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A Wash in the Woods

It’s not a bath (you’re fully clothed), and it’s not so much a hike, either (you probably won’t break a sweat). It’s called “forest bathing,” the latest in the veritable conga line of Eastern healthcare practices seeking to meander its way into the mainstream.

Simply put, you go into nature, engage in a series of low-impact activities, hyper-engage your senses, chill the heck out, and probably be better off as a result—provably so—psychologically and physiologically. “Forest bathing is where yoga and mindfulness were 30 years ago—kind of just getting off the ground, unfamiliar to most,” says Eric Krawczyk, of Lee, a licensed mental health counselor and certified forest therapy guide who’s seeking to form partnerships between healthcare practitioners and land managers to promote nature as medicine.

Spas such as Kripalu and Canyon Ranch have begun to integrate forest bathing into their menu of nature prescriptions for the stressed-out set. Ramblewild in Lanesborough has hosted forest-bathing-guide-certification training. Forest-bathing clubs have sprung up just about everywhere. The California-based Association of Nature & Forest Therapy says it plans to train 1,000 guides within the next ten years.

So how has something so elemental as a walk in the woods become the latest marketable outdoor experience? Practitioners and advocates say forest bathing’s very simplicity is, indeed, its greatest selling point. “Over the years, as Eastern traditions like yoga have made their way into the mainstream, they’ve pushed the cultural needle that ‘simple and natural is powerful,’” says Dr. Mark Pettus, director of Medical Education and Population Health for Berkshire Health Systems. Pettus and Krawczyk have teamed up to form Hike With Healers monthly events at various trails and forests to educate healthcare providers, particularly primary-care physicians.

So, where has forest bathing been all our lives? Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in the early 1980s. Facing a crisis in their notoriously overworked citizenry—where people were literally dying from stress—Japan officially integrated forest bathing into its preventative healthcare and healing practices. Since that time, a growing body of research points to its efficacy in lowering blood pressure, blood-glucose levels, and stress hormones.

Of course, the notion that a walk in nature is good for you isn’t exactly breaking news. Humans evolved in the natural world, after all, a world devoid of office buildings, fiberglass insulation, and smart phones. Specifically, what forest bathing does is train people to get the most out of their nature experiences.

“A part of why there is so much disease in our society is because we are disconnected from nature,” says Mark Roule, who leads forest-bathing programs for Kripalu. “We evolved in such a way that the expectation was we would stay connected to it and it would continue to nourish us and keep us healthy.”

Forest bathing can be defined first by what it isn’t. When you go out forest bathing, there is no clear endpoint, no destination, per se. And you won’t be discussing the Latin name of certain types of fern.

“This is not about exercise,” says Krawczyk. “We do that very well in our culture. It’s not natural history or plant identification. We do that very well in our culture too. It’s really just a lost discipline of connecting with our senses, enjoying our senses, developing them, and sharing with others what we experience, what we noticed.”

His forest bathing programs quite purposefully don’t cover a lot of ground. In a typical two- to three-hour session, he might lead the group no more than half a mile. It’s a gentle walk, preferably on relatively level land with elements of forest, meadow, and water. Bullard Woods and Gould Meadows in Stockbridge are favorite spots, as is Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox.

Participants are guided to micro-dose their individual senses, one by one—to tune in to colors, motion, texture, taste, and smell. There’s a didactic element to it all—and a lot of “sharing.” Sessions end with a group circle, sipping tea made from foraged plants.

Tracy Finnegan, assistant director for Williams College’s Center for Learning in Action, participated with colleagues on a forest-bathing session with Krawczyk this past spring. She learned to take note of things she otherwise would have missed. “I could feel a drastic shift in mindset—from being preoccupied with all the day-to-day things I had to do, to an extraordinary lightness, a joy,” Finnegan says. “One of the best therapies we have is right around us all the time.”

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