My first clash with depression and anxiety came five years ago, after the birth of my son. Since then, I've learned to keep my symptoms in check by meditating and getting outside every day (whether or not I feel like it). Until recently, when a series of crushing deadlines sucked me back down into the thick of it, crippling my ability to work. The perspective shift I knew I needed wasn't going to come from a massage table or a couple of long runs. I began searching for a new kind of healing experience.
Then a friend mentioned forest bathing, a therapeutic type of "moving meditation" big in Japan that has recently caught on in the U.S. In 2013, North America got its own chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine; doctors have started writing "nature prescriptions"; and more than 20 forest therapy programs now exist across 13 states. The idea: research shows spending quality time with foliage in a state of heightened awareness—versus just blindly traipsing through it—can slay stress, nix negative thoughts, and fortify the immune system, thanks to phytoncides, antimicrobial essential oils found specifically in trees. Mindfully wandering around in the woods to feel healthy again? I'd try that.
Unlike backpacking or hiking, forest bathing isn't about a workout. Or how far you can trek or climb. It's about stilling your mind and zeroing in on the sights and sounds around you. "We focus on slowing down, and on being as fully embodied in the present moment as possible," says Amos Clifford, a leading forest therapy expert and author of A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku (that's "forest bathing" in Japanese). "As you're walking, there will be beneficial changes to your nervous system."
These changes stem from a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, an improved heart rate, and that bolstered immune function, studies show. In fact, per Clifford, a single three-hour woods walk calms the body and mind for a week; the effects of a full forest bathing retreat can last up to a month. It's a simple concept, but for many people, myself included, it poses challenges: More Americans than ever live in urban areas, and trees themselves are rapidly disappearing (up to 58,000 square miles are wiped out by deforestation each year). Plus, we now spend more than 10 hours a day in front of screens, with scant time left to leaf-peep—if we can unplug at all.
So though it's possible for people to DIY bathe in a nearby forest or local park, I opted for a guided experience: a three-day retreat at the Omega Institute, a 200-acre holistic wellness center in New York's Hudson Valley ($415 per person, eomega.org).
After checking in, I checked out Omega's campus. Solo, I followed a small wooded trail, trying to get into mindful forest bathing mode and remembering what I'd learned from forest bathing guru Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku L.A.: "Our ancestors recognized the importance being in nature has for health and well-being," he told me. "That's a feeling we don't get anymore—now, we think of nature only for its aesthetic qualities. But there is something incredibly calming about being under the canopy." With that in mind, I made a focused effort to listen to chirping birds, notice the heavy air, take in the Oz-ian green carpeting everything around me—and I felt a spark of the happiness that had been eluding me for weeks. On the way back to my cabin, a woman caught me off guard. "You have the most radiant smile," she said. For so long, I'd been forcing one, hoping a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach would lift my spirits.
The next morning, I joined a group of 30 others in a large field. A mother-daughter pair from New Jersey, a barefoot hippie from California, college kids, farmers—we'd all come to bathe ourselves in flora. Our guide led us deep into the forest; the trees were so tall and so thick I could hardly see the sky. Encouraged to venture off-trail, we began to spread out.
I lost sight of the others but heard our guide's voice through the brush, asking us to tune in to what was happening in our bodies and minds. This is unnerving is what I was thinking. But after a couple of hours of roaming through leaves, I felt a new calm. When it was time to head in, I was torn between desperately wanting to talk to somebody—anybody—and wanting to prolong the me-myself-and-the-woods time. (Also on the program: night walks, without flashlights. At first, the pitch-black nothingness only egged on my anxiety, but after about 10 minutes, my breathing would slow and I'd start to feel centered.)
Back at home, I found myself way behind on a mountain of work. Instead of defaulting to my usual mix of frustration and self-criticism, though, I thought of the forest. I inhaled deeply, imagined myself disappearing back into the trees, and got down to business. The words flowed more easily than they had in years.
This article was originally published by our partners at Women's Health.
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