrin-yoku, with plans to establish more in the future, and dropped $5.34 million on funding for forest-bathing research since 2004.
Studies suggest forest bathing promotes health and wellness. It may lower heart rate and blood pressure.
In 2010, Japan's Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University led 280 twenty-something subjects into the woods for a half-hour bath. Researchers found that a quick trip to the forest lowered participants' blood pressure and heart rate.
There are mental health benefits as well. Chiba University found that a leisurely forest stroll, compared with an urban walk, decreased stress hormone production by 12%.
The San Francisco group has racked up 250 members in nine months, which is unsurprising as more screen-addicted Americans look for simple solutions to beat back stress.
On a Sunday morning just after 8:30, Plevin gathered the eight people who showed up (mostly strangers) under a canopy of trees about a 800m from the trail's starting point.
She read a poem about daylight savings time that she copied into her journal and invited the group to share what they liked about it or what brought them here.
Then we took off on the trail, a 5.6km loop with a difficulty level of easy. Plevin asked for 10 minutes of silence as we walked and opened our senses to the world around us.
Plevin later told me the silence dismisses the need for small talk. I felt at ease, brushing ferns with my fingertips, as Plevin recommended, and taking in big gulps of fresh air.
I fell into pace with Sam, the young CEO of a global leadership program. He said forest bathing helps him reconnect with his purpose and his East Coast roots.
Faarzein, an office manager, joined the club after reading about forest bathing online. She plans to enroll in a certification program for aspiring forest-therapy guides this spring.
We moved at a slow pace, but Plevin assured us it wasn't a race. People stopped to take in the views and hug trees. It was early, so the trail wasn't swarming with hikers yet.
We paused to share snacks: clementines, banana bread, and nutty pumpkin cookies that Plevin made from scratch. Someone remarked that food tastes better outdoors.
Before we continued, Plevin asked us each to pick up a leaf or rock, something that spoke to us. We deposited our worries and fears into the items and placed them on the ground.
Eventually, we reached the summit. This time, Plevin read aloud a poem about feeling a sense of oneness with the trees. Some nodded their heads in agreement.
The group splintered as we made our way down the trail. One pair charged ahead to make their afternoon plans in time and said goodbye to their fellow bathers like old friends.
We managed to stretch an hour-long hike into a two-hour ordeal, but no one seemed to mind. After all, the point was to lose yourself in nature, Plevin said.
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